On Barebacking, Part 2 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 a few weeks ago I posted the first part, and today I’m posting the second. 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 2: Steal This Article
by Lars Eighner

Last time I went over two simple facts: anal sex was not the most popular or most practiced form of sex between gay men before HIV/AIDS and it was not the form of male-male sex sanctioned by the ancient Greeks and a number of ancient martial cultures.

I speculated a bit about why it was not so popular or common as other forms of male sex. First, it can be inconvenient in spontaneous situations. second it lacks some of the sensory excitement that other sex practices have. And third, because it involves a top and a bottom it tends to get mixed up with heterosexual gender roles and whole box full of cultural grenades. There are a few other miscellaneous things which might be sorted into one of the previous categories. Just to mention one: it requires a bit of skill and when two ravenously horny and inexperienced young men try it for the first time, it is very likely to be unpleasant for at least one of them.

This brings me to the central mystery I want to try to address here: If anal sex (which before HIV/AIDS almost always meant barebacking) wasn’t the essential, central, defining gay sex before, why are some people so drawn to it now?

I do not intend to open the bug-chasing can of worms here. The bug-chaser wants barebacking because he wants to become HIV positive. There is no mystery in why he feels driven to bareback. That’s the mystery I want to confront here. Why he wants to contract HIV is not the mystery at hand.

I also do not want to deal with the rationalizations and excuses for barebacking, some of which are based on outright delusions (such as “It is safer to have unprotected sex with someone who is positive and on meds than to have sex with a condom with someone whose serostatus is not known”). Pretty clearly the barebacking fad came first and the excuses and rationalizations come later. They simply do not answer the question “Why barebacking?” although they may seem to some to try to answer the question “Why not?”

In an uncharacteristic fit of intellectual scrupple I did a little research. Naturally I found I was not the first to notice the barebacking fad nor the first to try to explain it. The Body came up with something like 22 reasons gathered from a number of sources, and I read a number of barebacking advocacy sites.

The really remarkable thing about the reasons given by both the “responsible” sources and the barebacking apologists was that most of the reasons begin with and never question the assumption that anal sex is the essential form of sex between gay men—pardon my Latin, it is the sine qua non of gay male sex. I do not doubt that there have always been some people that thought so, but as I discussed in my previous article, it was not the favorite or most common sex act between men before HIV and it was not the celebrated form of male sex in historical cultures.

So there is a more fundamental question here than “Why barebacking?” It is “Why anal sex?” Why after HIV/AIDS appeared did anal sex suddenly become the most essential characteristic form of male-male sex when the evidence is that it never was before in human history?

Obviously no discussion of barebacking will be complete until that issue is dealt with.

If you grant the new assumption that somehow you are not really having gay sex unless you are having anal sex, you can group many of the reasons for the barebacking fad together.

Some of these reasons we can call the Old Fart explanations, and being an Old Fart myself, I cannot help but find some of them of some value. For those of you who are not Old Farts, I’ll just run through some of the quickly. Kids think they are invulnerable anyway. Kids lack the experience of having many of their friends essentially drop dead around them or managing the end stage of a terminal illness. Kids don’t appreciate the resources that are required to maintain the people they see who are managing AIDS as a chronic illness, and managing HIV so it does not progress to AIDS. Blah, blah, blah.

Kids are contrary, and barebacking is something they can do that older people can’t stop them from doing. In other words, barebacking is the gay anorexia.

Okay, there are some better ways to manage some of these Old Fart reasons. You cannot tell kids they will drop dead from barebacking. They see that is not so. True enough, the drugs don’t work for everyone and not everyone can take them and people do die of AIDS to this day, but kids will always think that they will be among the lucky ones. I suppose you can talk about the cost of the drugs, the resources that are absorbed by the drugs, how people in less fortunate regions cannot get the drugs partly because affluent people are taking them. In other words, if barebacking is not suicide, it is genocide.

You cannot always reach people who are trying to rationalize their behavior with facts. Remember the people who insisted poppers caused AIDS or even that anti-retrovirals caused AIDS? However people who can be reached with facts should be offered the facts. Somehow the fact that a person can contract HIV when a condom is used gets translated into you will get HIV no matter what you do because people cannot reason with probabilities or have not been given the statistics necessary to do that reasoning.

I speculated about what the reasons might have been that anal sex was not so popular historically, and two of them are echoed in the reasons barebacking apologists cite for opposing condoms. Condoms, they say, are inconvenient and awkward in some situations. But anal sex is inconvenient and awkward in some situations. Inconvenience and awkwardness may have once been a reason to choose a different form of sex. Indeed, men did sometimes use condoms for male sex before HIV. Sometimes condoms were just a kind of toy, and sometimes they were used because the inconvenience of anal sex involved someone not being as fresh as he could be.

