Posts Tagged ‘barebacking’
Thursday, October 9th, 2014
Tyler Helms won’t stop teasing his boyfriend during our video chat interview. He fiddles with Michael’s ear, or tickles his face, from his seat slightly behind him. No matter if Michael Lucas, adult film producer and PrEP user, is trying to make a point. The childish joy of a relatively new love is at play, and Tyler can’t help himself. It’s adorable and telling.
We’ve been meaning to conduct the interview for months, but they wanted time to enjoy their budding relationship before discussing it publicly. That bud is now in full bloom, it would appear. They are both open and approachable, allowing me to get away with a lot of very personal questions.
Yes, there is the prurient intrigue of Michael being a famous gay porn star, and how that impacts their relationship. But what truly interests me is the fact they are engaged in the most modern of gay romances. It isn’t simply because one of them is HIV positive and the other negative. It’s about what they are doing about it. Between them, they are practicing both of the most exciting developments in HIV prevention of the last generation. They’re an HIV prevention two-for-one.
“We’re taking our time,” Tyler says. But that’s not keeping them from spending nearly every night together and constantly keeping in touch.
Their love affair elicits some interesting reactions among their friends. Some of them patronize Michael, as if being in a relationship with a man living with HIV was an act of charity. “People say, ‘oh, good for you,’ as if it’s something special,” says Michael. He shakes his head. “I’m not performing an heroic act.”
“There’s a whole lot more that needs to happen in our community,” Tyler adds. He is a formidable advocate in his own right (he serves on the board of GMHC), but one whose visibility has risen further since his new relationship began. “We need to talk about the modern day face of HIV,” he insists.
Tyler was infected in 2007, and it came as some surprise. “I was tested every three months and was in a committed relationship,” he says. It is a common story, actually, because one of the leading risk factors of HIV infection is via a primary partner, such as a lover or fuck buddy.
Whatever the circumstances, Tyler is entirely at peace with it today. “I’m only on Atripla,” he says, “and it made me crazy for a few months. But now I’m better than ever and have been undetectable for two years.” Because Tyler is undetectable, research shows there is no real risk of transmitting HIV to his partner.
Treating people with HIV to reduce their virus to undetectable levels so they can’t infect others is known as “Treatment as Prevention,” or TasP, and it has become a major public health strategy since studies proved its effectiveness.
On a personal level, “HIV is really a moot issue between us,” Tyler says. The topic of HIV may be resolved between them, but that hasn’t kept them both from discussing their sexual choices and risk strategies in very public forums.
Michael has been using PrEP for some time now, and has bartered his notoriety to voice his strong beliefs about it. For that matter, Michael has strong beliefs about a lot of things, including his unwavering support for Israel. He even produced the mainstream documentary, “Undressing Israel: Gay Men in the Promised Land.”
“Oh yes,” Tyler interjects slyly when that topic, and the views for which Michael has been both heralded and vilified, come up. “Do ask about Israel!” He grins at the more serious Michael, and pokes him again. It’s hard to imagine anyone else who might get away with it, teasing Michael about his passions. But Michael takes it in affectionate stride and allows himself a grin of his own.
I turn to Michael’s profession and ask about it gingerly, as if it’s a careful secret or something. I really could use more experience speaking to porn stars.
“I’m used to being defined as a porn star,” Michael says easily. “I would not have the platform I have without that. My opinions would only be in the comments section. But I write under my own name, and I use my platform to discuss things I am passionate about. And I do my research.”
That research is evident in a number of articles Michael has authored about his use of PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis through the use of the medication Truvada on a daily basis. Research shows PrEP is effective in preventing transmission into the high 90% range, and there is an enormous push among community advocates for the adoption of PrEP for those at risk. It sits alongside TasP as the other most promising HIV prevention strategy — one for those living with HIV and the other for those who are not — and Michael appreciates the piece of mind it provides.
“People ask me all the time, ‘are you nervous?’ People of my generation saw the dying and I was always scared of becoming HIV positive,” Michael says. “It was in the back of my mind all the time. So people ask that question, but it’s only because they don’t know the new data and research about PrEP.”
His taking PrEP, though, actually has little to do with Michael’s HIV positive boyfriend. “If I was only having sex with Tyler, I would not be taking PrEP,” Michael says simply. “I know there is no way for a person who is undetectable to transmit to me. I believe in science.”
Science aside, I have to ask Tyler how he feels about Michael occasionally stepping in front of the cameras for porn scenes. His response is without alarm or even a hint of jealousy. “I’ve never dated someone who does porn,” he says, “but it’s just not something I think about.” It does come with plenty of assumptions from others, however.
“The most misunderstood thing about us,” Tyler says, “is that people assume our relationship is purely sex-based. Some people don’t understand it. They think Michael must have sex constantly, which is untrue.”
“Most people I know have more sex than I do,” Michael interjects. “With Grindr, people can have sex nonstop. I can’t reach some of my friends anymore because they’re on Grindr getting laid.”
“Michael is rarely on set,” adds Tyler. “His main job is the corporation.” That company, Lucas Entertainment (NSFW), has become a leading adult film production outfit, and recently made the controversial change to produce gay porn without condoms, a reflection of Michael’s belief in other prevention methods like PrEP and TasP.
“I recommend and talk to my actors about PrEP,” he says. “I know a lot of people on it.” While Michael has been quoted as saying that porn, bareback or not, is a fantasy intended only to help men get off, he certainly hasn’t shied away from promoting options that make unprotected sex considerably safer.
So, somewhere along the road of their individual advocacy work, about a year ago, the two men and their respective prevention techniques ran across one another on Tinder, which seems almost quaint, and very of-the-moment. It wasn’t a hookup.
“I liked his profile,” says Michael, and he searches his phone and finds the wording of it. “It says he is ‘a loyal and kind friend, passionate and selfless about a few things here and there.’ There was maturity in that. No matter how much I’m attracted to someone, you have to be mature. That’s Tyler.”
They eye each other knowingly. “I believe it takes a lot of time to know a person,” Michael says finally. “Don’t confuse sexual attraction with real love.”
Two men, engaged in their own intimacies while allowing their sexual choices to be laid bare for all to see. It can’t always be comfortable for them.
It’s usually a fool’s errand to make assumptions about the private lives of public people, and the happy couple I have been watching in our video chat is no exception. You would probably get it wrong anyway, if you were to attempt to translate their public image — the advocate living with HIV and the opinionated porn star provocateur — into their authentic identities.
“I believe in love,” Tyler says, and he stops tickling Michael’s ear for a moment. He takes a look at the object of his new romance and smiles. “But I think Michael believes in love even more than me.”
There are few better ways to empower people with HIV than with political might, in any form we might acquire it. Michigan HIV advocate Todd Heywood is living with HIV and making a run for the Lansing Community College Board of Trustees, and I couldn’t be more excited about his candidacy. My friend Todd fully understands its impact. “By running as an out HIV-positive candidate, I am directly challenging stigma, and showing folks that HIV does not stop us from contributing to the betterment of our community.” If you happen to be in his community, he’s your man on November 4th. In any case, check out his web site and consider a little poz political contribution!
