Bareback Britain - doing it raw Bareback Britain may sound like a low-budget gay porn movie (indeed a quick online search reveals that it is a DVD from 2007, with the tagline “bum me bareback and I’ll drink your spunk, mate!”), but in reality there is a risk of it becoming a slogan for gay men. Most gay men on the scene today have largely grown up without personally experiencing the condomfree sex that flourished in the 1970s and early 1980s. For those who did experience those pre-AIDS, precondom years, it’s a bit like being nostalgic about the original Star Wars and Superman films, revolutionary technology like the first Sony Walkman personal cassette player, the Apple i computer and the heyday of disco – amazing at the time, but the world has changed a hell of a lot since then. The world is constantly changing, and so it seems is our attitude to condom use. In the last few years we are seeing attitudes shift towards some gay men now having sex without condoms again. But why is this happening and who is to blame? Is anyone to blame? Or is this something we need to be realistic about, be openly honest about and stop finger pointing. Bareback sex is now happening more and more with gay men in Britain, let’s find out why...Why are gay men throwing away the condoms? Better sex?If we know the risks associated with having unprotected sex, why do we take that risk? FS spoke to a host of guys who bareback via Facebook, Twitter, Grindr and dating sites like BarebackRT.com – and there was one resounding answer: they say the experience of having sex without a condom simply feels better, and for some that feeling overrides the risk. Here is what some of them had to say... “I prefer bareback as it feels so much better. Condom sex lacks the intimacy of skin on skin that bareback gives. Also, it’s always hot to dump a load,” says Luke, 23, from Waltham Forest. “I do know he risks, that is obvious! To be honest, it’s not worth it when you have a level head, but when you’re horny – logic goes out of the window and horniness takes over.” “Bareback sex is more intimate – it’s more sensual and feels better,” agrees Paul, 32, from Manchester. “The feeling of skin on skin and someone being there and in you is intense. I am well aware of the risks associated with having unprotected sex, and to be fair it’s not worth the risk – but I take the risk. It’s sometimes the risk factor which makes it more horny. I don’t bareback with everyone, but I am aware that there is a risk involved with any sexual encounter I have.” “Sex without condoms is way better, feels better, and mentally I guess it’s a real turn on for me. And it’s less hassle than dealing with a condom,” says David, 37, from Manchester. “I am very well educated in regards to the risks of BB sex. I’ve been HIV-positive for 11 years and I’m always upfront with people about that before sex, although I’m aware that not everyone is as honest.” “BB sex is better, more intimate and intense, very horny with strangers and casual hook-ups,” says Peter, 41, from London. “I like the exchange of spunk when fucking – lovely walking out of a guy’s flat with my ass filled with his cum, or leaving mine behind. Yes I knowthe risks – but it’s about the quality of the sex and just going for it and not thinking about the risks or faffing with condoms. I sero-sort online and generally only fuck with other positive guys who get regularly checked out. Not greatly into random hook-ups but if someone catches my eye in the street…”“Condoms make it not such a good feeling,” says Stefan, 43, from Manchester. “And also it’s not the same shooting into a condom. I like the feeling of squirting it raw. For me, if I use a rubber I often go soft and lose interest. I know the risk, but it’s the best and only way to fuck. Nothing like it. With rubbers it’s not the same feeling at all.”“If we tell ourselves the story that all hot sex has to be unprotected sex, then it becomes true,” Matthew Hodson, Chief Executive of GMFA, argues. “The truth is, you can have great sex with condoms and terrible sex without them, and vice versa. But I think there’s a problem with any HIV prevention work that tries to divide people into ‘good boys’ and ‘bad boys’, because we don’t tend to associate ‘goodness’ with ‘raunchiness’. Guilt and RejectionDespite saying that barebacking feels better, many of those I spoke to acknowledge that it does come with a degree of guilt. Some HIV-positive guys also spoke of the stigma attached to their status – and by seeking out other positive guys or guys into BB sex, they reduce the risk of being ‘twice rejected’ (whereby you get chatting to a hot guy, but the flirtation ends when you disclose your status). “I think that bareback sex does feel better, but there is always a guilt associated with it,” says Howard, 41, from London. “I guess you qualify it by saying that while you know the risks, you have HIV and it’s difficult having sex with HIV-negative people, and so you seek out like-minded people. I bareback with guys I meet online, but I always use condoms in a sauna.”“It’s very normal to feel bad about doing something that isn’t good for you, whether it’s unprotected sex, smoking or eating too much cake,” says Matthew from GMFA. “It’s really unhelpful to think that good boys use condoms and bad boys don’t. Most gay men use condoms with new partners most of the time, but sometimes people don’t. Some of us go through phases where we struggle to be as safe as we want to be, or when we find it hard to care, but labelling people who don’t use condoms as ‘bad boys’ isn’t going to help anyone maintain condom use.