Another reason I speculated anal sex might not have been so popular was that it deprived the partners of some of the sensations and excitement that other forms of male-male sex provided. There is now a similar argument offered by barebacking apologists. Now frankly I simply have never been able to detect that condoms made any difference in physical sensation, so I assume that the barebackers mean some kind of psychological stimulation. Yet, condom or no, anal sex still lacks the key elements that other kinds of sex provide.

The third reason I speculated that anal sex was not so historically popular was that it bore too much resemblance to heterosexual practices. But in the case, barebacking apologists take the opposite view: they claim to want to do barebacking precisely because of its similarities to heterosexual practices (or so they think).

But where does the assumption that you are not having gay sex unless you are having anal sex come from?

Sometime in the mid-80s, the gay movement underwent a fundamental shift in direction. From Stonewall until the mid-80s, it had been the Gay Liberation movement, and it was the Gay Liberation movement when the survey of sex practices in San Francisco was done before HIV/AIDS. “Liberation,” if it meant anything at all, meant freedom and choice. But in the mid-80s, the movement, as outlined in a plan by Marshall Kirk and Erasetes Pill which appeared in Christopher Street and which is the “gay agenda” you may heard much about, shifted course and began to try to appease straight authorities. One aspect of this shift was the “born gay” argument.

Instead of arguing, as Liberation had, that being gay was something people had a right to choose, the new argument would be that people could not help being gay because they were born that way, owing to genetics or something. Much human rights progress has been made under the new theory, relatively quickly as these things go, because “be nice to people who cannot help being the way they are” is a much, much, much easier sell than “people have a right to be different.”

“People have a right to be different” is a very threatening proposition to people who have chosen to be the same. If someone chooses differently than you chose, is one of you wrong? What if you made the wrong choice? You can see this dynamic in children when a child who was certain which flavor he wanted becomes uneasy if the next child chooses a different flavor.

One unfortunate side-effect of the newer “born gay” strategy is that it in no way challenges, and in many respects reinforces, the thought that gay people are merely broken straight people. And unfortunately, we now have a couple of generations of gay people who do not recognize “born gay” was strategy, but who believe it is the truth.

When being gay is considered a congenital handicap, it follows that the best thing gay people can do is to try to be as much like straight people as they can, within the limitations of their birth defect. It follows pretty directly that straight sex is the best kind of sex there is, so gay people should try to have sex that is as nearly like straight sex as possible. And that is anal sex.

So it isn’t that anal sex has suddenly become the main kind of gay sex, replacing historical practices, it is that misled by the “born gay” strategy, gay people have come to believe that anal sex is broken form of straight sex which is the best that gay people, as broken heterosexuals, can manage.

It is easy to see this is the source of the barebacker’s whine: “Straight people don’t have to use condoms. Why should we?” There is the assumption that straight people and how they do things is the gold standard, and that assumption is internalized homophobia. The sad irony here is that the bareback apologist thinks it internalized homophobia to suggest he not aspire to heterosexist standard.

(Of course, it is also mistaking porn for life. In truth more heterosexuals use condoms every time they have sex than there are homosexuals on earth. If it were not so, most condom makers would be out of business, and any that remained would have to charge extravagant prices.)

Somewhere along the way the message has got garbled. Aspiring to equality before the law should not be aspiring to sameness. When the right to marry is obtained, as it should be and as it will be, wouldn’t it be a shame if gay people who did not want to marry somehow felt that they were inferior or wrong? When the right to serve in the military is achieved, as it should be, as it will, wouldn’t it be a shame if gay people felt obliged to participate in unjust wars?

The glorification of heterosexuality, which has been the result of gay-as-birth-defect politics would also seem to be the most likely explanation for heterosexual-worship porn: sites and studios marketing heterosexual porn to gay men.

Of course internalized homophobia was back there with the Old Fart reasons. But that was the internalized homophobia that goes like “I hate myself for being gay, therefore I should do something potentially self-destructive.” The new kind of internalized homophobia is perhaps only a difference of emphasis, but it comes out “Straight people are best, therefore I should try to do things as much like a straight person as I can.”

This is where, I think, the idea that anal sex is the necessary kind of male-male sex comes from: from an attempt to imitate straight people so far the anatomy of two males will allow. Before the “born gay” strategy, gay people did not think it was desirable to attempt to imitate straight people, and perhaps some avoided anal sex because of its similarities to heterosexual sex. In the distance past, there is little evidence that cultures which celebrated male-male love meant to celebrate it as an imitation of heterosexuality.

Unfortunately this does not lead to a big, simple, programmatic solution the barebacking issue. The “born gay” strategy has come so far and so (relatively) fast that abandoning it now, when it seems so close to establishing the principle of equality before the law, would seem to be unthinkable. Yet, another generation trying to be as straight they can be would seem a ponderous sacrifice. Is it possible to rekindle gay pride so it something better than showing off the runner-up sash in life without endangering the progress that has been made?

I really don’t know.

This article has been dedicated to the public domain by the author. August 26, 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.)