This article raised some eyebrows when it was first published in PositiveLite.com in May 2014. It quickly racked up the numbers to become one of our most read articles ever.
It’s rare for owners of controversial hookup sites that facilitate condomless sex to emerge from the shadows. But the man behind BarebackRT.com approached us to talk about sexual health, condomless sex and disclosure issues. This he did with great candour. Although we only talked on the phone – he is from Tucson, Arizona - I liked him..
It’s interesting how, despite the advent of U=U messaging and wider use of PrEP, condomless sex still represents a clandestine activity which remains highly stigmatized in some sections of the LGBT community. Be sure to read the comments which, while largely supportive, reflect the mixed reactions the community had at the time.
How this story came about
Way back in August 2013 I penned an article for PositiveLite.com called “Profiling Hooking Up Online”. It was an account of how online hookup sites facilitate disclosure of one’s status, or not. I found that some make it easier than others, and wondered how those differences might impact risk. So I compared two sites popular in Canada, Squirt.com and BarebackRT.com. (links NSFW).
I came to the conclusion that, with its emphasis on disclosure, BBRT was in many ways a “safer’ sight than the former. That was surprising in that Squirt seemed one where vanilla sex could best be found whereas BBRT is raunchier and where most people are looking for barebacking partners.
This is not the place to comment on the safety - or not – of barebacking itself – which in any event is far less black and white than before the era of undetectable viral load, PrEP and poz-on-poz sex, each of which either eliminates HIV transmission risk or substantially reduces it. However, even in the gay men’s community, barebacking remains a stigmatized activity, often considered both rash and reprehensible, whatever the circumstances and whatever the risk.
In any event, my article enjoyed a second life on The Body.com where it generated some controversy. Months went by and then just last week, out of the blue, I received an email from the owner of BarebackRT.com.
“I just read your article” he said “and would like to thank you for actually realizing, and publishing an article that brings up HIV stigma, which pretty much sums up why I started the website to begin with…... Men will always have bareback sex; however we try to allow them to make better informed choices by allowing our members to feel comfortable with their status and being honest about it from the get go.”
I asked BBRT’s owner – he wishes to remain anonymous but on the site uses the name Pigmaster – if he would give me an interview and he readily agreed. For this rare glimpse in to the business behind barebacking, he indicated I could ask him anything, and that there was nothing off limits.
Bob Leahy: Thank you for agreeing to the interview. You know we seldom know anything about who is behind hookup sites like yours. Let’s start at the beginning. You are based in Tucson, aren’t you?
BBRT: Yes, Tucson, Arizona.
You are the sole owner and you do this full time? Do you have another job?
No. And we have fifteen employees.
I didn't know. How long has your site been around?
For exactly ten years. I started the site out of frustration that when dealing with other websites when you filled in your status as HIV, people were freaked out, even the people who were HIV-positive. People who were HIV positive still wouldn’t talk to you because they didn’t want you to know their status. It just got very frustrating.
So you had a particular focus on positive guys?
It was mainly for positive people to meet other positive people; in the positive community there is a lot of barebacking; there are negative people too though who do come to the website – we have some that put down that they use condoms but they just like our website. The negative people actually have a more informed choice because there is no guessing. They would like to meet people who are undetectable.
I was going to ask you about that. There are definitely people out there who are negative who seem very comfortable having bareback sex with poz guys who are undetectable. Would you agree that this phenomenon is becoming more apparent as time goes on and negative guys get a bit more clued in? I’m getting that impression.
Most definitely. There has been data out for years that suggests that positive guys with undetectable status are a lot safer to bareback with than a supposedly negative person who may have no idea that they have HIV but have a high viral load through not being on medication.
And so too there are negative guys wanting to hook up with negative guys and who think that's a safe form of barebacking via serosorting
Well and we also know about the chaser culture. . .
Well let’s talk about that. What’s your perception of bug-chasing and gift giving? How widespread is it in terms of people advertising for it and in actually doing it?
We do not allow the word “chasing” or” bug-chasing” to be blatantly posted in profiles. We don’t agree with bug-chasing. We would edit that reference out of their profiles when we see it.
How often does that situation come up? Very often?
Well the few people that I’ve talked to that are what might be classified as bug-chasers have a perception that with one pill a day and with no death sentence like there used to be used to be . . I’ve been told by some of them “I just want to get it over with and I can go on my pills and never have to worry about it again.”
That’s certainly one school of thought out there we’ve heard too. They know it’s going to happen, sooner or later, so let’s get there, is what they’re thinking. There is also a perception – we spoke to a negative member of your site when we were writing that original article – that if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen and it’s not the end of the world. He was barebacking and he preferred to go with undetectable guys, but if it (seroconversion) happened, it happened.
I see it less and less though.
Do you? OK. Let’s backtrack a bit. You had serious competition at first but now you are the leader in the field, would you agree?
When you started it was your motive an altruistic thing, like a move to reduce stigma, or was it a commercial opportunity you saw, or a combination of both?
