This article originally appeared on September 6 in Brandon's blog My Feet Only Walk Forward.
I think about sex quite often. Even before testing positive for HIV, I thought about sex, well, almost constantly. Whether it was the politics of sex, teaching my peers about sex positivity, deconstructing sex, looking for sex or having sex, I was (and still am) thinking about the various ways that sex impacts my life and our lives as humans.
As humans as the key part of that statement, as more often than not we attempt, or others attempt, to separate sex from our basic humanity and the fundamental connection that sex provides between two (or more) human beings.
Today, I received an email from a good friend (and super smokin' hot friend) of mine from Minneapolis. He has been positive for two decades, and he is one of the people I know that lives, and fucks, beautifully with HIV. When I have struggled and needed someone to share emotional vomit, angst, shame, or fear around HIV, and particularly being an HIV positive man that refuses to walk away from his sexuality, this friend is the person to whom I have turned.
Today he turned to me. His note to me wasn't about sex per se but was more about at times realizing there are things that he can't do and limitations he has because of being immuno-compromised. I won't go into too many details, but because of his upcoming travel, he won't be able to visit some family because of their geography and the risk of some nasty health complications due to the make up of the natural environment where they live. This triggered for him some personal regret around decisions he made as a young gay man coming up in the 1980s around sex. Those decisions lead to him testing positive.
Please, please please note the realness of his regret. He isn't angry at the person that infected him. He isn't blaming the other. He regrets the decisions HE made around HIS sexual choices in the 1980s. In this age of over information with regards to the risks of unprotected sex, it is down right ludicrous, except in very discrete situations around sexual assault and rape, that an adult that contracts HIV from consensual unprotected sex should place the burden of his or her choice on someone else.
This man has been HIV positive since the mid-80s when the White House wouldn't acknowledge the existence of the HIV virus, there were few prevention programs, and people were dying left and right while also marching in the streets demanding that Congress pay attention (God Bless ACT-UP). He could blame a whole lot of people, particularly our elected officials, and rightfully so. But he doesn't. He is also clear that this, for him, comes up every five years or so ... he sees it ... holds it ... looks at it ... and then lets it go.
I wrote back to him this message:
You know you can emotionally upchuck here any old time. We all need to do it. All of us. I used to not do it, and that is why I ended up with these three letters attached to my identity ... I didn't know how to externalize the damage and the pain, and so I found other ways to make it go away ... temporarily.
And, I believe this with all of my heart, condoms save lives but there is also a biological imperative to feel that basic connection with another person that happens through sex. Because we don't talk about that, because we believe it doesn't exist, because it is shamed as something purely psychological, we don't really teach ourselves, our children, or each other how to make the best decisions concerning when to have that experience that all of us need ... and that some of us may never get again or think we never will. It is a loss. We don't talk about that shit either.
Let me be clear. I am talking about having unprotected aka bareback sex in the note that I sent back to him. Because of the fear and shame that was created around HIV/AIDS in the 1980s, because the virus was so virulent and people were dying, and because the evolution of the messaging was so retarded by the lack of information available, the message came out that any sex but sex with a condom under any circumstances unless you are married (meaning a man and a woman) is wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong.
Meanwhile, HIV and STD rates continued to climb, and they are climbing again. Why? Do all of us having a fundamental death wish? Does no one anywhere care about his or her own sexual health? While there is a woeful lack of education in certain quarters over what types of sex can transmit HIV (please note that a study in NC in 2000 of high school students found that 80% of high school students in that abstinence only education state thought that unprotected anal sex was abstinent behavior), the general messaging about how to protect oneself is out there and most folks know the basics of it now.
Let me suggest what others that are smarter and wiser than I am have suggested: in addition to the psychological damage reasons why a human being may disregard their sexual health, there is a psychological need (and a healthy need) to want to physically connect with another human being without any barriers.
Anyone, and I mean anyone, that tells you that sex with a condom is just the same as sex without a condom is telling you a goddamn lie.
