Editor Bob Leahy talks to Tim Dean about his controversial book “Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking” – and about what makes barebackers tick.
“Seed is a gift, it’s love, it’s acceptance. Taking a man’s cum – in your ass, down your throat, rubbed into your skin, whatever - even if you don’t know his name, is closeness. It’s an act of love and trust. Even if yawl just met. Both the bottom and the top will walk away smiling . . . and content. Now it’s a sleazy affair that boys get cracked out of their mind for. Like it’s an embarrassing nasty secret thing to want. This is so fucked.”
From HIV-positive bareback blogger Geek Slut, quoted in "Unlimited Intimacy . .". .
Recently writer Tim Dean gave a presentation on the subculture of barebacking and its mores to an attentive audience of 200 at the Gay Men’s Sexual Health Summit in Toronto. PositiveLite.com editor Bob Leahy caught up with him afterwards and sat down with him for this frank talk.
Bob Leahy: Tim. Thank you for talking to PositiveLite.com – and welcome to Toronto. I’d like to talk to you about your book first of all. Tell me, how did you come to write about barebacking? What interested you there?
Tim Dean: I came to write that book because I was living in the Bay Area of San Francisco and I was going out a lot and having a lot of sex – this was in the late 90s – and what I encountered in public sex environments were lots of guys who wanted me to cum inside of them. There was never a conversation about status, there was never a conversation about condoms, and I realized fairly quickly that this was something new in the history of the epidemic that I needed to think about — to think about what was involved and what had changed.
There is a substantial body of research that went in to the book. Tell me about your research method. How did you gather the information - through conventional methods?
I would say they were not very conventional methods. Much of the information was what I gleaned from personal experience, that is, hanging out in sex bars, sex clubs, bathhouses to a lesser extent, and also talking to people. That’s something I do in my life and I was using that material to reflect on. I also got very interested in bareback pornography and was able to use my training as a critic to analyze what is going on in this kind of pornography, what makes it different from other kinds of pornography.
Let’s talk about the bareback porn industry in a minute. Writing the book, you chose very consciously to be non-judgemental, is that right? You could have injected your own views in to it, but you chose to be descriptive. Why did you do that?
That was a very important decision on my part, influenced by two things. One was to take a kind of anthropological approach to the study of sexual subcultures, where you limit what you can learn if you decide ahead of time whether something is good or bad, positive or negative. The other was a kind of psycho-analytic influence where the suspension of judgment allows thinking to achieve its full potential so that it was very, very important to me not to judge.
And what was the reaction to that approach? In your refusal to judge, did people think it sounded like you were endorsing barebacking?
Yes, some people did. And the fact that I wanted to write about this subculture without judging it and on the other hand saying that I’m also participating in this subculture, the refusal to judge was often understood as a kind of backhanded way of endorsing or excusing what I was doing. I didn’t see it that way at all. For me, it was an ethical decision to suspend judgement. Some people got that. Some people read it differently.
So did it feel comfortable writing from the perspective of a participant in the barebacking culture? It’s kind of brave, I think.
It seemed sort of inevitable, in the sense that a lot of what I found out, I found out by doing it. Certainly in the literature I read at the time on “unsafe/unprotected sex” it was always assumed that somebody else was doing it, it was others who barebacked. It was very important to me to dispel that illusion. I was not going to be closet-y about the fact that I was barebacking. There is still a stigma attached to it and it’s hard to come out as somebody who enjoys bareback sex. But I don’t think we actually get anywhere by pretending we are not doing things . . .
OK, let’s talk more about this. We haven’t defined barebacking. Are we talking about people who identify as barebackers, part of a barebacking culture, or people who slip up occasionally - or both?
I used the decision when writing the book to use the term “barebackers” very broadly, to cover both the subculture and also people who may not consider themselves ‘barebackers” but who sometimes or occasionally do have sex without condoms, or want to have sex without condoms. It’s too easy to place the blame on a small subset who are very committed barebackers and I wanted to avoid that by using the term broadly.
I wanted to ask you about the allure of barebacking. There are so many stigmas and potential risks, why do people do it?
I think there are lots of reasons. The first and most obvious is that men often prefer sex without condoms, it feels better . . .
You called it “enhanced genital stimulation”.
Yes. That’s the most obvious reason. Beyond that there are all the meanings that are attached to exchanging semen, to receiving someone else’s cum. I think HIV prevention discourses have not been very good at acknowledging how important semen is to gay men – their own and other peoples’. Sometimes you want lots of guys’ semen inside of you.
Well, you’ve talked a lot about disgust with bodily fluids, and you mentioned spit as an example, but semen must be the same kind of thing, that we have a sort of love/hate relationship with it - in that in some contexts these fluids are very hot and in others they disgust us.