It didn’t start out as anything commercial. We don’t do outside advertising to this day. Like I said I just started the website out of frustration with other websites where there was a lot of rejection happening.
Rejection if you mentioned barebacking, do you mean?
More a rejection if you mentioned you were positive. It was very uncomfortable. For positive people their status wasn’t very well defined in their profiles - there wasn’t a definition of status in websites back then – and when you finally brought the subject up you had people running through your sliding glass doors and breaking them.
Well let’s talk about that. Would you agree that, for many people, barebacking is still a highly stigmatized behaviour, disapproved of whatever the circumstances?
Yes and no. And yes, it’s still stigmatized and shunned because you have people like Mr. Weinstein (of AIDS Healthcare Foundation) in California who is completely anti-barebacking and who has gone on record as saying PrEP is just a licence to have bareback sex . . . .
He thinks it’s a party drug, right? Now I sort of covered this in my article but how does your site contribute to safer barebacking or a harm reduction approach to barebacking?
Well, our website gives large donations to AIDS organizations. Last year we donated almost $60,000.
I’m thinking more in terms of the way you handle disclosure issues on the site. My take was that disclosure on BBRT is both easier and more accurate – just more easily negotiated than in most sites. which just ask you things like “do you have safe sex always/sometimes/never/”. You seem to go one step further with detailed options about serostatus and what you do and don’t do that are more helpful.
We don’t have links to sexual health websites though. We’ve discovered over time that members that come to our website are well versed in sexual health aspects and what the repercussions can be. We used to have it up there when we first started and we tracked the pages and nobody ever looked at it. We got the sense in dealing with members that they knew what their risks were – and they didn’t ask for it anymore.
You do have many members though that for whatever reason don’t disclose their status in their profiles but use the “Ask Me” option. What’s going on there do you think?
Well what I have noticed - we have a lot of members who don’t like all these “Ask Me’s” - and what I tell them is “ask them.” We’ve done a little research on our own and what we’ve discovered is that the people who have a lot of “Ask Me’s” are still traumatized by stigma - but that they don’t hide their status once asked.
Yes. They must not feel comfortable on disclosing their status on a website even though they have complete anonymity at that point. So even in a protected environment with nothing to identify them they still will not come out at first and say they are HIV-positive. Doesn’t that point to the stigma which still exists? Anyway tell me where you are going next. You are doing well right?
It’s going so well that we’ve had a lot of discussion with people – there are a lot of women who are HIV-positive, there are a lot of straight men who are HIV-positive and one of the things we are currently working on is a website that is both gay and straight. It’s not going to be called BarebackRT.com. We came up with a name that was kind of fitting for it. MatchedLuggage.com. The straight world though is much worse for stigma than we see in the gay world surrounding HIV.
I’m not very familiar with that world but do straight hookup sites ever ask about things like HIV status?
HIV status on heterosexual websites is non-existent, or I’ve not seen it. We have a straight female who works for BarebackRt.com and she is frustrated; she’s tried straight websites and Craig’s List and the stigma is so bad for her and she’s the one who pushed us to start something like this.
Ok you mentioned in your email to me that on BBRT, and I think you said it was partly triggered by our article, you are increasing the options for disclosing your status. Now you are adding a field to indicate if you are Hep C, or neg and on PrEP?
Yes, it’s in response to changing times. When you set your profile up you select certain fields which become visible on your profile that indicate your status. For instance when you select “undetectable” someone can go into our search and can look for people who are undetectable in Chicago between selected ages. We take all the email we get from members and we include updates based on popular requests. We also have to keep up with technology and what we are finding is that a quarter of our members are on mobile and using our mobile version.
Talking of feedback, I’m curious to what extent do you get feedback on how successful your site is in hooking up people?
We get a lot of feedback from our members. We get a lot of people that are telling us they are meeting people in their same situation. We also get feedback that we have way less flakes than other websites, but then we get a trickle that say so and so is a flake but not nearly the same flake factor as in other websites.
Ok a few more questions. To what extent do you think you are contributing to safer sex? Do you have a view on that?
I wouldn’t say we contribute to safer sex. We are not condom Nazis. Our view is that people are going to do what they are going to do but we want them to have an informed choice.
You said you contributed to AIDS organizations. Do you ever have any formal discussions with them? Would they like you to include sexual health content for instance?
We are very active with many organizations to the point that most from major cities in the United States and in England and Australia have accounts on our system; they log in to those accounts so that people can ask them questions. We ask them though that they not use our website as a study and that people must come to them. If an organization comes on our website spewing out condom messaging or judging our members they are immediately terminated. Our policy is that people will come to them if they have a question.
We call it online outreach here. Some of our local organizations do it. Anyway, you’ve been generous with your time. It was a real surprise for you to get back to me about my first article. What a nice thing for you to do! Is this the first media interview you’ve done?
It’s the first interview I’ve done with someone who doesn’t want to tear me apart.
(laughs) Well it’s been great talking to you. Thank you very much for speaking to PositiveLite.com!