Oh give me anything, and I’ll turn it into a gift” –Fiona Apple
Under the purview of risky sex, we continue Sex Psych this week with an interrogative analysis of barebacking, or condomless sex among gay males. The threat of AIDS has made such behavior so nonsensical as to be unthinkable, and so unthinkable as to be undoable. And yet, in the words of Tim Dean, the foremost researcher on the subject, “denying or denouncing the popularity of barebacking won’t make it go away.” For a subculture has been rising around this behavior, despite its inconceivability; the purpose of this week’s column is to understand said subculture and to recognize the actual life-affirming possibilities of the risky behavior promoted therein.
According to Dean, barebackers (and their brethren, bugchasers, or men whose primary purpose for eschewing condoms is to attain or bequeath HIV) perform this behavior for a handful of reasons, many of which are in fact quite comprehensible and, to the average observer, even normative and familiar. We’ll get to those more accessible reasons shortly; for now, let’s hone in on those which pose more of a cognitive (not to mention affective) challenge. For barebacking, and by extension bugchasing, wouldn’t be contentious were it not for the taboo of expressly seeking that which will kill the seeker, particularly given the stigma associated with both gay men and the AIDS virus.
So, in addressing the relationship between barebackers and AIDS, let’s return for a moment to the thesis of last week’s column, namely, that death is sexy. For many barebackers, going without condoms represents a thrill of the highest order: this is assent unto death, with no turning back. And yet, the practice wouldn’t be so broad, nor so inconceivable, were it merely centered around the act of acquisition — barebacking, in other words, is less about acquiring a stigmatized disease than it is about living with one.
Indeed, to ascribe eroticization of AIDS as barebackers’ primary motivator is to turn a blind eye to a thriving and wholly prosocial, post-acquisition culture. This blindness arises from an inability to conceptualize the act of HIV-transference as anything other than punishment, a myopia which denies the exchange inherent in such an act. There is no passivity involved in transference, no lack of consent; barebackers conceive of HIV-transference as a gift-exchange, the purpose of which is to strengthen the bond between giver and receiver. A brotherhood arises around the virus, replete with an identifiable and idiosyncratic vernacular, social hierarchy and economy of desire.
To infect with the “gift” of HIV is to “pozz”; to receive the virus is to be feminine (though to forgo condoms at all is also to be masculine); to become HIV-positive is to be sexually desirable, in possession of a hip accessory. Barebacking, then, is as much about lifestyle and community as it is about sexual preference; the bonds engendered by the shared virus lead to a variety of prosocial behaviors: as one example, some barebackers only have sex with people of the same HIV status; as another, some become infected so as to gain support and attention. Furthermore, like any subculture, barebacking involves initiation: certain scholars, like filmmaker Paul Morris, have conceived of HIV-transference as the sacrifice required to be part of a distinct community.
Finally, and most politically potent, the barebacking subculture enables gay men to reclaim their sexuality and their relationship to AIDS. Bugchasing in particular allows gay men to have sex on their own terms; their AIDS anxiety dissipates once they consciously decide to remove the condom and confront the so-called inevitability of infection. Such deliberateness condemns a life lived in terror, thereby refuting the notion that gayness is death, and that gayness necessarily leads toward death. And with the new advances in medicine, as the most financially privileged barebackers can attest, even death can be bested: Dean notes a laxness in attitudes surrounding severity of the disease, which implies that not everyone who barebacks does so out of a (“perverse”) desire to die.
When conceived of in this manner — as mindful, community-oriented, prosocial subculture — barebacking seems less like a suicide mission than a specifically life-affirming endeavor. Of course, such ostensibly cavalier treatment of the virus may appear offensive, particularly to those grappling with the daily reality of an HIV-positive status, but it’s important to remember that barebacking is less a public health issue than it is a way for gay males to turn a pejorative association between homosexuality and death into a positive one.
For more information on barebacking/bugchasing, this reporter recommends Tim Dean’s book ‘Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking!’