Why It's So Hard To Talk About Bareback Sex

Published: March 5, 2013

I had been living in New York City just long enough to know about the risks of bareback sex, the statistics, the history, and the ghosts. This is not a cautionary tale; this is about a decision I made, and keep making.

In October 2010, I met a guy online who was visiting from France. That night, after meeting in a midtown Starbucks, we went to his hotel room. I never asked about his HIV status. I watched him do a line of coke in the bathroom, and even knowing that, knowing he was some unfamiliar man doing things I never envisioned myself doing, we fucked each other without condoms. And it felt good. This was the scariest part for me. Not the risk itself, but the fact that I enjoyed it.

The next morning, as I rushed to throw on my clothes to get to work on time, it all came rushing back: the risks, the statistics, the history. And, along with them, the names of authors I’d read who wrote during the onset of the AIDS crisis. I felt ashamed that I was doing something that would put me at risk of an incurable illness, felt ashamed because I knew people in my own life who I was close to who had struggled to come to terms with being HIV positive.

A few weeks later, as I sat in the waiting room of the GMHC, waiting for the results of my rapid HIV test, I wrote in my journal: "I’m here now, wondering if I have an incurable virus coursing through my veins. Wondering how my life will change inexorably if I do. Terrified because I wouldn’t ever give up that moment of pleasure. That I may, in fact, do it again." Those 10 minutes were some of the longest moments of my life, and even though I felt so relieved at receiving an HIV-negative diagnosis, I’ve never stopped thinking about the consequences barebacking can have.

Two and half years later, during a recent regular three-month visit, the clinician in the HIV vaccine trial I’m part of — a study to discover how the HIV virus can be disrupted from attaching itself to cells — asked me the question, "How would you feel if you found out you were HIV positive?" I still can’t come up with an answer — and don’t think I ever could, unless I actually contracted HIV. Regardless, it’s a question any man who is having bareback sex with other men needs to ask when we are a long way off from a cure. Though it’s an impossible question to answer, it has forced me to think about the stigma that friends, relatives, and other figures continue to deal with because of their status. That’s important not because it will not necessarily dissuade me (or anyone else) from having bareback sex, but because it places the freedom that comes from fucking raw into what might happen when the rest of your life is bound to an incurable illness.

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