Wednesday, August 6th, 2014
In 1977, I ran for senior class president, hoping against hope that my penchant for wearing platform shoes and fellating men in my spare time might somehow get overlooked by my high school classmates in Bossier City, Louisiana. I lost that faith when my campaign signs throughout the school hallways were vandalized. As the student body arrived that morning we were greeted with the word “FAG” scrawled across the posters in red spray paint.
Trying to comfort me, our student counselor Mrs. Berry gave me some advice. “When you put yourself out there in a position of leadership, you open yourself up to… criticism.” She stumbled over her word choice, unsatisfied with it, but I knew what she meant.
Still, a dozen posters with “FAG” painted on them seemed a little harsh.
That lesson isn’t lost in the treacherous and very adult arena of gay sexual politics and PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis, or preventing HIV infection using the drug Truvada). Speaking up in favor of the prevention strategy often leads to being labeled as anti-condom or simply a barebacking slut. So much for the complexities of modern HIV prevention.
And then there’s the dark excesses of the internet age, in which people are symbols, hardly human at all, and serve only as place holders for a polarizing issue to be judged and dissected. It’s the contemporary version of red spray paint, obliterating the individual in favor of a single, cruel label.
One might expect Damon L. Jacobs, then, who has proferred himself to the world as a gay man using PrEP, to be a little bruised and resentful after two years of constant media exposure — and vulnerable to the name calling and labels thrust upon him. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Damon, who has spoken openly and sometimes explicitly about his sex life before and after PrEP to everyone from Huffington Post to The New York Times, takes the criticism and his accelerated celebrity all in stride. “It’s not personal,” he told me, referring to those who criticize the use of Truvada and his engagement in particular. “They don’t have any idea who I really am. Some anonymous people behind a keyboard do not matter.”
Instead, Damon believes we are in the midst of a community-wide teaching moment, so long as we do it carefully.
“We can’t underestimate the role of fear,” he said, suggesting his expertise as a New York therapist with a private practice. “For years, we have had to live a certain way by using condoms or die. Then suddenly things change. That’s where the attacks come from. Their belief system is threatened. I think attitudes are genuinely changing — the last year or so a lot of people have changed their views — but they have to go through a transition for that to happen. And they must be respected during that process.”
Although public scrutiny this intense is new for Damon, advocacy on behalf of gay men’s health is not. For years, Damon worked on behalf of an HIV vaccine trial, becoming a regular presence in the New York gay club scene to spread the word about enrollment. He continued the work even after opening his own therapy practice.
By the time the vaccine trial was discontinued in early 2013, Damon had been privately taking PrEP for nearly two years. After having heard about early, encouraging results of PrEP research — and facing the fact that he wasn’t using condoms as often as he once had — Damon talked to his physician and started taking Truvada independently long before it garnered FDA approval.
It was a prescient move on his part, but not a choice he had been discussing openly with the many gay men with whom he had been in contact through his vaccine work. A drag queen changed all that.
Damon had worked with her during his bar outreach about the vaccine trial, and when they crossed paths again he mentioned he was taking PrEP. “What’s that?” she asked. When he explained it, her face “just dropped,” he said.
“Why didn’t you ever tell me about this?” she asked him. “I just tested HIV positive.”
“No one was getting the message out,” Damon told me. “Not public health, not HIV organizations, not on social media. Nobody.” When Damon began a Facebook group about PrEP in July of 2013, the response was nearly immediate. “Things snowballed,” he said.
What followed has been a firestorm of newspaper, television and online coverage of PrEP, often using Damon as a personal illustration. By participating, Damon has had to discuss the most personal aspects of his sexual life, including his growing reluctance to use condoms consistently, being a receptive sexual partner for whom exchanging semen has meaning and, perhaps most heretical after a generation of fear and mortality, the importance of pleasure and satisfaction in our sex lives as gay men.
“Pleasure and death have been one in the same,” he said. “For so long, pleasure could only result in something tragic, rather than seen as something important and powerful. To challenge that belief system, we need to have patience and compassion and empathy.”
Transparency about our sex lives — as they actually are, in the real world — has always been key in understanding behaviors and crafting HIV prevention messages. Moral debates only benefit the virus. But Damon’s honesty has enraged many gay men for “promoting” choices that are viewed as irresponsible and even dangerous. He responds to those attacks with his usual calm and a unyielding personal philosophy.
“I’m a student of A Course in Miracles,” he says, referring to the self-help curriculum popularized by Marianne Williamson in the 1980’s. Williamson was also very active in the earliest response to AIDS in Los Angeles. “I’m here doing God’s work,” Damon says simply. “And that work is to promote love in this world. I don’t usually talk about this, but I want to help people reduce fear. Depression, drugs, suicide, and even attacks on me, they’re all manifestations of fear.”
Honestly, I had expected to find an advocate more battered than this one. I was interested in the toll such constant scrutiny might take on a man. But Damon surrenders only the merest suggestion of the challenges of such explicit and public honesty.
“Most of the feedback about my work around PrEP has been great,” he said. “But a lot of hate and aggression has been unprecedented. It’s not the level I am used to. But I can sleep. A lot of people who stand up for love are going to be attacked.”
My high school campaign posters, a painful memory some forty years behind me, came again to mind. And in the calm of Damon’s convictions, those signs, dripping in spray paint, began to lose a great deal of their damaging power.
Tuesday, July 29th, 2014
The AIDS2014 International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia, proved to be as colorful and exhausting as I had anticipated. There was no lack of images in the gorgeous city to share in my daily video blogs, and that included the faces of countless advocates from around the world.
My deep thanks to my friends at TheBody.com, who sent me to the conference and for whom I created exclusive content of the event. My Fabulous Disease was born on their site and it is a real gift to continue a collaboration that spans nearly twenty years.
My gratitude, too, to my new Aussie mates at Living Positive Victoria, an impressively active and engaged organization of people living with HIV/AIDS. They welcomed me warmly and were indispensable in providing guidance and access to a multitude of events.
Follow the links below to view each video at its home on TheBodyPro. Here’s a breakdown of each video episode and a little background on each.
Video #1: At MSM Global Forum, the Shock of Tragedy and the Road Forward
No one could have foreseen that the conference would begin in tragedy, as news of the crash of Malaysia flight MH17 circulated among delegates just as we arrived in Melbourne. Initial reports that more than 100 delegates had perished proved to be untrue, but the sting of loss was deeply felt nonetheless. At the pre-conference event sponsored by The Global Forum on MSM and HIV (MSMGF), emotions were high as prepared remarks were tossed in order to deal with the unthinkable events.
My own preparations for the day were jostled as well, because I knew my usual lighthearted reporting had no place among the broken hearts in the hall. I focused instead on the impact of the tragedy and how MSMGF had dealt with the events in the previous hours. And then, as we have come to know so well in the last 30 years, we soldiered on in memory of those no longer with us. A difficult day, even with the inspiring work that was presented.
