On Barebacking by Lars Eighner

Back in August of 2010, writer Lars Eighner posted a couple of essays about (gay) bareback sex and (gay) bareback porn that I’d like to share. Thankfully, Eighner released the essays to the public domain, so I’m going to post them whole cloth over the next couple of weeks. The reason Eighner’s essays appeal to me is that they address an issue that I’ve thought a lot about (gay sex and porn), but from a perspective I hadn’t considered (historical) and with experience I don’t have (having been born in 1981.)

On Barebacking 1: Steal This Article
by Lars Eighner

A frequently asked question is—

Okay, to tell the truth, I have never been asked the question. But when an elderly person like myself is very critical of barebacking, as I am, he frequently hears the whine “But you got yours before AIDS and all the great sex back then,…” and so forth. In my kindly manner I am going to interpret this as the question: “What was sex like before AIDS?”

As always, it was different for different people. But let’s take the best-case scenario: San Francisco in the late Seventies. No one had heard of AIDS. Boomers were in their twenties or late teens. The sexual revolution had swept over the country. It was free love and flower power, and gay guys from all over the country, especially from the more repressive parts of the country, had swarmed to San Francisco. What kind of sex did they have, at that time and place that they had the best chance of getting any kind of sex they wanted?

Again, of course, it really depends upon who you ask. But suppose we could get in a time machine and go back there and do a survey? As it happens, we don’t have to do that because Alan Bell and Martin Weinberg did the survey back then (the full results are recorded in their book Homosexualities). They were not thinking that they were surveying sexual practices of men before AIDS because neither they nor their subjects knew AIDS was coming.

What they found was this: the sex practice that gay men in pre-AIDS anything-goes San Francisco said they most desired was oral sex—that’s blowjobs. The sex practice they said they most often engaged in was manual sex with a partner—that’s handjobs and jerking off together.

Shocker: when gay men thought they could do anything they wanted, what they wanted most was not barebacking and what they did most was not barebacking.

It is simply not true that anal sex, with or without a condom, is some kind of super-gay, ultimate-gay gay gay gay sex. It wasn’t the San Francisco treat of gay sex before AIDS. So who the hell says barebacking is some essential pure kind of gay sex now?

But what about the Greeks? It is true that today when people say “Greek sex” they mean anal sex. But anal sex was not the sexual practice that made Greek homosexuality famous. Sure, some Greeks liked and practiced anal sex. We know this because there was a law that citizens could not sell their asses—we’re not talking donkeys here. They could give it away, but if they sold it, they could lose their citizenship. People do not bother to make laws against stuff that doesn’t happen, so Greeks did know what anal sex was and that some people whored themselves doing it.

That, however, was not the sex practice that gave Greeks the reputation for being light in the loafers, although later writers got confused about it.

The sex practice of the “army of lovers” and upperclass Athenians was sex between the thighs. (Kenneth Dover, Greek Homosexuality), and if you look closely at some of those pornographic vases you can see how the Athenian version went: the older guy (has a beard and is depicted in black to indicate he has a thorough tan), approaches a beardless and often pale youth with a hare. I don’t know why a hare would be such a great token; something in way of a silver cigarette case would seem better to me. Anyway. And the older guy gets his jollies rubbing it (his dick, not the hare) between the youth’s thighs, from the front.

I’m not making this up, you know. You can see various stages of this drama on vases. Oh, yeah, there is anal sex on vases too, but often in the context of the bottom having been vanquished in war or some other kind of contest.

Sex between the thighs was also the practice of Azande warriors, who could marry their barracks buddy according to Azande law. Sex between men makes a lot of sense in martial cultures, and sex between the thighs makes a lot of sense in the field where bathing and other sanitary facilities were not up to modern standards.

Anal sex, with or without a condom, simply is not some kind of mystical tie to some ancient, sacred form of homosexuality. The confusion of “Greek sex” with anal sex is the product of ignorant (or intentionally homophobic) Dark Ages scholars. I think we all know straight guys who think gay sex is always something like prison rape, and those were the guys who associated “Greek” with anal sex. “Greek” really was sex between the thighs, and with modern lubes is really worth a try.

Just to summarize: gay men did not think barebacking was the best kind of man sex when there seemed to be no reason to avoid it. Barebacking is not an ancient practice from cultures which held homosexuality in high esteem. It’s not mystical. It’s not especially gay (as it was often used by heterosexuals as a form of birth control). It’s not just universally regarded as the best thing two guys can do.

Next time I am going to write something about where I think the new glorification of barebacking comes from, but for now I am just going to make a few remarks about why barebacking was not so popular when there seemed to be no particular reason to avoid it.

One of the reasons barebacking was not the most popular form of gay sex when there seemed to be no reason to avoid it was simple: it was inconvenient. I am not saying anything about scat except to say that the overwhelming majority of gay men are not into it. And, well, … anal sex can be messy when you aren’t prepared for it.

You can suck dick, get a handjob, give a handjob, or get your dick sucked in the washroom, zip up, and go meet a major client. But you cannot go to that meeting smelling of ass and washing your dick in a lavatory is a chancy operation when you are wearing a suit. Total whores like me have discovered that sexual opportunities tend to occur when you are not entirely ready for them and are not as fresh as you could be—or in other words, when anal sex is most likely to be inconvenient.

Yeah, I’ve done it all kinds of ways and in all kinds of places, but anal sex really isn’t its best in many places and situations that other kinds of sex do well in. So that’s one: inconvenient and when it’s inconvenient, not so good as it can be.

Another reason anal sex was never the one and only gay sex when there seemed to be little or no health consideration: the money shot.

