Oh, barebacking! The forbidden fruit of Planet Gay; so tasty, tempting, edgy, dangerous, five kinds of awesome sauce, take your pick.
And I’ve been doing it pretty much exclusively for over a decade. What am I talking about? Sex without condoms, or if you want to get all clinical, without ‘barrier protection’.
Why? Simple: because it feels great, probably even better for a top, which I’m not. Also because I’m a reckless hedonist, sensual to a fault, and because there’s got to be some practical advantage to this HIV business other than the legal steroids.
Of course, all the reckless hedonism aside, there are some ground rules. Neg guys are right out, which I imagine my boyfriend – who’s one of them – isn’t all that happy about. There was an ad campaign here in New York City some time ago, tagged ‘HIV stops with me’, and that’s a good rule to live by. I’m not going to have anyone’s life on my conscience, no matter how late it gets. Sure, go ahead, be high as a kite and ready to fuck anything that moves; that’s not such a great look to begin with, and if that’s where a guy is, really, there’s probably someone else with a great ass for him on Grindr or RT Bareback. I’m not it.
Another requirement: an undetectable viral load. I have one, would prefer it stay that way, ergo guys who don’t take their meds or, worse yet, don’t know their status, are off the table as well. Sorry boys, no exceptions. If someone doesn’t take care of himself, I have to assume he won’t take care of me either.
As you can imagine, this approach is not without its discontents. The Conversation™ about status does get tiresome after a while. Then there are the bug-chasers; in my experience, they don’t handle rejection all too well, maybe because of a misplaced conceit that infecting them with an incurable disease is somehow sexy. Legal peril and an ethical nightmare aside, I imagine it’s not. And if that’s what gets someone off, I hear walking into traffic is quite the thrill too.
Nor is barebacking risk-free, even if you already have the big H. Then again, nothing is.
All of which is presumably why a bunch of ostensibly negative gay men choose to forego condoms these days. I say ostensibly, because even an undetectable viral load in your top’s bloodstream does not equate to the same for semen. Nor is undetectable quite the same thing as zero. Take it from a raw bottom; if you’re getting fucked without rubbers, sooner or later, your luck will probably run out. Certainly if you have my voracious appetite.
What a downer, right?
Well, not really, when you think about it. Assume for a moment that you’re on pre-exposure prophylaxis or PrEP; that cuts your risk by about 80% or so. I wasn’t when I started barebacking; just a horny young man convinced of my own immortality and with a remarkable ability to avoid STDs – I’d say two in as many decades counts as such – and made a more or less deliberate choice: satisfying sex in the here and now was worth the possible risk of a future treatable disease. To be sure, this wasn’t a choice I arrived at quickly or easily or even entirely rationally; I’m pretty sure that a rather large number of stunning men and freely available narcotics played their role, though ultimately the responsibility rests on my shoulders alone. As it should.
Now comes the part where I’m supposed to tell you how I feel terrible about all that, bemoan foolish choices, rend my garments and so on. But that’s unfortunately not how I feel.
Sure, HIV is not a walk in the park. Would I actively talk anyone into making the same choices I made? Absolutely not. At a minimum, I am going to have to take some very strong medication for the remainder of my natural life; we all are. There are side effects, possible damage to neurons, liver toxicity, a few more. HIV is, at the present state of our knowledge of the virus, likely to slice a few years off anyone’s time on this mortal coil, including mine. There is a price to pay for everything; the question is whether the price is worth the purchase.
But if life is a series of moments, I have been lucky. Breathtaking intimacy. Transformative friendships, even love. An awareness of mortality that transcends the concerns of the everyday. A sense of living without fear or shame that, quite frankly, I never thought I’d know when I was just a fledgling. A daily pill seems a tolerable price to pay for that and so much else. A woman on birth control risks pregnancy and much else besides; and one could argue that there is a certain symmetry to our respective predicaments.
They say the truest test of a choice, good or bad, is whether one would make it again. This choice clearly hasn’t run its full course yet. It’s also true that the answer I would give today, at this writing, is different from the one I would have given two years ago or maybe from what I’ll think in the future.
Today, sitting here at my desk in this endless horizon that is the City of New York, I don’t think I’d do much of substance differently. I would have taken better care of my health in general, no question, but the fundamentals, no. The experiences, physical, emotional, even intellectual, I’ve had because of this little string of DNA romping around my cells have too much meaning and value.
Let me close with a caveat: nobody should read any of this as a manifesto for sero-conversion. Make your own choices based on your own circumstances. My argument, rather, is this: if you engage in behavior that places you at an elevated risk of contracting HIV, be very sure you do so with your head, not just your dick. There’s only one person who’s going to live your future, and that’s you; make choices that you think will make it worth living.