Video #2: Criminal and Mannequins, Both Fighting HIV Stigma
The next pre-conference event, Beyond Blame, focused on the international issue of HIV criminalization. I have covered this topic before as it relates to the United States but it was awesome to see the international community at least as engaged as we are. Expert Edwin Bernard weighed in on breaking news from the US, while the inspiring Laurel Sprague puts the issue in context of women and power struggles.
Strolling the streets of Melbourne revealed a city very engaged in the conference, with bus signs and art installations everywhere. Wait until you meet Madam Kim of Positively Fabulous, who has funneled her “obsessive behaviors” into a hot pink avalanche of awareness and art that shines a light on women and HIV. You’ll also see reminders that the plane tragedy was still very much on the minds of the conference and the still-mourning city.
Always one of my favorite events of the international conference, this video drops you smack in the middle of the march and allows the passionate advocates to tell you exactly why they are there. It’s the first time in my video coverage you get to meet so many of the international delegates face-to-face, and they do not disappoint. You’ll be cheering for them!
The Candlelight Vigil following the march took place in one of the most gorgeous pavilions I have ever seen, in downtown Melbourne. Because of my own issues with grief and loss – I’m one of those people that is afraid that if I start crying I may never stop – I reached out to delegate and psychotherapist David Fawcett about the nature of grief and why it is important to express these feelings as a community. His insight provided the perfect context to my footage of hundreds of people who had come to mourn the loss of so many over the years – and those who perished in the plane tragedy only days earlier.
Video #4: One World, One Place, Thousands of Voices: The Awesome Advocates of AIDS2014
With countless global advocates convening in Melbourne, there is no shortage of impassioned voices. I realized soon enough that they needed little prompting from me, so I simply turned the camera on them and let them go for it. The result is a montage of voices, ringing out against all the ism’s of our modern world when it comes to HIV.
My new friend from Nigeria, who risks a decade in jail simply for providing services to gay men, sounded a truth that still rings in my ears. “We cannot let them die simply because of who they love,” he told me simply. Watching him celebrate at a dance party a few days later, in the safe company of his fellow delegates, told me everything about the resilience of our basic humanity, and how stubborn a thing like joy can be.
Video #5: Activist Theater, Condom Tryouts, and a Mystery Man Revealed
There’s no way I can produce these video blogs alone. It’s true that I operate on little sleep because after a full day of events I repair to my room to begin editing, a process that takes most of the night. But getting that footage in the first place means depending upon a camera man and assistant that shadows me day and night, maintains the schedule, and generally keeps me sane and laughs at my jokes.
Through Living Positive Victoria I found my professional dream date: Theodore, an Aussie from Sydney that had the perfect blend of patience, organization and good humor. He also happens to stop traffic with a towering physical presence and a smile that melts everyone, gay and straight, in his path. “Your camera man is so hot” became a running joke of the week.
Fortunately, I got to know the very heart of the man, and I’m much better for it. In this video, which takes you behind the scenes of theater being performed about HIV in Melbourne among other gems, I turned the tables on Theo and surprised him by getting him on camera for a change. You’re welcome.
Thank you, my friends, for the privilege of bringing the sights and sounds of AIDS2014 to you. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity, and hope the coverage provides just a glimpse of the spirit of the conference.
As always, thanks for watching, and please be well.
Tags: aids, barebacking, conferences, criminalization, culture, gay, help others, hiv, Recreation, research, Sexuality
Posted in Family and Friends, Gay Life, Living with HIV/AIDS, Meth and Recovery, My Fabulous Disease, News, Prevention and Policy | 2 Comments »
Monday, June 16th, 2014
Charles Sanchez skips a lot. It is a natural, vivacious skip, an outpouring of unabashed joy that melds the cheerfulness of The Sound of Music with the bliss of the Pharrell Williams “Happy” video. Nothing stands in the way of his delight. Not even life with HIV.
It is that joyful vibrancy that makes Merce, the web series in development by Charles and his production partner Tyne Firmin, feel so refreshing. Considering that characters living with HIV on television are few and far between — or presented as tragic — the project feels, well, almost subversive. And that’s exactly why Charles is pursuing his dream of bringing Merce to life.
“There’s something brave in Merce as a character,” said Charles in an interview. “I think Merce is me, if I had not been so worried about what people thought of me. He’s honest and hopeful, and I think that’s something people don’t always expect in someone who is HIV positive.”
Indeed. In a YouTube video, Charles asked people on the streets of New York what their favorite HIV character on television was. The answers, when anything at all came to mind, was decades-old portrayals from cancelled series, or actual people, like Magic Johnson or Mondo Guerra from Project Runway. “The only ongoing television character living with HIV is a Muppet,” said Charles. The production team hopes to add another character to the HIV canon that isn’t dying or a criminal.
“Usually, you can practically hear the foreboding dum dum DUUUM in the soundtrack when someone discloses,” said Charles (left). “Or on Law & Order, they’ll find the bottle of AZT in the dead man’s medicine cabinet and say, ‘well, that explains that.’ I think it’s time for us to have a conversation about normal life and HIV.”
Merce grew from another series created by Charles and Tyne, Manhattan Man-Travels, that revolved around the lives of gay men in New York. Filmed guerilla style using a Flip cam, the series has the low-budget appeal of early John Waters. “Our only budget was for apple fritters,” said Charles. “We love apple fritters.”
For Merce, the producers are using an IndieGoGo campaign to raise $15,000 for costumes, better camera equipment, and higher production values overall (tax deductible donations for as little as ten dollars can be made to the campaign until July 4th, which is administered through the non-profit arts organization Fractured Atlas).
As with most comedy, Merce grew from something more serious. In a video explanation of his own life with HIV, Charles recalls one of his first jobs in New York as an actor in 1987 — playing the part of AIDS Related Complex (ARC) in Attack of the Killer Virus, a musical geared to educating youth about the new disease. Before long, it was Charles himself who would be discovered by his roommate, sick and unconscious, in their apartment. His AIDS diagnosis brought a new urgency to his art and how best to use it to educate and inform.
Having survived that, and the love Charles has for musical theater, might help explain the skipping. “I’m a pretty happy and optimistic person, and I wanted Merce to have that in abundance,” Charles said. “I’m creating a show with a main character who doesn’t let his HIV define him or keep him from all the joys of life. Merce makes a lot of mistakes, but he celebrates life. Why not grin and laugh at life? Life is hilarious.”
While television may still be grappling with how to portray HIV in contemporary life, literary fiction remains a few steps ahead. In his challenging, sometimes frustrating new novel, Sally Field Can Play the Transsexual, author Leslie L. Smith asks us to examine the nature of modern gay sexual behaviors. Do we engage in unprotected sex out of defiance, grief, pleasure, or pathology?
There is much to consider in Smith’s story of David Matthews, an entitled gay escort engaged primarily in his own self-interest. When a benefactor wills David riches and asks him to pay it forward, the immature hooker begins a quest to reconcile his small-town upbringing with the numbed pleasure-seeking of his vocation.
