Simon Watney, the academic, activist and commentator has publicly re-engaged with the subject of HIV transmission and gay culture in an interview in the Huffington Post.
I’ve been an admirer of Watney’s writings for a long time. His books Imagine Hope and Policing Desire sit on my bookshelf in my office at work and are well-thumbed and annotated with scrawl. His arguments and ideas were important signposts for me back when I was writing my PhD thesis on gay men and digital culture. Some twenty odd years after the publication of these texts, I still think they offer a great deal to scholars, activists and ‘lay people’ who have an interest in the cultural relationships and political ties between HIV, activism, health promotion, gay culture and the media.
This post is intended as something of an uncalled-for response to Watney’s Huff Post interview. As someone who has been working with health promotion agencies for the last five years, and also someone who has published on the topics of bareback sex, bareback porn and online bareback subculture, I feel somewhat qualified to respond – and thereby make a small contribution – to the issues and arguments raised by Watney in this piece.
CONDOMS ARE NOT NATURAL – ?
One of the first points Watney makes in his interview is that a ‘politics’ of barebacking is being promoted by a vocal minority who claim that sex without condoms is ‘natural’ and that gay men have a right to have ‘raw’ sex. Watney attacks this argument, inviting the reader to imagine the response to such claims if they were made by a heterosexual man. I have long felt ambivalent about this particular claim – that raw sex is ‘natural’ sex. On the one hand I agree with what Watney is suggesting here – such a claim is naive, dangerous and ultimately very selfish. In addition, such a claim – which often also tacitly implies that raw sex is real sex – also makes my gut instantly tighten. Having a pumped up muscle boy tell me what is and isn’t real sex is about as appealing as being told the same thing by the Vatican. Indeed, Watney has identified the similarity between these two groups when it comes to advocating condomless sex.
At the same time, however, I have to call into question (and perhaps thereby extend and build upon) Watney’s criticisms of this particular claim. Sex with a condom is not natural. Arguably, no sex is natural (operating as it does as a product of culture as much as a product of biology).
We need to ask ourselves why some gay men are arguing that sex with a condom is not natural.
What is behind this claim? What motivates such statements? And here we must acknowledge that this claim is, perhaps uncomfortably, at least partially accurate. Gay sex did not regularly feature condoms before the mid 1980s. I’ve made this argument in my book Gaydar Culture and I stick by what I said. We do not need to agree with bareback sex, but if we are to engage with it as an issue, we do at least have to recognise that those who advocate going raw do have a point – condoms are, for many men, an imposition. They are an imposition for many gay men just as they are for many straight men. One wonders whether, if they weren’t, whether the contraceptive pill would have ever been produced?
Acknowledging this fact – this imposition – is not to ‘give in’ to the barebacker’s argument. It is, I believe, the key to trying to understand why men bareback, take risks with their health and have unprotected sex often with the knowledge of the potential consequences. Do I think men should bareback with casual partners / with partner of unknown HIV status / with sero-discordent partners? No,of course I don’t. But I also do not think that ignoring the fact that condom use is ‘simple’ and unproblematic is a wise idea. In fact, the more I research and work in this area of gay men’s health and sexual cultures the more I think that such ignoring – such wilful ignorance – is really dangerous. What concerns me about Watney’s rhetoric is that it disregards the fact that we are living in a different period of the HIV/AIDS narrative. The mantra of condom adherence for thirty years and counting is perhaps not a sustainable method of risk prevention for everyone. Crying out that all men should use condoms all the time might feel like the right thing to say – but it ignores the facts. We are passed the icebergs and tombstones and lillies adverts. Men are not dying of AIDS in the numbers they once were. HAART has changed perceptions. The phrase ‘undetectable’ has changed perceptions. Pornography (might have) changed perceptions. We simply cannot go back to the strategies we used in the past without at least acknowledging that today’s landscape of transmission, infection, treatment and – yes, sex – is different to what it was in 1984.
Let this not be read as an apology for barebacking. It is not.
We need to challenge those who scream of the right to bareback – but not by shouting ‘use a condom’ back at them. We have enough people shouting and not enough people listening (thanks, in part to social media). We need to challenge the bareback advocates with honesty, by saying ‘yes, having sex with a condom may well not feel quite as good as having sex without one’. And ‘having to put a condom on can sometimes detract from the spontenaity of sex’. And ‘yes, condoms are rather unsexy and the guys who bareback in porn look really hot’. These things are all true. We need to be truthful about the costs of using condoms in order that we can then also engage with some of the truths around the benefits of condom use.
