Dangerous Dialogue

There is a follow-up to this post that can be read here. It offers some further clarification on some of the points I have made in this post.

I just got back from a community forum at the Center on Halstead (Chicago’s GLBT community center). The forum was produced in part by the informative men’s health site LifeLube.org, Project CRYSP and the boys at the Feast of Fun podcast.

The forum was titled: Risky Business? Bareback Porn and the Reclaiming of Pleasure (see poster below)


Local starlets Fausto Fernos and Marc Felion, both producers and hosts of the daily, gay podcast, the Feast of Fun, moderated the discussion. Sitting on the panel were (and here’s where my objective reporter dial turns to editorialized bitch):

Dr. Braden Berkey of the Center on Halstead – He was quiet and overshadowed by the other two panelists.

Mufasa Ali, founder of ONYX, a leathermen’s group for men of color – This refrigerator of a man definitely commanded the stage and looked menacing, with a ball cap concealing his facial features. I was poised to dislike him from the start, noting his close attachment to the leather community, a community I have much ambivalence toward. But he ended up being far and away the best panelist. He was very informed and offered insight (specifically regarding positive thinking and self love as other tools to quell the spread of HIV and STIs) that no other person on stage even broached. He also had a unique perspective, being African American, that diversified the conversation and led it away from a myopic talk about majority gay culture (which, let’s face it, is so, well, boring).

And then there was Tony Valenzuela…a writer and (I’m assuming self proclaimed) gay men’s health activist – There is no place to begin with the incompetence and sheer selfishness of this man. He is unable to see the greater consequences of what he preaches, that being bareback sex. His sheer bravado when discussing such a heated topic leads me to question whether his controversial opinions are really his own or whether he’s just a hustler for attention, a mere shock jock who instead of offending little old ladies in front of their radios encourages the uneducated gay masses to enter a rabbit hole of risk. You want to hear more? Not to worry. Continue reading and you will realize the hypocritical, stunted rationality that is the ideology of Mr. Valenzuela.

The forum started with a bit of background information, commonly known information for most of us homos but possibly off your radar if your penis is a vagina dweller (I tire of the usual cliches). I’ll summarize the history for you, with some of my own insight mixed in for good measure.

The HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s raised an awareness for safer sex (sex with a condom) among gay men like no other era before it. The 1970s were a hedonistic time for all, but especially for gay men. We had Stonewall at the end of the prior decade. We were mad as hell, and we weren’t going to take it anymore (unless it was up the butt). And so after fighting back with bottles and cans dressed in drag during those New York nights, we decided to let our figurative hair down and party. And party we did. The 70s were a crazy time, a time where sex no longer had to be furtively enjoyed in back alleys and truck stops (however many men, lusting for the furtive sex of yesterday still got it on whenever and wherever they could get away with it). Gay bars popped up everywhere. Bathhouses were always a stones throw away, and sometimes closer! These were the hey days of being gay. But all good things get the brakes slammed on them and so did this. HIV was a reality, and AIDS killed many men.

Flash to the 90s. Safer sex was cool, much like parachute pants and day glow (let’s just blame our 70s drug use for such egregious fashion faux pas). The gay porn industry picked up on this new mentality and began self regulation. It would market in safe sex images only. To not was, in essence, to be a hardcore drug pusher, marketing a material that was deemed so contraband and counterintuitive to the community that you were labeled a demon a.k.a. a Tanya Harding.

But just as time heals all wounds, it also makes people kind of forget shit. And so we sped through the 90s in a rush to get to that amazing 1999 party that Prince had told us so much about. And in the process gay porn morphed, with smaller companies entering the market with condomless (bareback) videos. The Internet, of course, made the dissemination of this material much easier, exponentially increasing access to the gay public and thus increasing the demand. It’s debatable whether the gay public changed first and the porn industry swooped in to fill a niche or vice versa. It’s a chicken and egg thing…a tail wagging the dog thing…a metaphor that involves animals and animal parts. Regardless, things changed and an entire industry of bareback porn, with a demanding audience, was born.