Anyone who escaped home to pursue gay life elsewhere will relate to that journey, but the central device of the novel — the ghost of the rich man appears to David and sticks around to provide vague counsel or witty bon mots — reads like a uneasy grafting of gay sexual politics and the movie Ghost. The infusion of farce into an otherwise thoughtful reflection on what it means to be a responsible gay man today is jarring.
That’s a shame, because there are scenes in this book that go straight to the heart of our common experience navigating sex in the age of HIV. During a visit to his Arkansas home town set a few years ago, David hooks up with a local hottie and they fall into bed together. The reaction of his conquest when David attempts to forgo a condom is heartbreaking. “I’ve heard of people doing this,” the hottie says plaintively as he ends their encounter, “but I didn’t think it was true.” Even today, in a time of PrEP and undetectable viral loads, the simplicity of the statement will have gay men everywhere reflecting on their choices.
Bringing important discussions to life is why Leslie L. Smith should keep writing. His ear for the here and now is acute and authentic. He just doesn’t need spectral accoutrements.
Navigating relationships is also on the mind of Damon L. Jacobs, a New York based gay therapist who provides clear, helpful advice to couples in his book, Rational Relating. Although the guide is meant for couples of every stripe, Damon thoughtfully includes plenty of tips for gay men in particular.
His advice is deceptively simple and easy to apply to our lives. His “five pillars” of integrity, communication, compassion, responsibility, and compromise are all examined through his work with various couples and the challenges they face in building a life together. The book is meant as a resource that couples might draw upon, and the result is a helpful tool that can benefit anyone.
Damon is widely known for his advocacy around Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), but that’s not his purpose in Rational Relating. It is nice to see, though, that what makes him a strong advocate is grounded in his professional experience helping people find integrity and meaning in their personal relationships.
Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014
“Talk to me like you talk to your friends when no one is around.”
That was my only request when I sat down with each of four HIV negative gay men to create a short film about their lives and attitudes (video below).
They held back nothing, sharing details of their sex lives, their fears of becoming infected, and, perhaps most surprising, what they really think of HIV positive guys. I couldn’t believe their candor, and have worked to distill two days of explicit conversations into ten minutes of brutal honesty (the language is sometimes NSFW).
They don’t speak for every gay man, only for themselves, and the differences of opinion between them is really striking. It really is a snapshot of what it means to be a negative and sexually active gay man these days. No matter which of these men you might relate to the most, there’s no doubt they are all just trying to carve out a satisfying sexual existence during a pretty confusing time.
I couldn’t help thinking of The Golden Girls when I was editing, because all the archetypes are here: the reserved one, the sensible one, the endearing one, the man-eater. Just saying this makes me guilty of the very thing the video is meant to address: how easily we label ourselves and others, and how we try to assign the same perspective to entire groups of people.
I deliberately produced this without any particular context. No one is presented as right or wrong. It is meant to provide a forum for these men to speak their truth without interruption — and perhaps help us see them as men stumbling through life as we all are, trying to make the best decisions they can with the information they have. I refuse to judge them for that.
If there is anything to be learned from this video, it is that there is no monolithic “HIV negative perspective.” Gay men are far too diverse for that. That’s a lesson our community seems to have to learn over and over again.
Tuesday, March 11th, 2014
There is a classic episode of Oprah from 1987 that can still raise my blood pressure. That year, the tiny town of Williamson, West Virginia, became part of a national discussion about AIDS when Mike Sisco, who had returned to his home town to die of the disease, dared to step into a public pool.
The community freakout was immediate. Sisco was quickly labeled a psychopath (rumors emerged accusing him of spitting into food at the grocery store), and the town pool was closed the next day to begin a Silkwood-style pressurized cleaning.
Soon thereafter, Oprah Winfrey arrived with cameras for a town hall forum about the incident. Fear was the order of the day. “If there’s just one chance in a million that somebody could catch that virus from a swimming pool,” the town’s mayor told Winfrey’s worldwide audience, “I think I did the right thing.”
Sure. Why not react in the most extreme way possible, if there is a chance in a million?
Williamson citizens were not swayed by health officials who calmly explained the established routes of HIV transmission and the impossibility of infection from a pool. “The doctors can say you can’t get it this way,” a woman countered, “but what if they come back someday and say, ‘We were wrong?'”
Indeed. What if? If there’s a chance in a million…?
That broadcast might have remained a sad footnote in HIV/AIDS history, an instructive example of people ignoring scientific fact to protect a satisfying fear, if history didn’t enjoy repeating itself so much. Today, though, the willful ignorance isn’t coming from uneducated residents of a southern town you can barely find on a map.
It’s coming from gay men. And they are just as threatened, frightened, and dismissive of science as the townsfolk of Williamson were thirty years ago.
Recently, research known as The PARTNER Study was presented at the prestigious Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI). PARTNER proved something HIV advocates have long suspected: people with HIV with an undetectable viral load are not transmitting the virus to their partners. The study included nearly 800 couples, all involved in an HIV positive/negative relationship, gay and straight, with the positive partner maintaining an undetectable viral load. Over the course of two years, more than 30,000 sex acts were reported and documented (couples were chosen based on their tendency to have sex without condoms).
Not a single HIV transmission occurred during the study from someone with an undetectable viral load. If PARTNER had been researching a new medication, they would have stopped the trial and dispensed the drug immediately.
The PARTNER results bolster the prevention strategy known as “Treatment as Prevention” (TasP), meaning, a positive person on successful treatment prevents new infections. To date, there is not a single confirmed report of someone with an undetectable viral load infecting someone else, in studies or in real life.
Just don’t tell that to a sizable contingent of skeptical gay men, many of whom took to their keyboards to dismiss the PARTNER findings. Phrases like “false sense of security,” “positive guys lie,” “junk science,” and “if there’s even a small risk” appeared on Facebook postings and in web site comment sections. The people of Williamson must be slowly nodding their heads.
Resistance to the PARTNER study corresponds with stubborn doubts about PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis, or HIV negative people taking the drug Truvada to prevent infection). Although virtually every nervous argument against PrEP has been overruled by the facts, naysayers continue to either reject the evidence outright or make moral judgments about the sex lives of HIV negative gay men on PrEP.
Yes, there are unknowns. There always are when scientific studies meet the real world. And every strategy will not work for every person. But the vehement rejection of such profound breakthroughs suggests there is something more, something deeper, going on in the minds of gay men. What is it?
Our collective memories of AIDS horror are hard to shake, and that’s a good place to start. On a gut level, any study suggesting that HIV could be neutralized is met with a weary doubt. Good news is no match for the enduring grief that has shadowed us for 30 years.
The PARTNER study also threatens the view that positive men are nothing more than risks that must be managed. The study kills the HIV positive boogeyman. It means positive gay men who know their status might actually care enough about their health to seek out care, get on treatment, and become undetectable. And, once the positive partner is no longer a particular danger, both partners would bear responsibility for their actions. What an enormous psychic change that would require in our community.
It’s tough to do that when fear creeps in and “what if?” fantasy scenarios take hold. What if my partner missed a dose yesterday and, even though HIV meds stay in the bloodstream for extended periods, his viral load has inexplicably shot up? What if he isn’t being truthful about his viral load? What if he doesn’t know?