If you use condoms with sexual partners you will reduce the chance of being infected with HIV. If you use condoms you reduce the chance of having to be dependent on a toxic cocktail of ARV’s for the rest of your life. If you use a condom you can reduce the harm that HIV can do to your body. If you use condoms you can help to ensure that those hot guys you are sleeping with also remain HIV negative – you can help care for them. You can be a decent citizen.
ON COMMUNITY AND THE SELF
Citizenship is something that Watney discusses (though he uses different words) towards the end of his interview. He decries the rise of the neo-liberal gay man while lamenting the loss of a former ‘brotherhood’. As an aside, it is very interesting to note that Tim Dean (who would otherwise disagree with a lot of what Watney has to say) makes an alarmingly similar argument in his 2009 book, Unlimited Intimacy.
I’m going to be a bit of difficult bugger here and claim that such brotherhood was never fully realised, that it often left out those who didn’t look, sound, dress or fuck the ‘right way’ and ultimately had as many boundaries of inclusion as can be seen in those online communities that both Dean and Watney seem so averse too. I also take issue with what is something of a naive claim that social media has caused this break up of dissolution of the gay ‘community’. The Internet is like the bible – you can always find an element of it to support your claim. For every site that offers unfettered access to self-serving neo-liberal economy of men’s bodies, you can find a site that fosters community, provides support to those who are otherwise isolated and can genuinely provide a resource – a lifeline – to people. My current work with THT’s NetReach project has proven this to me.
Having said that, there has been a neo-liberal shift within gay culture – and Watney is right to tie barebacking to this shift. Read from one perspective it is very easy to see barebacking as one such example of how some gay men now feel they have a God-given right to do whatever they want – regardless of the consequences to themselves or others.
But to only see barebacking from this perspective risks (somewhat ironically) relying on neoliberalism to solve this argument. One of the cocnerns that I have with the otherwise brilliant ‘It Starts with Me’ campaign used by Health Promotion England is it’s slogan. ‘It Starts With Me’ suggests a focus on the individual as an isolated, atomozied actor who should be equipped with the resources to ‘do the right thing’. If my research has taught me anything it is that men have unprotected sex for many many reasons – some of which are really very worrying (depression, lack of self-esteem, lack of a sense of future, lack of role models, drug and alcohol use). Saying ‘it starts with me’ runs the risk of suggesting that everyone starts from the same neutral, fully-capable and fully-resourced position. I wish that this were the case – but it isn’t.
The final point that I want to respond to here is that of PReP – which Watney criticises as being an inneffective and rather naive response to the ‘failure’ of the condom code and the rise of barebacking. Once more I think that the argument presented in the Huff Post would benefit from more complexity and further nuance. As I mentioned before, Watney uses a parallel with heterosexuality when he challenges the ‘sex without condoms is a right / is natural’ argument. But heterosexuals have gotten around this issue – that’s what the contraceptive pill is all about. The pill is something that you have to take every day. Not taking it every day can have serious consequences. Arguably those consequences are different to HIV infection – but they are still as momentous. Women seem to manage to take the pill. Why can’t gay men be ‘trusted’ to? And women don’t only use contraceptive pills. They use the pill to stop unwanted pregnancies and they use condoms, microbiocides, femidoms and other prophylactics to avoid being infected with an array of STI’s including HIV.
As for the effectiveness of PReP, well no, it isn’t as effective as using a condom (though it is over 90% effective if used correctly), which is why the PROUD study is looking into the social and cultural effects of being on PReP. We need to undertake more research in this field. We need to engage with it and at least support PReP until such a time as it is proven not to be an effective model for HIV prevention – if indeed that is the case.
I guess I will finish my thoughts with this final statement. Barebackers talk about the ‘tyranny of the condom code’ – and I think that they might have a point. But the point I am referring to isn’t the same one they are making. The tyranny of the condom code is that it often stops us from exploring other harm reduction strategies and – perhaps even more importantly – it can stop us from thinking in compassionate and productive ways about the costs as well as the benefits of safer sex – costs that gay and bisexual men have to deal with on their own – and often in silence, without any space to articulate their concerns.