Why did all this exist when we all knew well enough that HIV was still around, was still a problem, was still leading to the deaths of our friends and loved ones? Because better drugs came out in the mid-90s that enabled those afflicted with the virus to live longer and healthier lives. These drugs aren’t miracle workers (you won’t be throwing spoons). But they help tremendously. And the sheer presence of these drugs, for some, was enough to give them permission to lower their guard during sex. Meanwhile, young gay men were entering the scene, many of which have no recollection of the 1980s (but it doesn’t stop them from wearing our clothes or adopting our music…damn you American Apparel!). Thus they saw HIV as an old man’s disease, something that had basically gone the way of the dinosaurs, or at the very least, so distant that its prior massive effect on the community as a whole was a whispered echo.

So now we’re caught up? Right? Good.

A little more background (thanks for reading, if you’re still reading). International Mr. Leather recently decided to ban the presence of bareback porn at their annual event in Chicago. For those not in the know, IML is a big debaucherous festival/corporate trade show that takes place in Chicago every year. It is THE meeting place for men into non-traditional sex, such as leather and pain and pee. I know. You probably find this all very weird. And it is cause I have the pictures to prove it. Regardless, it was a big deal when this was announced. For one, people often don’t associate the gay fetish community with social conciousness. In fact, many lay gay people not part of the scene consider the fetish scene to be a hotbed for disease. And I don’t know the statistics to say if they are right or wrong. What matters though is, this was seen as a significant move on the part of the organizers of IML, one that sent ripples through the fetish world, reducing many a leatherdaddy to tears (or at least sexual frustration).

Chuck Renslow, IML’s president, was present at the forum. Why he was not a panelist is beyond me. I can only assume he denied the offer for personal reasons. If he was never approached, that is a shame as he is at the center of this topic and, after providing some commentary as an audience member, a well-informed individual with some interesting opinions. In a nutshell, he stands at odds with Tony (douchebag mentioned above). Tony feels that eliminating bareback porn at IML is tantamount to censorship and destroys any ability to establish a dialogue about the topic. Here’s what’s wrong with Tony’s thoughts in my opinion (I’ll get to Chuck’s response in a second):

1. IML isn’t a community forum. It can regulate what vendors display.

2. Banning bareback porn hurts no one except the producers of the stuff. And these producers are motivated predominantly out of a want to make money in the first place, with little regard for the health of the community. Tony would say banning bareback porn eliminates the dialogue. I disagree. No one is going to walk into IML and not know bareback porn exists. If they are familiar enough with nipple clamps and ball torture, I’m pretty sure they’ve heard about condomless sex put to video. Also, I don’t think IML is really a French salon where intellectual ideas are freely exchanged. There’s not really a whole lot of open dialogue at IML. In fact, it’s quite the contrary, with many people enjoying being gagged.

3. Tony also said that porn does not effect behavior (that is a quote). However, he also said that youth learn from example. So I ask you this, Tony Phony, how is porn not an example? Also, I don’t recall ever taking a sex ed class for gay men in public school. But I do recall learning that the penis goes in the butt from gay porn. And I’d venture to say the majority of gay men learn about the birds and the birds from pornography. So bareback porn then really could lead to a normalizing of bareback sex among young gay men.

Okay, onto Chuck. Chuck says (and this reflects Mustafa’s sentiments) that informed men should have the choice to do what they wish, safe or otherwise. However, after much consideration, he believes some of the men who attend IML are not informed. Rather, they are wide-eyed, bushy-tailed young gay men who are seeking a place to safely explore their sexuality, from the vanilla to the extreme. And Chuck doesn’t want to contribute to the normalizing of bareback sex for these young men. In addition, Chuck sees that much of the bareback porn industry is motivated by avarice with little regard to its effects on the community. Think of it like McDonald’s. Yeah, people want to buy food that is really shitty for them, but should we be selling them what they want, especially when many of these people know jack squat about calorie counts, sodium and saturated fat?

Personally I applaud Chuck for his decision. In fact, I plan on writing him a letter to personally show my gratitude. Because I’m sure he’s facing a lot of heat from his biggest fans for this one and potentially losing quite a bit of money, and you have to respect that. And I urge you too to find Chuck online and send him a letter if you agree to let him know that you stand with him in his decision. I’m sure he’d like to see he’s not alone in his sanity.