The greater threat, folks, isn’t positive guys who think they are undetectable but are not. It’s men who think they are HIV negative but are not. But we’d rather stay focused on the positive person being at fault, because, well, people with HIV lie a lot. We miss doses constantly because we have a death wish or we’re too busy finding our next victim.
I have some “what if?” questions of my own. What if these unrealistic fears were meant to stigmatize and isolate HIV positive people? What if I am undetectable and feel no responsibility to discuss my status with a sex partner because I don’t care to engage in a science lesson? What if everyone availed themselves to prevention options that worked best for them? What if my HIV status were none of your damn business?
These risks could be alleviated, of course, if everyone simply protected their own bodies when having sex with people they don’t know or trust. But that would place an equal burden on negative men, and what a bother that is. Better to leave that discomfort to those with HIV, vectors of disease that we are. Just consider us criminals, lying to you about our viral loads and spitting in the food in Williamson, just waiting to infect you when we get the chance.
As long as we’re giving undue attention to fantasy scenarios we’re not focused on the real threats. The rates of STD’s are up. Young gay black men in the United States don’t have proper access to healthcare and have infection rates worse than any developed country. Our community is plagued by alcoholism, addiction, and mental illness. Do we want to debate established science or should we devote that energy to other challenges to gay men’s health?
If you still have the arrogance to believe you could win the HIV Powerball Lottery and be the one person who gets infected in ways science has disproven, you’re perfectly entitled to that point of view.
Here are some helpful instructions, however. Carefully step away from your computer and don’t touch the cords because 50 people die of product related electrocutions each year. Walk slowly to your bedroom, being mindful of debris in your path because slip-and-falls kill 55 people every single day. Once there, refuse food or water because, well, you never know. Now slip into your bed of willful ignorance and try to make yourself comfortable.
The good people of Williamson are keeping a spot warm just for you.
p.s. In the time it took you to read this article, the number of people who were infected by someone with HIV who had no viral load was zero.
Monday, January 27th, 2014
“We don’t know the side effects of this drug. It’s too expensive. Insurance won’t cover it. It hasn’t been studied enough. It will encourage slutty behavior. And why the hell don’t people just use condoms?”
– Objections raised to the oral contraceptive progesterone (“The Pill”), approved by the FDA 54 years ago.
When the drug Truvada achieved FDA approval in July of 2012 as a medication to prevent HIV infection among people who are negative (a strategy known as pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP), it’s as if the ghosts of naysayers from the 1960’s rose from their resting places, delighted and re-energized, and began drilling their mid-century objections into the hearts and minds of contemporary society.
Maybe proponents of PrEP like myself believed the response to the drug would be more enthusiastic. Surely anyone who lived through the horror of early AIDS would thank God that a new prevention strategy exists that doesn’t rely upon condoms alone. The fury of the response has been a little startling to me.
Fortunately, Facebook groups and online sites that explain the facts about PrEP are springing up everywhere to address misinformation and to clarify legitimate areas of concern. Here are the most persistent objections to PrEP, and the facts as we know them.
People wouldn’t need PrEP if they would use condoms. They just want to bareback. Studies show that people on PrEP do not have an increase in high risk sexual behavior, but cynics have visions of wanton orgies ahead worthy of vintage gay porn. Alas, what others do in their sex lives is out of our control, whether that drives people up the wall or not.
The facts are these: more than half of gay men do not use condoms or do not use them consistently. This fact has remained true throughout the 30 years condom use has been measured among gay men, including during the darkest years of the AIDS crisis. We can address 50,000 new infections a year or we can have a useless moral debate.
The lack of condom use is what makes PrEP so exciting as a prevention method. The very first large study of Prep was the iPrEX Study, an international study of 2,500 people that was comprised mostly of gay men and some transgender women. The study showed that people who use Truvada as PrEP correctly (taking a pill every day) can have their risk reduced by 90% or more, depending on adherence. Some models show an efficacy rate of up to 99% based on near-perfect adherence.
PrEP is also not dependent on last minute decisions in the heat of passion. Taking a pill in the morning is calmly detached from having sex that night.
PrEP is not necessarily an either/or proposition, because lots of people taking PrEP are also using condoms. But let’s be real. Most people seeking out PrEP already don’t use condoms or they don’t want to use them anymore. Since they are trading one prevention device for something that has a better success rate and is easier to use, what’s it to you?
We don’t know the side effects of Truvada. We have years of data of Truvada side effects on people with HIV (it’s been FDA approved to treat HIV since 2004). Truvada was selected for clinical trials as a PrEP drug because of its favorable safety profile.
It is true that there are some reports of bone density and kidney problems among people with HIV using Truvada as part of their treatment regimen. These side effects have sometimes been serious. We can’t assume the experience of HIV negative people will be the same, and that’s why Truvada patients, positive and negative, should be routinely tested for bone density and kidney function.
More and more HIV negative writers and bloggers (and even a gay porn star) are sharing their experiences on PrEP but, thus far, side effects haven’t been part of their story. Watching them share their progress publicly over time should be quite interesting.
Understanding side effects is part of the assumed risk we take with medications, as any television commercial for a pharmaceutical drug will attest. If you don’t want to cough up blood, for instance, or have bloody stools or nausea or a ringing in your ears, don’t take aspirin. Those side effects are uncommon, and so are the side effects for Truvada.
People taking PrEP also have the option of discontinuing Truvada depending on life events and necessity. Maybe you stop dating the HIV positive guy, or take a break from casual sex, or return to condoms for a while. Starting and stopping the drug in this way does not lead to resistance as long as a medical professional verifies you are HIV negative before restarting.
If you are wary of Truvada side effects, don’t use it. And allow others to make that same determination for themselves.
PrEP is too expensive and insurance won’t cover it. This argument is losing steam rapidly. The Affordable Care Act in the United States is underway and by all accounts every insurance company as well as Medicaid is covering Truvada — although it may require pre-authorization from a doctor for use as PrEP (the CDC has produced a handy document available online to help explain PrEP to your physician).
For those without insurance or money for a co-pay, Gilead (the maker of Truvada) has a patient assistance program that can provide the drug outright or supply co-pay cards worth up to $200 per month. Even if none of this were true, the potential benefits of a drug should not be assessed solely by its price tag.
The people who need it most can’t access it anyway so what’s the point? It’s a good thing we don’t have this attitude towards condoms. Access isn’t the same as efficacy.
But it is certainly true that young gay black men, whom the epidemic is affecting in shocking numbers, have less access to healthcare. This is a systemic problem and it is unfair, frankly, to expect PrEP to solve it. It is also true that PrEP can be an occasion for HIV negative people to seek care, and once on PrEP they are typically required to have medical follow-ups throughout the year, which offers obvious benefits.
The biggest hurdle is often physicians themselves. HIV negative people may have a doctor unfamiliar with HIV care, much less PrEP, and those doctors are often intimidated by what they see as the complexities of HIV treatment. Until more professional education is done, potential PrEP users must learn to advocate for themselves and share CDC recommendations with their doctor.
