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The bareback debate

Posted in: Safe Sex, Features
By NZAF and Outline - 16th April 2011

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Ideological opposition to safe sex is not a new idea - its one that individuals bring up from time to time - and one which the NZAF and OUTLineNZ take very seriously. The NZAF and OUTLineNZ do not support bare backing, or the promotion of barebacking through porn because unprotected anal sex places gay and bisexual men at a high risk of HIV.

First of all, let's be clear that Mr Leather ANZ wasn't talking about the action of not wearing a condom; he wasn't referring to barebacking as single failure to use a condom when a guy has had too much to drink, or the times that a gay man is with someone smokin'-hot but he doesn't have a condom with him, or a guy having sex with his boyfriend who he almost always uses condoms with anyway. While those situations do put someone at very high risk of HIV, Mr Leather ANZ was talking about bare acking, and bareback porn, as an identity: a conscious decision to politicise the consistent practise of anal sex without condoms and lube because he sees the promotion of condoms as interfering with his sexual identity as a gay man and therefore as a form of homophobia.

We also need to be really clear about something else too: HIV is an incurable virus, not a philosophical debate or an academic argument about freedom of expression. HIV seriously affects the lives of anyone who has it. In New Zealand, HIV overwhelmingly affects gay and bisexual men because it's 18 times more risky to have anal sex than vaginal sex, because gay men are having anal sex at much higher rates than their heterosexual counterparts and because the prevalence of HIV in our communities is already high.

Shaun Robinson, New Zealand AIDS Foundation (NZAF) Executive Director says, “Barebacking is not about individual rights. You have no more right to bareback than you do to drive your car at 100km through a crowded shopping mall.” When a gay or bisexual guy has anal sex, it's never just one man having sex. There's a minimum of two people and sometimes more. The risk of transmitting HIV is also not limited to just the two or more people having sex at one time because HIV migrates all the way through a sexual network. If a gay man doesn't use condoms and lube, their partner is being exposed to HIV or another STI from every partner he's ever had, and all of their partners and partner's partners as well. The more sexually active a gay man is and the more sexually active everyone else in his sexual network is, the faster HIV will move through the network. So the act of using condoms and lube doesn't just protect one person, it actually protects every other person who comes after them in the whole sexually active network of gay men. A gay man could come out of a twenty year long, monogamous relationship with an HIV-negative man and then have one new partner. His risk isn't any lower because he hasn't had sex with an HIV positive man for the last twenty years. If he doesn't use a condom with his new partner he's being exposed to all the partners that his new lover has had – and if his partner is at the centre of a network of very sexually active gay men who are having unprotected anal sex in the midst of the HIV epidemic, then he's being exposed to all of them and he is very much at risk. So an analysis of rights isn't about an individual's rights because the risk of HIV isn't limited to one or two or a group of people involved in a sexual act. The analysis of rights involves every single man in the whole sexual network who is enjoying anal sex over time.

The NZAF and OUTLineNZ have never discouraged gay male sexual expression. We're organisations that are very sex positive; we understand that most gay and bi men want to have a lot of sex. Sex is a human and biological imperative and the NZAF and OUTLineNZ support gay men having anal sex with as many or as few men as they want to, but always using condoms and lube for anal sex. It takes two clicks on one of the NZAF's websites (www.getiton.co.nz)
to get to a sex positive guide to rimming, water sports, sex toys, fisting, bondage and tit work. Explaining the best way to fist and be fisted is not sexual conservatism, it's just not. Sexual conservatism places limits on how, when and who gay men can have sex with and since August 1987, the NZAF has not interfered with gay male sexual behaviour in any way, we simply promote the use of condoms and lube for anal sex.

Neither the NZAF nor OUTLineNZ suggest abstinence, reducing the numbers of partners gay men have sex with and we do not promote monogamy. We do not recommend these things because they do not work. There is hard, incontrovertible scientific evidence that unequivocally shows that the best way to control the HIV epidemic, at an individual and community level, is by using condoms and lube. In the 26 year history of the NZAF not a single alternative has been found to work on a population level in a developed country. The use of condoms and lube is the still the single, and by far the most effective way to prevent the transmission of HIV- right now it's all we have.

Australia has gone down a different path. In Australia, the gay men's health agencies and organisations have tried negotiated safety, strategic positioning and most recently PEP. Those strategies have had results too – in the inner city and western areas of Sydney, 14% of gay or bisexual men are living with HIV and in some neighbourhoods, the figure rises to 21%. In Auckland, around 1 in 20 gay or bisexual men is living with HIV. Australia's estimated prevalence of HIV for adults aged 15-49 over the period 1990-2007 was .15%, New Zealand's was 0.05% – that's three times higher [see the Epidemiological Fact Sheets on HIV/AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections from UNAIDS]. The differences between New Zealand and Australia's approach to HIV prevention have created different rates of HIV diagnoses – Australia's is much higher – and different sexual cultures in the gay and bisexual men's communities. Research conducted by the University of Otago and the NZAF shows that most gay and bisexual men do use condoms for anal sex most of the time – that's a cause for celebration and also the reason why we don't have the rates of HIV diagnoses in the gay communities that Australia does - click here
for the GAPSS/GOSS findings.

Taking a pill does not always mean maintaining the same quality of life, many people do not understand that the medications for HIV are a form of chemotherapy, often with devastating and life-affecting side effects. The reality of HIV means that a person has to have regular doctor's check-ups; disclosure challenges; inevitable hospital visits; recurring illnesses; and medication management challenges, including the management of common side effects like dramatic weight change, extreme fatigue, and diarrhoea. There is nothing pretty about the virus, and many people live well all things considered, but all of them would do anything they could to get rid of the virus and get their old lives back.

There is a real personal, social, and community cost when someone has HIV. The glorification of fucking without condoms – is the same as pushing the ‘don't wear a seat belt in a car' message. It is not about freedom of speech, it is about personal and public safety. HIV costs in very tangible ways too. A person on medication in New Zealand will be consuming around $1,200 of treatment every month for as long as they live, often more when their body starts failing to work with the first line medications. If a person is lucky enough to live for 20 years then this adds up to $288,000 in pills alone.

The active decision not to use condoms when the risk of HIV is present is naive. To go a step further and promote bare-backing as a viable alternative to a healthy life without HIV as a public movement is reckless. There is nothing honest about calling condoms a ‘form of homophobia'. The promotion of the major mechanism to spread HIV is the most homophobic public stand a person can take – what can be more homophobic than encouraging your friends to increase the risk of contracting a virus where the inevitable outcome is death? Vaughan Meneses, OUTLineNZ General Manager states, “Encouraging people not to use condoms is tantamount to biological warfare, and we all know how well that would turn out. Mr Leather Australia and NZ, Mark Stephens is trying to use ‘free speech' as a justification but he is doing nothing more than perpetrating a hateful myth, like many hate crime protagonists… the language is strong, but then again, the solution is ‘final' so needs to be met with equal strength.”


NZAF and Outline - 16th April 2011

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