I think that’s true. I think that semen, because of HIV and the epidemic, has become even more loaded with meaning, in becoming dangerous, in becoming dirty . . .
Yes, In becoming toxic it has become potentially hotter. That is, on the one hand we are told we must absolutely keep it outside of our bodies, and on the other hand it becomes something very exciting to get inside.
Well, let me throw out a quote from you on that. I think you said “the fact that sex may be unsafe may be the sexiest thing about it.” Is that true?
I think for a number of people that’s absolutely the case. It’s a mistake to think we don’t like risk. Risk can be very exciting.
I suppose you can think then of public sex. We think public sex is very hot because we might get caught. But are we saying bareback sex is hot because we could get infected with HIV?
In some cases, yes. Your question makes me think of straight couples who like to fuck in the bathroom of a plane. There is a risk involved, it’s not comfortable, maybe the sex isn’t all that gratifying because of the conditions, but there is a risk involved which makes it very exciting. And that translates for some gay men in terms of HIV too.
Is the transgressive thing important in bareback sex too, the chance of something bad happening.
Yes, and also stepping away from being a normal responsible adult in our society, and everything that goes along with that. You know part of the appeal of public sex is that it happens outside the house, it happens in a space where someone can be somebody different. Therefore it’s hot. We are also inundated with safe sex messages and sometimes for that very reason stepping away from that and doing something that is “unsafe”, that’s ”risky”, can be the hottest thing to do.
The other allure you’ve described is in the title of your book. “Unlimited Intimacy.” That’s important for barebackers, isn’t it?
Yes, I think it is. Men who have a lot of casual sex with a lot of casual partners are not in flight from intimacy but actually searching for a particular kind of intimacy. The phrase “unlimited intimacy” came from a barebacker in an interview I read and that seemed to me to be a perfect way to encapsulate intimacy beyond the couple.
So there is nothing more intimate for some people than exchanging bodily fluids?
Sometimes we talk about casual sex, but it sounds like what you’re describing is very intense sex.
It’s incredibly intense. It’s very meaningful, completely spiritual. If you are having sex with a bunch of strangers, group sex can be something that feels like communion.
I think you’ve mentioned too in the book that there is very much a sense of belonging.
Sure. It’s about finding and making a community with people you don’t necessarily need to get to know to be part of.
OK I want to find out about barebackers and what is their relationship to risk. I think what you say - and this is probably grossly simplifying – is that this is an equation, where barebackers recognize the risk, but then balance it against the pleasure. Is that what’s going on?
Sure, I think that’s part of it. But one of the other things I want to add that’s going on is that the majority of barebackers do NOT want to infect sero-negative guys. They are not trying to put other people at risk. They are interested in an experience of risk for themselves that is maybe more a risk in fantasy than in actuality in some cases.
So they do care about the possibility of HIV transmission?
Do you think people think they don`t care.
I do. It's hard for people to wrap their heads around the fact that people can be barebacking and still wish to reduce transmission. I think it's a mistake to think about barebackers as simply irresponsible hedonists.
Tell me why you’ve been using the word “disgust” a lot lately.
I’ve become very interested in disgust for various reasons. One, in the world of academic theory I inhabit, people don’t talk about disgust, they talk about shame. Shame is connected to identity. For me, disgust is connected to acts and in order to have a discourse about sexual acts we need to think about and talk about disgust. Disgust is really complicated because disgust in the context of food simply pushes you away from food. Disgust vis-à-vis sex or bodily fluids can draw you to those things. Sometimes sex can be intensified by doing things that you actually feel can be kind of disgusting.
Or that other people find disgusting?
Which is why large amounts of bodily fluids, especially semen, are important in the subculture and within some of the porn. One of the things that interests me is that some people find “sloppy seconds” disgusting, that is using multiple loads, using cum as lube. But a lot of guys, including straight guys, find it very hot.
And isn’t it a staple of bareback porn? I’m thinking of the porn classic Dawson’s 20 Load Weekend?
Tim, I think one of the take-home messages I got from listening to you is that if we find an act not to our liking, it becomes morally wrong.
I want to make the distinction between moral disgust and sexual disgust so that we can hold on more tightly to the idea that just because you don’t like something does not make it morally wrong. That seems to me very important.
Is anything morally wrong in sex?
Give me an example of what is morally wrong in the context of barebacking?
I think coerced sex is morally wrong. I think lying to people is morally wrong. I think treating people badly is morally wrong. The ethics have to do not with the act you are actually doing, but how you treat your partner. To me it’s very important in the book — and in my life — to understand that other people are not objects to be used for one’s gratification. Other people are not sexual commodities. We may play out a fantasy in which I use you as my sexual slave and we both may enjoy that, but within the broader context of our encounter I treat you like a human being with respect, etc.