People won’t adhere to PrEP and that will create resistant strains. It is true that in some early PrEP trials adherence was a problem. Real life behaviors, though, differ from clinical trials in some important ways.
Trial participants have no idea if they are taking the actual drug or not, and in trials the efficacy of the drug hasn’t even been proven. So, the commitment of trial participants to stay adherent to the drug is less rigorous than users today, who know that the drug works, know they’re getting the real thing, and are invested in remaining HIV negative. People taking PrEP today have more skin in the game, as it were.
For those who do miss the occasional dose, Truvada is somewhat forgiving. The protective ability of the drug doesn’t drop if you miss a single dose because Truvada remains in the blood for up to 72 hours (compare that to missing a condom occasionally, which CDC statistics show to be as risky as never using them at all). That being said, it is optimal and recommended that Truvada be taken consistently each day, and users should take seven daily doses for Truvada to achieve optimal protection.
Taking Truvada alone when a PrEP user doesn’t know they are already positive can lead to resistance and significantly reduce treatment options. Resistance has not been found with individuals who were verified HIV negative at the time they started Truvada, but it has happened in people who became HIV positive due to low adherence.
PrEP is just putting money into the pockets of pharmaceuticals when we have cheaper solutions. I can’t imagine anyone telling HIV positive people not to take their medications because their drugs are making profits for Big Pharma. The argument that HIV negative people aren’t worth a fraction of that investment astounds me. I suppose we should wait until negative people get infected before it’s okay for them make a profit for the drug companies.
And those are the facts as we know them about PrEP. I have no delusions that the debate will calm any time soon, of course. Human nature is far too predictable for that.
Just recently, politician Mike Huckabee addressed a gathering of fellow Republicans. Part of his remarks, delivered half a century after The Pill was approved for contraception, was his belief that “smart” women don’t need the government “providing them a prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido.”
Right. Because birth control, as critics have been saying since 1960, would be unnecessary if women only showed some restraint and didn’t behave like barebacking sluts.
Everything old is new again.
My thanks to HIV advocate Jim Pickett of AIDS Foundation Chicago for his expertise on this issue. Jim is active in the development of rectal microbicides (lubes and douches that kill HIV on contact). Damon L. Jacobs, who writes about his personal experience taking PrEP, also served as a resource.
Monday, December 30th, 2013
The year 2013 was a game changer for My Fabulous Disease, and I want to thank you for your clicks, comments, and shares. I have more confidence as an advocate and a writer, thanks to you, and traffic for this blog more than doubled over last year!
I’m bad at predicting which posts might resonate with readers. My philosophy has always been, “if you build it they will come,” and the rest is up to you. Apparently you have very eclectic tastes, my friends.
In ascending order, the Top Ten Postings of 2013 are…
10. The Inspiring Advocates of the 2013 United States Conference on AIDS. This is a rollicking video recap of the annual event, produced by the National Minority AIDS Council, that brings together the very best our HIV/AIDS service community has to offer. Public health and pharma are there, of course, but I’m always thrilled to meet those who are doing the work on the ground, for local community-based organization working with scant budgets but tons of heart. This video includes a discussion about the generational divide among people with HIV, interviews with multiple movers and shakers, marching bands, and Mardi Gras pageantry.
9. An AIDS Death in the Family. Drawing from my book, A Place Like This, I have revisited the night my brothers’ longtime partner died from AIDS, and the surreal haze that surrounded the occasion. It is about loss, yes, but also about how we cling to social habits during the darkest of times to attempt to normalize things that feel anything but normal. A dying man offering a “parting gift” to me, conversing as if he won’t be gone in a few days, and the dreadful phone calls that a grieving lover must undertake. Yes, it’s rough. But it’s life… and death.
8. Two Minutes of Advice on Testing HIV Positive. This is a clever social media campaign: Healthline, an online health community, has asked people who have been living with HIV to create videos for those who have recently tested positive, known as “You’ve Got This.” Think of it as “It Gets Better” for those with HIV. Of course, I had to create a video in my own peculiar way — something that demonstrates the sense of humor that has served me well over the course of 30 years living with HIV. There are now quite a few videos in this campaign with a variety of messages, and I encourage you to visit the Healthline site; you might find the message you or someone you know really needs to hear.
7. Probing My Anal Phobia. I cannot believe I told you these things, which might be one reason this essay is a personal favorite of mine. Maybe this is about facing your fears, because I hate talking about… anal things. So what did I write about? Anal sex, cleanliness, colonoscopies, and the most outrageous douching disaster I have ever experienced. Yes, that’s right, I went there. And the results will either have you laughing or finding out how to unsubscribe. Sometimes, I just need to write things that are on my mind and try to block out the fact that my Mom follows my blog. Enjoy!
6. The Increasingly Strange Case of Uncle Poodle. Long before the Duck Dynasty controversy blew up, another popular reality show had an off-camera moment that caused quite a stir. Uncle Poodle, the gay uncle from the reality show Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, came out in a printed interview as HIV positive, and further claimed that he had been infected by someone who did not disclose his status — and who went to jail as a result. The details, however, are murky, and say as much about shame and HIV stigma as they do about criminalization laws.
5. HIV and Gay Media: The Vanishing Virus. I suppose I have a lot of nerve. After having the honor of being included in an invitation-only summit of LGBT media representatives, I spend much of my time at the event hounding them, on video, about why they don’t write about HIV more than they do. Fortunately, the participants were honest, thoughtful, and quite candid in their responses. The event was co-sponsored by the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association and the video was featured on the main page of their site, so I suppose all is forgiven!
4. Surviving Two Epidemics: AIDS and Meth. My history of crystal meth addiction and recovery isn’t something I am ashamed of, but I don’t write about it as much as I once did. The whole recovery process feels almost too precious to share. But when I was asked to share my story for an ongoing feature in Positive Frontiers about gay men in recovery, it just felt right. This essay is my truth, and maybe it will speak to someone at a time when they are ready to make a change. For information on crystal meth recovery, visit http://crystalmeth.org/.
3. The Beautiful Sadness of Dallas Buyers Club. If anyone has a chance of stealing away an Oscar from Chiwetel Ejiofor of 12 Years a Slave this year, it is Matthew McConaughey, who is transcendent in this illuminating look at one straight man’s response to the lack of FDA approved HIV medications. Some have criticized the film for not showing the impact of gay activists, but that’s part of the point of the film: this is the story of this terribly damaged straight man, and how his prejudices were (somewhat) overcome through his own advocacy, as self serving as it may have been. You can count on one thing: Jared Leto, who played a transgendered friend, will be taking home an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
2 (tie). Stop Bludgeoning Young Gay Men with Our AIDS Tragedy. I thought I could say these things that other folks — HIV negative or young gay men themselves — would be crucified for saying. I was wrong. I got crucified, too. Fortunately for my sensitive ego (yes, angry comments still hurt my feelings), many others understood that our history is important and vital to preserve, but it’s not a prevention strategy for the landscape of today. This was more primal scream than writing for me. Perhaps I should learn to count to ten?