“I don’t think that the ‘slut- shaming’ we sometimes see in the gay community is helpful,” Matthew continues. “Setting up an ‘us vs. them’ struggle is only going to alienate people from HIV prevention messages. At GMFA we want to support all gay men to have the best sex that they can, with the least possible harm, but ultimately it’s down to individual choice.” No going backRob is 33, from Essex. He’s HIVnegative and aims to stay that way, despite preferring bareback sex. “I tell people not to try bareback sex because it’s very hard to go back to safer sex,” he says. “Guys often try it in relationships, which then end – and some of them can be satisfied with safe sex while dating around and some can’t. Stay safe, don’t try it! Personally, as I gradually came to bareback more frequently and understood how much better it felt and the illusion of intimacy it creates, safer sex stopped feeling like sex.”“I bareback with someone I’m dating,” Rob continues. “My ideal is monogamy with someone where we’ve both been tested. Monogamy is rare – guys don’t stick around for long, and most of the guys you date aren’t capable of telling you they’ve slipped up – they need to be grown up enough to upset you in the name of protecting your health. Half the positive guys I know got it from a ‘monogamous’ boyfriend.” “More often I bareback with positive guys who are on meds. I avoid guys who bareback who think they’re negative, in favour of guys on meds with controlled levels of viral load. You can’t verify their current viral levels, but you can at least see the pills if you feel the need to. I don’t tell guys these criteria in advance, I wait for them to offer up a status. Some guys are obviously shifty, but most guys feel that being positive is enough trouble that they don’t want to make anyone else positive. A lot of guys won’t play with a negative guy bareback even though they know that with thier undetectable load they would find it difficult to pass on HIV. Chat to someone for half an hour and you can gauge these things, and actually I usually chat to someone for months or years off and on and get a sense of them before I meet them. That’s not always the case – one-night stands happen too – and occasionally I fuck bareback without having the status conversation. Chasing the bugOther guys I spoke to echoed Rob’s opinion that HIV-positive guys are conscious of infecting others. “I believe that if you’re both HIV-positive and want to have BB sex then that’s fine,” says Joe, 42, from Hackney, London. “My profiles on Grindr and Squirt both state that I’m positive so people know from the get go. I wouldn’t have unprotected sex with someone who was chasing the bug as I think that person’s got enough problems.”“I use online sites BBRTS, Gaydar, Grindr and Squirt. It’s always easy if you make it clear what you’re looking for – avoids the timewasters,” adds Peter. “I tend to only get chatting to guys into BB, sorting for positive guys – I’m not into the breeding scene and stuff like that.”It may be a minority but, as Rob elaborates, that kind of scene does exist: “I see guys with ‘butter wouldn’t melt’ profiles on Gaydar where they always do safer sex and are negative, and on BBRTS their profiles are positive or undetectable and they’re asking for groups of guys to come over and unload in them, or they’re arranging ‘conversion parties’ where the tops have to be positive and the bottoms have to be negative (with random testing threatened, somehow). It’s this kind of split which leads to risky behaviour, and it’s reflected in the duality of our options currently. Either you’re someone who has safer sex and is afraid of HIV, or you’re someone who has unprotected sex and can’t afford to be afraid of it because you’re gonna get it sometime, so why say ‘no’ to anyone hot?”“It’s transgressive behaviour. I get that. When I’m told what to do there’s a part of me that wants to go and do the exact opposite,” adds GMFA’s Matthew Hodson. “And 30 years into the epidemic I can see why people are tired of the struggle and start to fantasise about atime when there was no need to fear transmission, and that becomes celebrating it. Readers of daily newspapers should know that though that the vast majority of HIVnegative men do not want to become HIV-positive, and the majority of HIV-positive men would prefer to still be HIV-negative and have no desire to infect their partners.”Headline newsReaders of FS may be familiar with the whole bug chasing concept, but it no doubt shocked readers of the Daily Mirror when it reported how some gay men are “deliberately trying to catch HIV for sexual thrill in astonishing craze” (7 July 2013). The story focused on an admin worker from the Midlands who willingly caught the virus, saying “hundreds of men in the UK are introducing themselves on online forums, Facebook groups and Twitter. Many then meet up and try to transmit the potentially life-threatening virus.” According to the Daily Mirror, this man had sex with more than 1,000 men, including many he knew were HIV-positive, in his quest for the virus. When he was first diagnosed, he wrote on Facebook: “Tested positive on 21st September and totally loving it! Wanna share with any chasers, CD4 is 971, VL 100,000 – nice and toxic!”This sensationalist story prompted strong reactions from Daily Mirror readers – and on FS’s Facebook page, with Daniel posting: “This is genuinely fucking depressing. What the hell is wrong with them?”; Jay posting: “If this is the case, people need their heads seeing to!”and Darren posting: “This totally shits on the graves of all the amazing people who needlessly died before treatment was as effective. Get a life you miserable