How much of the porn you have seen in your lifetime (however long or short that may have been so far) had internal cumshots? I’ve seen a lot of porn and lived a long a time, and I think I could count on my fingers the number of loops I’ve seen that did not have external cumshots. Hell, even the sites that glamorize barebacking today have external cumshots. Why is that?

The classical explanation is that viewers want to be sure they are seeing real sex, and the proof that it is real is the external cumshot. I have a different explanation. True enough, some people use porn to warm a potential partner and some porn seems to be made with that object in mind. But by far the biggest market for porn is as an aid to jacking off, with or without a partner. And the cumshot tells the guy who is beating his meat that this is the scene, this is where you shoot off too.

With an internal cumshot, you never really are sure when it is over, and maybe you still have your dick in your hand when the loop ends.

Now, aside from porn, if you happen to be a slut like me, you can cum hands-free while bottoming. Maybe every time. Maybe sometimes. What happens all the time in written porn, but seldom or never in real life, is that you can feel your partner’s cum shot when you are bottoming. Yeah, you can often tell from other physical reactions, particularly if you have much practice with that particular partner, but you cannot feel the actual shot.

Cumshots are hot. They are hot when you see them in porn. They are hot when you see them in person. They are also hot when they happen down your throat. And to get the cumshot with anal sex you have to pull out, and no one wants that (except for porn you are watching).

The gush, the rush, the power, the squirt, the jet, the fountain, the splash: really, it’s what male sex is all about, and practices that enable you to observe it better are simply better.

Before HIV, when no one made porn with condoms, there actually were loops made involving more than one guy and not having any anal sex at all. There were great circle jerk scenes with our star playing the cookie. They didn’t do that because they were being socially conscious about health concerns. They did that because it was hot.

So that’s two. Lot’s of non-anal sex is plenty hot—hot enough to carry a scene and hot enough in real life that many people prefer it.

The typical scene in porn today goes something like: they rip their clothes off, the bottom sucks a little dick, the top sucks back a little or does a little rimming which shows he is not a selfish jerk, the top humps the bottom, the bottom bounces on the top, then they jerk off together and cum. So, I just have to ask, what is so fucking essential about the fucking?

There is a chicken and the egg thing here about what customers want. You think you have to put the fucking in because customers expect it, but customers expect it because their expectations are shaped by what you put in previous scenes. I’m not asking anyone to commit commercial suicide—but my stars, Agnes, what in the hell are doing in the porn business if you don’t have a dirty enough mind to come up with a dozen fresh scenarios over coffee? I’m not saying no fucking, I’m say new fucking, better fucking, and some hot nonfucking.

This is about why fucking (bareback) was not the most popular sex act when there seemed to be no reason to avoid it. So far, the reasons are: it was often inconvenient and other stuff was often hotter. Now I come to a third reason that is a little fuzzier and somewhat at loggerheads with what I will write next time.

A third reason is: in some ways, fucking is a little too similar to what straight people do.

Basically, in fucking there has got to be a bottom and there has got to be a top, and in the uberculture that has implications which have nothing to do with unloading your nuts.

Unfortunately in the history of gay porn the flacks and touts have done much to magnify this problem. Somehow Johnny and Ricky get their nut and have a good time just is not quite enough story. So it has become, who is the top? who is the bottom? when will the top flop? and so forth. It is unavoidable that this feeds on and feeds into the sexist and heterosexist notions that the top is the man, and the man is better. You play the top-bottom game and you just cannot worm your way away from what it means in this culture. You can play it the other way with bottoms rule, but it is just turning the board around: it is the same chess game.

When you are trading handjobs in the bushes, this issue doesn’t come up. Even if both of you are versatile as a Swiss Army knife and gay as gooses, maybe sometimes, most times, or all the time, you don’t want to open that can of worms. And the first time you are topping and hear the moan “Oh, yeah, fuck my man pussy,” maybe you take the veil. But if you are sucking dick you can be certain you will never hear “Suck that man clit.” There’s no gender-role whammy in a circle jerk.

I’m not saying that people have consciously thought about this in deciding what kind of sex they want, I’m just saying there are some issues you don’t have to confront if your favorite sex is not anal.

Anal sex has some similarities to heterosexual sex and that is why it is the choice of straight men who commit rape in prison and straight men who abuse weaker or defenseless males outside of prison. In the Seventies having been turned out in prison, raped, or abused was not an uncommon situation for gay men. Certainly some of them would be affected so that they would choose other forms of sex for their consensual relationships.

Okay, that’s the worst-case scenario. But those who were not abused themselves would still have the principal model of the top-bottom relationship being heterosexuality, and that model has not always been an attractive one. In those days, “Which one of them’s the man?” was a common lame thing for straights to say about a gay or lesbian couple. Often it was an intended put-down, sometimes it was intended to be a joke, occasionally it was genuine curiosity or a mix of all three. Non-anal sex would tend to repudiate that question.

As I said, this is kind of fuzzy.

So, anal sex, which almost always was without a condom thirty years ago or more, never was the most popular or most common form of gay sex. Second it was not the historically important form of gay sex in ancient cultures.

A few of the reasons that anal sex was never the best form of gay sex may be that it was inconvenient, that it was not considered so hot as other kinds of gay sex, and that it was too reminiscent of heterosexual practices.

Next time I will discuss where I think the fascination with barebacking has come from in the present day.

This article is explicitly dedicated to the public domain by the author, August 20, 2010.


(In all fairness: The photo used above is by David Shankbone (from Wikimedia Commons) and is from a Lucas Entertainment porn set. Lucas Entertainment, to the best of my knowledge, always requires the use of condoms. I don’t intend to connect the message of this article with Lucas Entertainment. It just happened to be a public domain photo about porn production that I knew I could use.)

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