2 (tie). The Private War That Killed Spencer Cox. It’s kind of amazing to realize that Spencer, an early activist with ACT UP New York that went on to found Treatment Action Group, died only last December. So much has been written and done in his honor, including ongoing public forums on either coast that address PTSD among people with HIV/AIDS, and how we as a community can best address their (our) needs. This essay, posted soon after Spencer died, explores some of those issues, including trauma, loss, and addiction, all of which Spencer himself wrote about before his untimely death at the age of 44.
1. Your Mother Liked It Bareback. I had the title before I wrote the piece, and that’s probably a terrible thing to admit, because the title alone incensed people (The Huffington Post, which carries my content regularly, refused to post it at all). Another primal scream put on paper, an outgrowth of complete frustration over our refusal to admit that there are other “protections” against HIV that do not include condoms. Despite applauding those who do use condoms more than once in the piece, I was accused of “promoting” barebacking and received my favorite name-calling moment of the year, as a “vile merchant of death.” Even when faced with the facts about undetectable viral loads, or PrEP, some who read this article fell back on 40-year-old worries: “you could get an STD!” Honey, if the worst we have to fear these days is the clap, then sign me up. That just makes me feel nostalgic.
But wait! The Real Winner of 2013: “The Sound of Stigma.” When POZ Magazine asked me to contribute a cover story on HIV stigma among gay men, I had no idea it would become my most widely read essay of the year, by far, without even appearing on my own site. Even more surprising, to me, because the piece is such an indictment of how gay community turns against its own (“We are AIDS itself.”). The posting of the story on Poz.com has been shared 2,500 times and has more than 150 comments, ranging from emotional to angry to heartbreaking. I am proud and yes, humbled, that the article contributed to such an important conversation.
Have a bright, joyful, and healthy 2014, my friends.
Tags: A Place Like This, Aging, aids, barebacking, criminalization, culture, family, gay, gratitude, help others, hiv, meth, physician, politics, recovery, serosorting, Sexuality
Posted in Family and Friends, Gay Life, Living with HIV/AIDS, Meth and Recovery, My Fabulous Disease, News, Prevention and Policy | No Comments »
Thursday, November 21st, 2013
Lesley was my closest friend to become sick in the 1980’s, and he fought bravely until his death from AIDS. Today, there are little rituals I have to honor his memory, and I often write about him, the first of many friends lost to the epidemic.
But there’s something I will not do. I will not dig up Lesley’s body and beat young gay men with his corpse. Lesley didn’t perish so I could use him as a scare tactic. He wasn’t a cautionary tale. He wasn’t a martyr. He was a man with the same passions and faults as anyone else, and I won’t use his death as a blunt instrument.
Plenty of us are more than happy to rob graves, however, in an attempt to frighten gay men into acceptable behaviors. This kind of horror-by-proxy happens all the time. Concerned but misguided gay men of a certain age hear whatever the latest HIV infection rates are, and they pull the AIDS Crisis Card.
“If their friends all died like mine did, maybe they would think twice before having sex without a condom,” goes a typical remark, drenched in self pity and tenuous logic.
This statement misrepresents our lost friends and oversimplifies the state of HIV today. It projects our grief in the direction of those who bear no responsibility or resemblance to what we experienced. It subtly blames our departed friends for their mistakes, and then tries to equate them with a new generation of gay men who are much too smart to buy into it.
So frozen in time is our victimhood, it hardly allows for the facts of the here and now. Young gay men are more aware of HIV than my generation ever was. They simply relate to it differently, having come of age since the advent of successful treatments. Asking them to fear something they have literally grown to accept is as realistic as asking them to perform “duck and cover” drills in case Russia drops the bomb.
To view these young men and say, in effect, “if only you saw all the death that I saw…” is a wishful fantasy that disturbs me on all sorts of levels, and it says far more about us than it does about them.
I understand these attitudes come from a place of complicated emotions, ranging from grief, primarily, to our own shame or guilt over dodging a bullet — and it may come from a sincere need to share our experience with others. The punishing tone that often accompanies it, though, isn’t going to win the respect or investment of younger men. It makes us as relevant as old men on the front lawn waving a rake at youngsters.
I take our community history very seriously. I’ve written a book about the dawn of AIDS in Hollywood, have read And the Band Played On more than once, cheered on the activists in the documentary How to Survive a Plague, and can’t wait for the release of Sean Strub’s upcoming AIDS memoir, Body Counts. There is enormous value in preserving our history — and in recognizing that many of us still carry trauma born of that time.
Community advocates have stepped up work to help us process what we went through a generation ago. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a very real phenomenon for longtime survivors, and excellent community forums have been mounted to explore these areas by the Medius Working Group in New York City and the “Let’s Kick (ASS) AIDS Survivor Syndrome” project in San Francisco. Hopefully, other cities and LGBT organizations will follow suit.
That important work is quite different, however, from allowing our past to blind us to the present. When we raise our finger and say in a voice filled with foreboding, “people think you only have to take a few pills and that’s it,” we are denying the actual experience of a lot of people with HIV. For many like me, taking a few pills a day is, in fact, the only impact HIV has on my life. Research suggests I will live a normal lifespan and am more likely to die from cigarettes than HIV. And I’m not going to deny all that in order to advance a fright-show storyline that isn’t my experience.
There are young voices telling new stories, thankfully. Gay writers living with HIV such as Patrick Ingram, Josh Robbins, Tyler Curry, Aaron Laxton, Robert Breining and the irascible Josh Kruger are peering across the generational divide (I have HIV antibodies older than they are) and they seem bemused. Their blogs suggest a post-AIDS life of full engagement and purpose. I consider this progress. If their lives (and writings) don’t include burying friends or serious health concerns, wasn’t that our goal all along?
Nowhere has our AIDS tragedy mindset done more damage than in the rollout of the unfairly maligned Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP), the prevention breakthrough that allows HIV negative people to take anti-HIV medication to avoid infection. It is largely viewed as an alternative to condoms, which has quickly labeled HIV negative men taking PrEP as “barebacking sluts” by people coming unhinged at the very idea of unprotected sex. (Note: I remember when gay sex never involved condoms. It was glorious. I always thought getting back to a place where we had a real choice in the matter was kind of the point.)
There is something about the simplicity of PrEP (a pill a day! no condom negotiation! no guilt or judgment!) that is driving older gay men up the wall, considering their resistance to it and spurious claims of inefficacy, cost, and side effects. Tellingly, younger gay men have voiced fewer objections.
The facts are these: PrEP is at least as effective as condoms when used properly. The drug currently used for PrEP, Truvada, is well tolerated with few side effects. And despite fears and misinformation, it is being covered by insurance providers (do you know of even one claimant that has been denied?). For those without insurance, Gilead, the maker of Truvada, has a generous patient assistance program that allows you to earn a sizeable income and still get the medication.
Perhaps, in the end, we are simply victims of our own success as advocates. We successfully entrenched the immediate, mortal danger of HIV, the shameless inaction of our government, and the profit-driven, opportunistic role of the pharmaceutical industry. Anything that veers from that narrative, especially for those of us who lived it, feels like betrayal. Yet here we sit, in an age that confounds so much of what we once knew to be true.