The discussion at large also focused a bit on the motivating factors behind bareback sex. In the end, the panel came up with two:

1. Proposed by Mustafa as being unique to the African-American gay population, though I believe it is pervasive among all gays, is that bareback sex is fueled by a need for intimacy. There is no denying that intamicy, validation and acceptance are part of the needs of an individual. We all crave these things. And as an oppressed people, we are sometimes willing to take risks, great risks, to achieve even the illusion that we are wanted. And so bareback sex becomes a symbol of closeness, regardless of how anonymous the encounter might be.

2. Also proposed by Mustafa and supported by Tony is the sexual outlaw or sexual rebel motif. Popularized by author John Rechy, the concept of the sexual outlaw is a gay man who has decided to shun the heteronormalization of gays and to shun heterosexual norms entirely by using his sexuality as a tool of activism, anarchy and subversion. By fucking like a little bunny with little care, by having multiple partners, by humping in a public park, by neglecting to keep it safe, this “outlaw” is living in the danger zone. Thus modern-day barebackers are keeping this tradition alive (according to those that believe in the sexual outlaw), with many cheering these idiots on as if their actions truly are political in nature.

My opinion? Truthfully, 1 and 2 are actually the same. The need for intimacy and the sexual outlaw are two sides of the same coin. See, the sexual outlaw wants you to believe he is content in his choice to give society the middle finger. But really, this “choice” isn’t a choice at all. The sexual outlaw has suffered the same amount of oppression and judgment as the gay who craves acceptance and intimacy. But rather than search to fulfill these needs (whether in a healthy or unhealthy outlet), the sexual outlaw rejects these needs, unconsciously saying to himself, “I don’t deserve these things because society says I don’t deserve these things.” He justifies this ostracization in his head by saying, “These things aren’t worth my time anyway. Who wants these things when I can have hedonistic, random sex!” In short, the sexual outlaw is really a gay trenchcoat mafia member. He’s been neglected and shunned by his popular (read: heterosexual) peers. So he dons a costume of rebellion, when he secretly just wants someone to say hi to him at his locker. As he sinks deeper into this persona, his classmates become even more judgmental of his behavior. Eventually he boils over. But whereas the trenchcoat kid would shoot up his school, the sexual outlaw internalizes his feelings of loneliness, both within himself and his community, recklessly having sex and upping the spread of STIs.

Another point from the forum: Many people were upset that there was not talk of reclaiming pleasure, as the title of the forum suggests. These people didn’t come to hear about safer sex. They knew that message. After all, it’s been trumpeted for years. And I can’t blame them. This wasn’t a forum to discuss new approaches to HIV/STI awareness (though I really would love to have a roundtable about that cause I got some ideas brewing). This was a forum to discuss pleasure, and all we’ve been talking about is whether to condemn or condone barebacking. Sadly, despite audience members pleads to steer the conversation in their direction, little effort was made, as the hot-button topic of barebacking overshadowed the pleasure conversation. However, I have to commend one audience member. He stood up and discussed how we should shift the dialogue from safer sex/barebacking away from the ass altogether. Why not eroticize something less likely to spread disease, like the scent of a man or armpits or back hair?

And he’s right. All too often us gay men are so fixated on our assholes that it’s a surprise we can’t see our heads are firmly planted up them. If we continue to characterize the safer sex conversation solely about the butt and putting on a condom, then we are going to forever use the same old tired tactics we’ve been using for a couple decades, tactics that have proven ineffective. Let us move away from staring at our buttholes and let us talk about how sex can encompass more than just penetration. Having a man thrust in and out of you might feel just fine, and it’s kind of hot to emulate those movies we see flashing on our computers, in bars and on our video iPods that we secretly view on public transportation. But lets not have porn dictate our dicks. Let’s put the power in our own hands, so to speak, and let’s re-define gay male sexuality. I’m not saying let’s get rid of anal sex. I’m just saying we should expand our vocabularly, and we should celebrate this expansion. Otherwise we will forever be doomed to say the same sentence over and over and over (“Use a condom. Use a condom. Use a condom.”), and this message will surely fall on tired, deafened ears.

