Without question bareback sex (sex without using a condom) between gay men is a taboo. Within and outwith the gay community, bareback sex is often seen as something that is wrong, dangerous and immoral, especially when it takes place between casual partners. It can alse be seen as exciting, in defiance of what we are told to do, rebellious, thrilling and just plain old horny. In many ways viewing bareback sex as a taboo and taking a judgemental approach to those that have sex without a condom hinders important conversations that need to be had for those working in HIV and STI prevention. Taking a clear either / or approach where sex without a condom is wrong and taboos risk ignoring the prevalence of unprotected sex and the reasons why some MSM choose to have bareback sex.
A recent study in the journal Aids and Behaviour (Berg, 2008 see here ) reported that approximately 40% of MSM have unprotected sex. Studies that report on the prevalence of sex without a condom can cause alarm. Despite the fact that unprotected sex is not ‘new’, such research is often misrepresented as evidence that bareback sex is a recent dangerous craze sweeping through the gay community and practised by all but a few men. Panic headlines, such as those about ‘bug chasers’, like the one in this week’s Mirror newspaper add to the sentiment that bareback sex is wrong, immoral, has enveloped the gay community and take the assumption that those that engage in unprotected sex are actively seeking to become infected with HIV. Such headline grabbing stories are widely discredited by those working in HIV prevention, such as THT (see their response to the Mirror story here), and massively exaggerate the number of men who could be categorised as actively trying to become HIV positive. Only an extremely small minority of men who have bareback sex could be called ‘bug chasers’ and the reasons that these men are having sex without a condom are almost always more complex than a straightforward desire to become HIV positive.
Bareback sex continues to be a taboo and this is linked to the assumption that having unprotected sex reflects a wish to become HIV positive. In many ways this prevents discussions on the best approach for safe sex initiatives and masks the varied reasons why someone might be having unprotected sex. These might include factors such as low self-worth, lack of knowledge, relationship status, understanding of risk, drug/alcohol use, inability to negotiate safer sex and so forth. Here at GMI we take a non-judgemental approach to HIV prevention which avoids the view that bareback sex is immoral and only practised by those wishing to become HIV positive. Rather, we offer free programmes that work with gay and bisexual men in a supportive environment to explore the factors, emotional and otherwise, that impact the decisions of gay and bisexual men to have unprotected sex. We believe that this approach is more constructive and much more likely to empower gay and bisexual men to practise safer sex, should they make the decision this is what they want. For more information on the programmes we offer please see here.
The views above are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the GMI Partnership. GMI provide free cousnelling, mentoring and sexual health one-to-ones for gay and bisexual men in London.