sad fucks”, while @Pozlpoollad tweeted: “As if there isn’t enough stigma attached, now folk will think we all went out looking for it and so deserve it!”However, some of you questioned whether this really was news, with Pete posting: “New craze? This has been going on for years!” and Shaun posting: “Bug chasers are the new fashion in chatrooms… the number of times people have approached me and asked what my readings are… it’s hardly news… it’s been happening for ages… they even have special parties to breed negative people.” Is it just fantasy?When I put this question to FS editor Ian Howley he said, “‘Bug chasing’ is a sexy subject. That’s why the media sensationalise it. The idea of gay men going around looking for ‘the gift’, as they call it, is something of a fantasy. Yes we’re sure it does happen, but not at the level the media would like you to think. The fact is HIV-positive men are likely to be on medication and as long as they take their medication on a daily basis then their viral load should become undectable. This means it would be extremely difficult to pass HIV on to anyone, including ‘bug chasers’.” And what about the ‘bug chasers’ themselves? Ian adds: “Well I’m sure there are a small few out there actively looking to become HIV-positive, for whatever reason, but for the most part in our experience talking to these people is that they tend to be already HIV-positive and it’s part of a fantasy role play.” And ‘the gift givers’? “Well they know exactly what their viral load is and whether they are capable of passing on HIV or not. Just like the bug chasers, we’re sure there are a small few out there who are willing to come off their meds and pass it on, but for the vast majority of the ‘gift givers’ they are just playing to the fantasy. Remember, about 80% of new HIV infections come from having sex with men who don’t know they are HIV-positive.” Is everyone at it?“It is easy to find guys willing to have BB sex, especially with technology as it is,” says Neil, 41, from Manchester. “Gaydar, Grindr and BBRTS. More often that not, guys will be guarded about BB sex – but once you start talking about it, guys are up for it.” Indeed, Neil tells me he’s hosting a bareback party, with over forty guys saying they’ll come. “Hosting parties isn’t really a regular thing for me, although I have hosted one once before,” he says. “Most of the guys at the party are from BBRTS with a couple of regular fuck buddies from Gaydar and the odd one from Grindr or Scruff. 80% of guys attending are HIV-positive with an undetectable viral load, 15% don’t care and 5% are negative but willing to play.”“You know what? It’s very easy to find BB sex,” says David. “In bars, on the internet, cruising grounds, saunas. I wouldn’t do BB until my and their status has been discussed, but in general, say on a night out, many lads do BB. It just seems the way things are going. BB sex is everywhere these days, but then so are STIs – so like I said, you are really playing Russian roulette with your health.” “I’ll be frank – I don’t go out looking for bareback sex, but I can always find it,” says Paul. “It is actually worrying the number of guys who will do it and don’t know the risks. I was brought up with the adverts on TV all the time, and yes I bareback, but I know the risks – and I do take precautions when I think it is necessary. I don’t bareback in the sauna or when cruising. I only do it if I have had a conversation with the person first. I have met a few guys who say ‘safer sex only’ and then when it comes down to it, we end up doing it bare. Everyone I have met recently has been up for bareback sex. Not many need encouragement – I would never encourage someone to have bareback sex.” “I will bareback with anyone I fancy,” says Luke. “If I really like a guy and he wants a condom, I will probably put one on. Depends on the guy – I can be versatile for the right guy, but I usually top. It is fairly easy [to find a guy for bareback sex]. I usually go to the sauna or on BBRTS.” “If you’re seeking out bareback sex, and you’re HIV-negative, you’re not acting in a way that’s going to preserve that status,” says Matthew from GMFA. “The more unprotected sex you have the greater the chance that you’ll get HIV. And other STIs too, most of which also make HIV transmission more likely. If you’re HIV-positive you’re going to have to weigh up the risks of acquiring another infection. Hep C, for example, can devastate your health if you’ve got an already weakened immune system.”“In my view, it’s got nothing to do with getting bored with the safer sex message,” David adds. “It’s got to do with people wanting ‘dirty’ sex, and if they have to lie about their status to get it they will. People in that respect have no morals any more. In my opinion, people don’t care any more. People are even willing to lie about their hep C status just to get a shag, hence the recent rise in hep C infections. Hep C is the new AIDS. Trust me, watch this space – in ten years’ time there will be a huge hep C epidemic.”Bill sent this to us via DM on Facebook: “After eight months of being single and living with HIV for nearly five years, I have been thrust back on to the scene. In recent months I have been shocked, not a lot shocks me, as I’m a gay guy who’s been around and seen many things. What shocked me the most has been the extent of the ‘it won’t happen to me’ mentality. I have seen gay guys fucking in clubs, toilets and saunas without protection, and I’ve even been asked for BB sex myself by a negative guy. It can happen to you and it will. Five years ago I was a healthy regular guy in my early 20s, I loved