But, because it is not PC to talk about unprotected sex openly. Because we don't talk about both the need to connect with someone else without barriers nor how to do it in a healthy way or in a way that reduces risk of contracting HIV or an STD, as a community we walk around, many of us pretending like we are condom commandos and are always safe all of the time, and that is just a comforting lie we allow ourselves so that we can look down, shame, and wag our figures at other people ... all the while bending over and taking it raw again and again and again.
And let me be clear, I am not talking just about queer folks here. Very recently, in the last few days, a straight person close to me told me that she is on the pill because the person she is sleeping with hates condoms and won't use them. Now, I have fucked or known one too many of my friends that have taken a supposedly straight man for the pony ride of his life, to even have to talk about why that is not the smartest sexual move. And, also, HIV can be transmitted from penis/vaginal intercourse between a man and a woman. It is less likely, but it does happen. But the assumption that the only risk from unprotected penis/vaginal intercourse is pregnancy is one of the reasons why women of color are the fastest rising population of people being infected with the HIV virus.
Yet, for many of my highly educated straight sisters, having unprotected vaginal intercourse while using chemical contraceptives is so common as to quite often be the norm. These women know all about dudes on the down low. These women know all about high risk transmission rates, yet they still participate, and most of them happily, in straight bareback sex.
I thought we learned long ago that the thing that we do not talk about is usually the thing that is most likely to kill us. There is a reason why the HIV prevention slogan from the 1980s was SILENCE=DEATH.
If HIV infection is the symptom of unprotected sex, then why aren't we having a frank, non-shaming, and healthy discussion about bareback sex? Haven't we learned, and don't I know from personal experience, that by creating shame, risk, and danger about bareback sex, we actually heighten the desire for it in unhealthy ways? In the same way that we drive fast cars, go bungee jumping, and slather ourselves in fish blood and then go diving in a cage in a great white shark spawning ground, the forbidden factor/the danger/the excitement of bareback sex is, in my honest opinion, part of what makes it so appealing to so many people: gay and straight.
Why aren't we talking about the intensely erotic and often deep, if only temporary, connection that occurs from bareback sex. People aren't just having bareback sex because of the riskiness of it. People are having it because humans are biologically/mentally/spiritually designed to have sex.
Please note I am not advocating in any way for people to throw out their condoms and blame it on biology. We are also biologically predisposed to solving problems through physical violence, yet we don't go around whacking people in the head that get on our nerves. If that were the case, I would have the biggest biceps on the East Coast.
Instead of criminalizing people living with HIV (which, btw, does nothing for prevention, disregards personal responsibility for negative people, heaps more shame on people living with HIV, and keeps people from getting tested), instead of pretending that everyone uses condoms, instead of reacting high and mighty when a friend talks openly about bareback sex and then going out and starring in an Xtube video ass up in a sling with cum dripping out of your ass, and instead of denying that there is a need and something that can be truly beautiful about connecting with another human being, consensually, without a condom, why don't we actually talk openly about bareback sex? Why don't we look at new HIV prevention models that focuses on a whole person healthy view of sex that includes risk reduction and strategies for how, when, and under what circumstances to have unprotected sex? How about stripping the fear and shame out of sex education and injecting positive sexuality as the core of sex ed? Condoms are one strategy, and it is a strategy that is not working effectively. We still have idiots that believe that abstinence is the only answer while denying that it doesn't work and in the absence of any kind of education, STI and HIV infection rates among youth continue to rise.
Let's have a revolution in the way we think and talk about sex. Let's have a revolution in the way that we have sex. No one, positive or negative, should have to walk away from bareback sex, nor should it be reserved to straight married couples that are trying to procreate. Nor should we believe that it is only wildly idiotic irresponsible queer men that are having it. What we need to do is talk about sex (thank you Salt-n-Pepa), and talk about it without shame, without guilt, and with a realness that honors our physical and emotional need to connect to one another as part of our fundamental humanity.