Leave it to science and rational thinking to ruin a popular sexual taboo.
The “bareback” label for sex without a condom has faded in the age of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and U=U. People not living with HIV who are taking PrEP are protecting themselves from transmission, while people living with HIV who have an undetectable viral load are unable to transmit the virus to their sex partners at all. As the very definition of HIV risk is being rearranged, the problematic term “barebacking” is finally being relegated to the dust bins of history.
We all know the nature of taboo. The naughty, furtive longing for something forbidden. As the AIDS pandemic lurched from the murderous 80s into the 90s, sexual behavior among gay men pivoted, from horror at the very thought of sex without a condom to, well, something we just might like to do. Real bad. “Barebacking” instantly became part of the lexicon, spurred by maverick porn producers who capitalized on our carnal desire to have sex without a barrier.
Sex without a barrier. Unprotected sex. Barebacking. Also known as having sex. Ask a straight person.
Gay men have always barebacked, of course (along with every other human being and their parents), certainly before HIV ever showed up and yes, even immediately after. If we all had stopped fucking without barriers we would have halted the HIV epidemic in its tracks. Instead, we kept behaving like human beings, making mistakes or getting horny or saying yes when we should have said no or getting drunk or falling in love or being young and stupid.
And sometime, even in the darkest and deadliest years of the epidemic, to unload inside our partner was an enormous “fuck you” to AIDS. You might not understand the humanity of that choice, the triumph of it, or the search it represented for some kind of spiritual and physical release in the midst of relentless mortality. I guess you had to be there.
Not long after we emerged from the 1990s, shell shocked but ready to rumble openly again now that we were armed with effective medications, a renegade porn star bottom named Dawson collected orgasms in the double digits on video and his flick was so polarizing that it was banned in gay video stores. Today, his exploits seem positively quaint, and those same video stores and the countless internet sites that followed transformed themselves from featuring a barebacking category to dropping the category and lumping everything together. Sex without condoms in porn is now customary. Condoms are the outlier.
The actual term has lost its wicked luster. These days, you rarely hear your sex partner say, “oh yeah, fuck me bareback, man.” I mean, sure I will, dude. Yawn.
And gone, too, hopefully, is the judgment of those who labeled barebacking a deviant, destructive pathology. This may be the most painful aspect of our prevention legacy; the rush to demonize those who admitted to having sex without condoms before it became agreeable again, not to mention the furor over those of us who have spoken empathetically about sex without a barrier.
Activist and writer Tony Valenzuela became a community pariah when he wrote a piece in 1995 about being a young man living with HIV who had condomless sex with his boyfriend. He thumbed his nose at his detractors when he appeared naked on a horse for an infamous 1999 POZ Magazine cover (“They Shoot Barebackers, Don’t They?”) in which he discussed how the controversy angered and confused him. Valenzuela’s personal character was questioned and his professional life was derailed for years.
The late social anthropologist and author Eric Rofes (Reviving the Tribe) nearly caused a riot at a 1996 Atlanta town hall event for gay men when he discussed the spiritual and emotional value of sharing semen with a partner. And even as recently as 2013, my essay, “Your Mother Liked It Bareback,” produced one apoplectic comment, among many others, that remains the pinnacle of my blog infamy. “You,” it said, “are a vile merchant of death.”
Maybe, with our new biomedical tools of HIV prevention, those same people who once blindly damned sexual behaviors they didn’t understand — whether out of puritanical beliefs or their fear of their own desires – have reconciled their fantasies and their HIV risk. I hope they’re enjoying totally hot sex and the fluids are flying.
It is difficult to ignore the appalling homophobia, internalized and otherwise, that runs through this aspect of HIV prevention history. We held ourselves as gay men to a more grueling standard than the countless non-queers who get an STI (several of them life-threatening) or an unplanned pregnancy every year.
I have no illusions. Sexually transmitted infections continue, even if the very thought of gonorrhea just makes me feel nostalgic. The PrEP train hasn’t reached everyone who might benefit from it and there is misinformation about its efficacy and side effects. Meanwhile, nearly half of those living with HIV in the United States have not reached viral suppression. There is still reason to be cautious about the who and the when and the how of sex. Now, as ever, we are responsible for our own bodies and the risks we take.
Frankly, behavioral change has not served us well in the grand scheme of HIV prevention. There has always been some debate, tension even, between those who believed the answer to HIV infections is behavior modification, and those who welcome the advent of biomedical interventions such as PrEP and “treatment as prevention” (TasP) that don’t rely upon sexual behavioral choices to work.
Throughout the decades, we have all witnessed the dominant, primal pull that sexual desire has exhibited over caution, so I know which prevention strategy my money is on. But hey, to each his own strategy. For that matter, condoms are a golden oldie and a perfectly legitimate choice. You do you.
What has changed are the conversations and information gathering that happen between partners. PrEP, medications, who is undetectable or not, what sexual positioning in what combination will occur, all of these exist in a more informed landscape, at least among gay men in this country.
Barebacking, as an urban phrase and a taboo, is dead. Thank god and good riddance to this divisive bit of sexual branding. Sex, meanwhile, motors happily onward, unbothered by the judgments of man.
King is a GLAAD Media Award Nominee for Outstanding Blog, MyFabulousdisease.com (2015-2019)