One more thing. The night ended with an individual of Native American decent standing up and advocating we as a community stop focusing so much on sexuality and start bonding spiritually. Even though some snickered at this person’s erratic behavior and obvious flair, I thought the sentiments were spot on. Are we as a community solely bound to one another because of sex? Is it our want to fuck one another that creates our community? Or is there more? I believe there is a spiritual/emotional essence to our community that is atrifying due to a lack of attention. We are so focused on dicks and butts. I mean, when you can’t even say the word “hard” without a grown man giggling, something is very wrong. Let us embrace our sexuality, but let us also dig deeper and get at the real problem…ourselves. We have to love ourselves and one another. We have to have each others backs. We have to bond in a way that transcends sex if we are to succeed as a community, if we are to achieve equal rights in our society. Let us expand our dialogue and our minds to address the holistic experience of being gay, rather than focusing acutely on a good time. Then and only then, when we have achieved this sense of brother and sisterhood, can we realize our true potential.


7 responses to “Dangerous Dialogue

  1. Hey Keith! Wow, I can’ t say I agree with everything you are saying – and I think you are wrong, very wrong about Tony (he is brilliant and so much more than what you perceive – please do a little research and read his work) – but I do appreciate your intellect and passion and voice on this subject. Let me just say one thing – equating bareback sex with HIV risk is false. Much bareback sex has ZERO risk for HIV transmission. And if both partners are STD free – of course there is no risk for STD transmission. Many, many, many men engage in thoughtful, penetrative sex that doesn’t include condoms. And many, many, many men who have bareback sex practice harm reduction techniques – that, while not perfect 100% of the time – do reduce risk.Most infections are actually passed between partners and couples – not with that handsome stranger you’ll never see again. Anyhow, I do plan to link to this from LifeLube…. Now! Thanks so much for this.

  2. Daniel Reeders

    I’m an educator from Australia, a member of the audience for the forum, and since I’m not from around here, I don’t have to be as nice as Jim.

    I didn’t read past your personal attack on Tony Valenzuela, so I don’t know whether you had anything intelligent to say in the rest of your post, although from your resort to the ad hominem I really doubt it.

    Tony’s willingness to attend the forum and speak quietly and thoughtfully in defence of barebacking was what made the whole conversation – including your posting here – possible. Attacking him because you don’t agree with him is bad faith and stupid.

    It almost certainly means the men in your friendship network and readership – who might benefit from being able to talk to you about their sex life – will hold back out of fear of judgment/attack. Men like Tony (including Tony) are already thinking twice about the intense personal cost of speaking honestly, and that’s a serious problem. You’re taking the Karl Rove approach to the issue, and it sucks.

  3. I respect your opinion, Danny, just as I respect Tony having his opinion. And I have my opinions about what Tony said, which I am entitled to as well.

    I would urge you, though, to read my post in its entirety before making knee-jerk remarks and resorting to name calling.

    Karl Rove? That hurts, Daniel. That really hurts.

    Also, it should be noted I am a comedian. Hyperbole is occasionally used even in a serious post such as this.

  4. Keith,

    First, I do appreciate your perspective. I completely agree that it the IML owners and directors have every right to decide who is allowed to vend at their event and who isn’t. One side of this discussion that I feel is often overlooked is from the point of the already HIV positive people. On our site which caters exclusively to barebackers, over 90% of the guys are self proclaimed as either HIV positive or “Ask Me” which I typically presume to mean poz. We are a free site, so the argument that the purveyors of bareback porn are all just trying to get rich at other people’s expense doesn’t hold in my case, certainly. Well, maybe I’m not peddling porn, but many group me in to the same category. Instead, I feel that I am providing an alternative place for guys that bareback to be open and not get blasted by the occasional hatemongers that show up on some of the more mainstream sites and feel obligated to pass judgment on others.