clubbing, drinking and dabbled in recreational drugs.All this changed after being struck down with pneumonia and given two days to live. It takes seconds to put a condom on and it’s not that much of an inconvenience getting tested regularly. Be safe!”The right choice“We all make choices about our health all the time,” says GMFA’s Matthew Hodson. “We’re doing it when we drink or smoke or look both ways before crossing the road. There are lots of ways you can reduce the risk of getting HIV, or passing it on. Someone with an undetectable viral load and no other infections is unlikely to transmit the virus. The risk to the active partner is much less. If you’re HIV-negative, well informed and make the conscious decision that you are prepared to take this level of risk because that’s how you think you’re going to maximise your sexual pleasure, then that’s your right. For some people, the risk of any anal sex, even with condoms, is too great for them and so they don’t do it. That’s their choice and their right too. I wouldn’t make that sacrifice myself, but you’ve got to recognise that the risk and the reward is going to be slightly different for everyone.” “Bareback is more intimate and erotic and doesn’t require interruption to put on a condom. Condoms make me less sensitive, so it’s worth the risk because of the intimacy and eroticism,” says David, 43, from Somerset. “There are many risks in life that we take. Being HIV-positive and undetectable means that the risks are about becoming infected with other STIs which can be transmitted through oral sex as well. Being undetectable means the risk of me infecting someone else with HIV is virtually zero. Hep C is a risk for both partners though, and I am aware that hep C infection is worse when being HIV-positive.”The future?“We reckon that about 80,000 HIV infections have been prevented by condom use already this century,”says Matthew. “There seems to me to be a movement now that says that condoms are not worth it, that we just need to get all men to test, get them treated and infection rates will drop. We’ve seen the number of men who get tested triple over the last decade – many more gay men have been diagnosed and are on treatment, and have become less infectious as a result. But the evidence suggests that the number of new infections is remaining steady. I don’t think that this is good enough. I want to see the number of new infections fall.”“I don’t believe that an HIV diagnosis is inconsequential – I see men who are traumatised by it and for whom it has a long term, often devastating impact. I support medical interventions to prevent HIV, whether that’s reducing the viral load of those who have HIV, PEP for men who have been exposed, or even PrEP (taking HIV medication when you’re HIVnegative to prevent infection occurring) for men with ongoing risk behaviour, but I think we need to have a combination prevention approach, utilising all the resources that we have, if we are going to prevent the harm that HIV inflicts on our community. So that means testing and treatment, but also condoms, and a belief that as gay men our lives are valuable and our health is worth preserving.” So who is passing on HIV? The latest figures show us that eight of out ten new infections come from having sex with someone who doesn’t know that they have HIV. So if someone tells you they are negative and you decide not to use condoms then you are taking a risk. We hear all the time that HIV-positive men need to be more responsible, and they are the ones to blame for the increase of HIV diagnoses. This is not true. We here at GMFA are very realistic. We don’t bury our heads in the sand and pretend everything is hunky dory. Life can be shitty at times and we know gay men are becoming positive for lots of reasons. The best thing you can do for your own health is come up with a strategy that suits you. Condoms: If you are able to use condoms and this is not a problem for you then please continue with this strategy. It’s one of the best ways to remain negative. Testing: If you are someone who doesn’t use condoms from time-to-time and believe you are HIV-negative, then get yourself into a testing pattern, whether that’s every month, every three months or more. If you do become HIV-positive you can get yourself on medication and prevent others from catching HIV. HIV-positive men: If you are HIV-positive and have unprotected sex with men then it’s your responsibility to make sure you take your medication. Taking a ‘holiday’ will increase your viral load, risks your own health and make you more likely to pass on the virus. Also if you are positive you are more susceptible to the Hep C virus, which is a bitch, so please be aware of this and get tested regularly. Bug Chasing: If you are one of the VERY few that is looking to become HIV-positive, then you need to fully understand what your actions will bring you. Yes, HIV is no longer a death sentence but it brings lots of side effects and stigma. And once you have HIV then you will have it for the rest of your life along with everything else that comes with it. Condomless sex is something that in an ideal world we’d all like to do. But we don’t live in an ideal world. In reality, HIV, hep C and all the other STIs are out there and they don’t care who they infect. Having an attitude of “It won’t happen to me” will not stop you from getting any of them. For more information on HIV and STIs, visit www.gmfa.org.uk/sex.For information about PEP and how it may keep you HIV-negative, visit www.gmfa.org.uk/pep.To find your nearest GUM clinic to get tested for hIV, hep C and other StIs, visit www.gmfa.org.uk/clinics.