Let’s talk about the breeding, gift-giving subculture. Some people have played it down and suggested it’s mostly fantasy and that it’s very hard to track down real bug-chasers for research, for instance. Is this really a big part of bareback culture?
It’s certainly a big part of the fantasies that animate the subculture. In that way it seems to me important. I think in the process of writing the book and when I was giving lectures, people wanted to know, “How many gift givers, how many people are there out there doing this?” I don’t think that can be answered because the fact is it’s a very exciting fantasy for a lot of people but how that translates into practice is very, very hard to know.
But are there some people out there who really want to be poz?
I think so, yes. They see being poz as an inevitability, as giving them licence to bareback without worrying.
How do you feel about that?
Well, I think part of the reason I want to talk about fantasy is not so much that I’m psycho-analytically oriented – although I am – but because American culture does not have a very good way of talking about fantasy. Therefore it does not have a very good way of distinguishing between what is a fantasy and what is something you actually want to do. I’ve done some work on this around rape fantasies. A lot of people have a fantasy about being raped, but that doesn’t mean they want to be raped. It means they want to enact a fantasy; and it seems to me you can make an analogy with guys out there who say they want to become poz.
OK, I want to talk about bareback porn. It’s very different to mainstream gay porn, isn’t it? It looks different, I’m thinking in particular of Treasure Island Media (NSFW link) which has a home-made feel. Actors can be overweight, older, not conventionally attractive. Why is that?
I’m very interested in Treasure Island Media and Paul Morris’s whole politics, ethics and aesthetics of making porn. He sees himself as a documentary pornographer, documenting what guys are already up to and therefore the guys in his films should not be some kind of fantasy ideal with perfect bodies.
They should look like us?
They should look like us. They should look like the guys we are and the guys we meet. Some people don’t like his porn for that reason. They say the guys in it are ugly. That’s not my view on it. The range of body types makes it real. It makes it hot. It’s clear you can be older, overweight, you can be hairy, you can have an imperfect body, you can look like a poz guy – and still be a porn star, still be the subject of sexual pleasure. That’s important.
Do you have any views, Tim, on the role of barebacking porn in encouraging or stimulating bareback behaviour?
People want to be able to draw a very clear line between pornography and behaviour – and I don’t think you can draw that line. I think it’s been proven again and again that watching pornography, of whatever kind, will not simply translate into imitating those behaviours. It’s not that pornography has no influence. Of course it has influence over what we find exciting, what our fantasies are. But what interests me is that even with this iPhone you are recording this interview on we can go in to the bathroom and make pornography and put it on line . . . .
Want to? (laughs)
(laughs) So that is to say we can all — and lots of people do – make our own porn and put it on XTube and I think that’s an incredibly interesting development. We can all be pornographers. If you don’t like the mainstream porn that’s out there, make your own porn – and I think that’s a great thing.
OK. I want to finally get to the intersection between barebacking and HIV prevention efforts. The language of HIV prevention uses words like “intervention” and “counselling” which essentially relate to efforts to change behaviour, or even stop various behaviours. Is there any scope for the world of counselling and interventions to interact with barebackers or do they have their own rationale for what they do and have made up their minds? Are the two worlds apart?
I think there is space for an intersection. When I wrote the book it was very important for me to not to write about barebacking with the desire to understand it in order to stop it. I do think, though, that what counselling offers is a space to think through what one’s desires are, what one’s fantasies are. I think to the degree that counselling makes a space available to sort through the confusion that all of us have in our minds about sex, desire, desirability – that’s good. But if counselling goes in to a situation with the sole attempt to stop something, then it closes off the space in which people can figure out their lives and what kind of sex they would actually like for themselves.
What we’ve seen here is applying a harm reduction approach to barebacking in terms of talking about techniques that might reduce the risk of transmission. Does that make sense to you?
Yes, it does. But I don’t think it’s all or nothing. For a long time it was pitched as “use condoms all the time or you are going to become a crazy reckless barebacker who is going to become poz and spread the virus”. It’s not either/or. Thinking in terms of harm reduction makes much more sense.
That’s likely a good place to end. Tim, thank you so much for talking to us. You’ve been incredibly honest and forthright about something that challenges many of us. This has been so useful. It’s been a real pleasure talking to you.
Thank you, Bob
Tim Dean’s book “Unlimited Intimacy, Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking” is available on Amazon here.
Tim Dean is professor of English and director of the Center for the Study of Psychoanalysis and Culture at the University at Buffalo. He is the author or editor of several books, including Beyond Sexuality, also published by the University of Chicago Press.
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