    I am already HIV+, so with the exception of the “super infection” that I have been hearing about for 20 years, I see little risk to me or my HIV+ partners other than the STDs and STIs that are always out there anyway. I play with other poz guys and most of them, like me, have frequent doctor visits where we have full STD panels done every 6 months or annually along with our other blood work. I don’t believe that is very typical for most people that believe they are HIV negative–some go for HIV tests every 90-days, 6-months, or annually, but most don’t go with a full STD screen. So, while not true in every case, I do believe that many HIV positive men have a far better idea of what other diseases they may be carrying and therefore can take more proactive steps for treatment.

    In 2008, during Chuck Renslow’s address to the crowd at the contest, he ran down a list of how IML has grown to be more and more inclusive over the years, growing from the original old guard leather to include women, gear, puppy players, and a myriad of other groups, but he said “we drew a line in the sand at crystal meth and barebacking.” Now, I certainly understand the devastating toll that the use of the illegal substance meth has taken on our community. I’ve watched many men destroy their lives, their health, their relationships, etc. due to the powerful hold it can take over some people’s lives. But to group in and demonize men that enjoy unprotected sex regardless of their current HIV status OR their ability to make an informed decision once they are willing to accept the risks seems like quite a stretch and a bit of a slippery slope.

    My profiles all say that I’m a poz barebacker, and yet every day guys with “Neg” and “Safe” in their profile hit me up to say they are actually Poz and play bare, which makes me think that the barebacking minority isn’t as small as many would like to believe. It worries me when I hear the gay community try to stigmatize a very real part of our own community. There are many outside of the gay community that believe that all gay sex should be banned, demonized, or made illegal. Are we potentially playing into their hands when we start picking off our own?

    Again, thank your for sharing your viewpoint. I obviously have differing views on part of it, but I appreciate the opportunity to hear all sides. After all, it is through the open sharing of ideas and ideals that we all learn and grow.

  5. Arnie,

    Thank you so much for the comment. I really value a diversity of opinion, and I thank you for valuing mine, even if my views are in conflict with your own.

    You’re right that not all purveyors of bareback materials, in my opinion, are in it for the money. But I do believe some put out material with a reckless disregard for the potential consequences it has on the community.

    I want to clarify that I do not pass judgment on people who are HIV positive and choose to have condomless sex with other HIV positive men. The biggest concern, in my opinion, is the acquisition of another STI from a sex partner. I assume you are right though in that many HIV positive men are more cognizant about their health then HIV negative men. However, this is obviously not universally true, and thus it is important to be aware of this and to take appropriate precautions.

    Also, I don’t think the gay community stigmatizing or being self critical is playing into the hands of “straight” society. I’m not saying this behavior is right. I’m just saying I think it comes from a gay perspective and has its own motivations that aren’t the same motivations as those that straight people have. But that’s just my general opinion.

    “Again, thank your for sharing your viewpoint. I obviously have differing views on part of it, but I appreciate the opportunity to hear all sides. After all, it is through the open sharing of ideas and ideals that we all learn and grow.”

    Amen to that.

  6. For the sake of clarity, can we please define what exactly we’re talking about when we talk about “bareback” sex. Are straight, fundamentalist Christians who are trying to conceive a child doing it bareback? Does it refer only to anal sex regardless of orientation? Does it only gay men who are engaging in casual anal sex with strangers? Would you say that a gay married, monogamous couple having anal sex without a condom is doing it bareback?

    I know this will open a can of worms, but I tend to think of it only as a practice among gay men, engaging in casual anal sex with strangers.

    So, lets take an older, traditional, straight married couple. Maybe our parents. Would any of you actually recommend that they get tested for HIV and use condoms?

    What about a younger married, straight couple?

    What about an older HIV neg gay couple in a monogamous relationship?

    What about a younger HIV neg. gay couple in a monogamous relationship?

    Does how you answer reveal your prejudices about how you expect older/younger/gay/and straight people are to be trusted in a relationship?

  7. Great questions Gary. Here are some interesting studies that look at these very things:

    “Bareback Sex” motivations in HIV risk contexts

    “Is ‘bareback’ a useful construct in primary HIV-prevention? Definitions, identity and research”

    Barebacking: A Review of Literature

    All of these are posted on the IRMA site (International Rectal Microbicide Advocates) a network of over 800 advocates and scientists froom over 60 countries that I chair.

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