A dear friend -- bright, loving, sexy and sophisticated -- informed me the other day that he had recently had unprotected anal sex with a stranger. A client told me the same thing later that day. In fact, several clients have told me the same thing over the past several months. These are not stupid men. They were not seeking out “bareback” sex. Rather, they found themselves in an erotic encounter with someone who turned them on and decided not to stop it.
A former safer sex educator in Atlanta once said that gay men care more about their next orgasm than about their own lives. He expressed deep frustration over his lack of success in “educating” men to make other choices. Is he right? Are there things we gay men don’t know about safer sex? Are we such pleasure-seekers that we lose sight of our own well-being in the process?
Organized religion, God knows, has been of no help whatsoever in helping gay men cultivate a workable sexual ethic. Worse than that: it has been a destructive force that has often sought to keep our sexuality criminalized and our relationships unsupported. Small wonder that conversation about sexuality and ethics or morality makes many gay men highly defensive.
A crisis is in bloom within our community. Call it the confluence of protease inhibitors, internalized homophobia and unclear thinking about responsibility. After years of safer sex education, infection rates may actually be going up in our community. We’ve not had much conversation about this. We fear seeming judgmental. It is hard to admit that we are sometimes confused. Yet it is increasingly costly to let our anger at traditional moralists keep us from reflecting on our lives.
My experience is that few of the men having unprotected sex are “barebackers” in the sense that they have gone out specifically to have no-condom sex with a partner. (Of course, others do seek no-condom sex.) More often the decision to use or not use a condom seems a small decision in the heat of the moment.
Take the messages from years of homophobic indoctrination that the lives of gay men are not worth much. Add in naive optimism about the complex realities of life with HIV. Toss in some denial and a generous heaping of horniness. Stir and serve. The result of this “cocktail” is risky sex and more HIV.
In the twenty-first century, most men know how to use a condom properly. (If you don’t, please don’t be embarrassed. Contact an AIDS service organization and find out.) The issue here is not education. The issue is: what do we truly believe about ourselves and about our brothers?
Masculine sexiness is often divorced from intimacy in our culture. Emotional sophistication and the capacity to nurture are not highly valued in men. Fashion ads and gay porn, two agents which define our community’s sense of what is hot, portray the combination of physical beauty and a certain aloofness as the model of the sexy man.
Think about how this plays out in conversations (non-conversations, really) about safer sex. To avoid shame about sexuality or about our uncertainties, some men turn to crystal, ecstasy and other drugs which turn up the volume of sensation while dampening the voices that cause us to second-guess the erotic encounter. Or we simply try to avoid making sexual decisions, hoping the other person will take the initiative. If he doesn’t, we’re too distracted by the conversations in our head to do so ourselves.
Thus is created much wishful thinking. One HIV-negative friend told me, “He was such a sweet guy. So caring. We didn’t talk about it, but I knew that he must be negative or he would never have fucked me without a condom.” Another friend, this one positive, told me about a similar encounter: “I knew the guy I was boinking had to be positive. I mean, it was a sex club! We didn’t even have to talk about it; he just wanted it.” In the absence of conversation, we imagine whatever supports that which we want to do anyway.
We are accustomed to hearing ethics and morality connected with sexuality only in terms of “Thou shalt nots.” We need a sexual ethic that guides us instead toward having good sex. Good sex is sex that you feel good about while you are having it, and good about afterwards. Gay men deserve good sex. Unfortunately, many of us don’t believe that. We have grown up in a culture that beats into us -- sometimes literally -- that we are worth less than non-gay men, that our sexuality is an abomination (and often a felony), that our lives are destined to be unhappy and that disease is our lot in life. Our relationships are trivialized and recognition of them outlawed. This takes its toll. Most of us don’t buy into this nonsense consciously, but it is difficult to avoid picking up foul odors when we are living in a sewer of homophobia.
Imagine a gay sexual ethic that starts with the premise, “It is morally good to love yourself.” It builds on this notion: loving yourself is good, affirming yourself as a gay man is good. It is good -- that is moral, ethical -- to act in ways that expand your love and care for yourself, other gay men and our gay community.
Sexuality is powerful, but it is neither good nor bad in and of itself. It can be a fabulous way of enjoying one’s body, perhaps connecting with another person, or it can manifest pain through abuse, rape or betrayal.
What if the level of our consciousness in our sexual connections rather than the context became the way we assessed whether they were right or wrong for us? Good sex can be part of a committed relationship or outside of it, but sex is sufficiently powerful that it is always relational. Perhaps you and I just met on the dance floor and we are now headed back to my place. Imagine a sexual ethic which acknowledges that because we are both men who love men, any sex we have is taking place in that context. I will not treat you thoughtlessly. I will do my best to treat you as a sacred being, and will do my best to allow no harm to come either to you or to myself.
This is very different from models of morality presented by either the American church (“Sex is immoral if it doesn’t take place in the context of marriage”) or the prevailing gay male model (“Sexual morality is a private matter and not that important.”) In this new ethic, I acknowledge that I am not only attracted to your physicality, but also to the way in which you are a reflection of myself. I like what I see when I look at you, and I would be devastated at the thought of bringing harm into your life or my own.
Loving men is good, and being gay is good. We need to make our community more gay by learning to treat one another with concern and to place the other’s welfare on a par with our own. It is possible to speak our pain and concern without condemning our brothers. We need to stop being silent in the face of behavior that objectifies other men or reinforces they idea that the lives of gay men are not worth all that much.