The 1980’s are history. They are not a prevention strategy. The war as we once knew it to be, the one Lesley and so many others fought so valiantly, is over.
May they rest in peace.
My friend and early mentor, Eric Rofes, was an out, gay, kinky, deep thinking anthropologist that wrote the important book Reviving the Tribe, about building community among gay men during the AIDS epidemic, and Dry Bones Breathe, his follow-up work. He was one of the first to write about the value and even spiritual importance of anal sex for gay men and even exchanging bodily fluids (when he said as much at a forum for gay men in Atlanta I organized in 1995, it was as if a bomb went off, such was the hysteria). For a thoughtful overview of Eric’s work and influence, check out a piece from Charles Stephens about the Rofes legacy — and where his worked wasn’t fully realized. Whenever I fear my writing might seem provocative, I think of Eric Rofes, his bravery, and his lasting influence on the work of many of our leaders. Eric died far too early in 2006 of a heart attack. (Photo credit: Markichester.com)
Tags: A Place Like This, aids, barebacking, culture, gay, hiv, physician, serosorting, Sexuality
Posted in Family and Friends, Gay Life, Living with HIV/AIDS, My Fabulous Disease, News, Prevention and Policy | 38 Comments »
Tuesday, September 24th, 2013
Note: This essay has been shared more than 15,000 times from this site since it posted in July of 2012. Some readers responded angrily, and the barebacking aspect of the story brought both cheers and derision (one comment accused director Max Sohl of “crimes against humanity”). Frankly, I just thought the story of the film and its sociological impact was worth investigating; I appreciated the candidness of those connected to the film, as well as the social scientists and CDC officials who served as background.
The annual Folsom Street Fair in San Francisco is noted for its unbridled embrace of every star in our sexual constellation. Even the fearless leather community that founded the event can sometimes appear tame amidst the outlandish kinks and clothing – and lack thereof – on display along the city’s tilted streets.
In the middle of this rowdy bacchanalia in the fall of 2003, Paul Morris stood at the booth for Treasure Island Media (TIM), the gay porn outfit he founded that features unprotected sex (barebacking) between its actors. This particular specialty was the singular driving force behind his smashingly successful and relatively new company.
Then, like the legend of Lana Turner fortuitously cozying up to the counter at Schwab’s, a beautiful and achingly masculine young man approached the TIM booth. He liked the TIM videos, he liked them very much indeed, and he hoped to one day document a few fantasies of his own. TIM star Jesse O’Toole was on hand and someone snapped a photograph of the two of them together (right). In it, the grinning young man with a leather cap appears to have found his long lost tribe, and O’Toole looks as if he has found a seven-course meal.
The photo was sent to Max Sohl, a sometime porn actor with a theater background whom Morris had commissioned to conceive and direct what would be Sohl’s first porn film. Sohl met with the aspiring model and asked him to complete a form that included a simple question: What is one of your fantasy scenes? In response, the young man wrote simply, “me getting nailed and seeded by a gang of hot guys.”
“The Black Party was coming,” Sohl explained in a recent interview, referring to the annual New York City weekend of leather men, parties and sexual adventures, “and I thought, ‘Okay. Let’s see how many men he can take.’”
And that is how Dawson’s 20 Load Weekend was born.
Prior to the onset of AIDS, condom usage in gay pornography was nonexistent – but that was before bodily fluids became synonymous with death and disease. For well over a decade after the crisis began, gay porn videos featured not only tightly wrapped penises, but their storylines – indeed, the actors themselves – suffered from a sort of dramatic malaise, as if sleepwalking through their sexual routine while trying to pay no attention to the man with KS lesions behind the curtain. The videos mirrored our own lack of interest in gallivanting about with the pizza man or diving into an orgy with strangers, with or without condoms. Many viewers simply returned to their stash of pre-AIDS pornography, which was condom-less but “justified.”
As AIDS deaths subsided with the advent of new medications in 1996, gay male culture responded with a vengeance. Circuit parties were born of celebration (before succumbing to their own excesses), safer sex behaviors relaxed, and there was a palpable longing to escape the horrors of the previous years. Reclaiming a bold sexuality – something many gay men believed had been lost forever – was a tonic for the post-traumatic stress they suffered. Younger gay men, who had listened to stories of an earlier, sexually liberated time as if it were a lost era of paleontology, were more than willing to explore whatever modern version might await them.
Unprotected sex since the arrival of HIV is nothing new – it is, after all, the primary reason for new infections that have continued fairly steadily since AIDS began – but in the late 1990’s the gay community proved again how comically adept it is at applying a little branding to any phenomenon, and “barebacking” entered the public lexicon. The irony may be that a new word was developed for the oldest sexual activity imaginable: having sex without a barrier. It wasn’t the sex that had changed, but the meaning and judgment associated with it towards, most specifically, gay men. Or, as AIDS advocate Jim Pickett said at a recent conference for people living with HIV, “When a friend announces they are expecting a child, I feel like screaming ‘You barebacked!‘”
But while intelligent minds and passionate advocates argued about the reasons and the proper response to barebacking, no one had dared document it on videotape for the erotic pleasure of others. Yet.
In 1998, two renegade companies formed to make bareback videos exclusively: Hot Desert Knights and Treasure Island Media (links definitely NSFW). None of the leading gay pornographers would consider producing them (although they were eager to market their highly-profitable backlists of videos produced “pre-AIDS” that featured bareback sex). The cheaply made videos by the upstart porn producers brought the sexual choices of an increasing number of men out of the closet and onto DVD players and computer screens.
The videos were uniform in their low production values, the older ages of the actors, and the fact that several of them appeared to have the physical manifestations of HIV. It was as if a group of men who had literally lived through AIDS said, “oh, what the hell,” and demonstrated the kind of sex they had been having amongst themselves for some time. Their exploits were perceived as an underground fetish that would never break the surface of more mainstream gay pornography.
But then Max Sohl met that ferociously attractive man from the Folsom Street Fair who was so eager to “get seeded” by a string of strangers, and with the sexual zeitgeist now primed for their arrival, they made a film that would forever change the porn industry and quite arguably influence the sexual behavior of countless gay men.
Re-christened “Dawson,” the budding porn star was served up in a hotel room over the course of New York City’s 2004 Black Party weekend to an ongoing parade of bareback tops. Their sex was filmed in a documentary fashion, without music, scripted dialogue, or any effort to hide the many cables and cameras crowding the room. Dawson’s fantasy had been fulfilled, and Sohl had the footage to prove it.
In June of 2004, Dawson’s 20 Load Weekend was released and was precisely as advertised.
It might first strike the viewer that the video was created in an unsettling world in which HIV is utterly absent; that is, until a revamped sexual choreography is pointedly repeated again and again. While orgasms in gay porn before AIDS typically showed the top withdrawing from his partner and spilling his semen across his partner’s backside, the tops servicing Dawson had a different and very deliberate mission: to withdraw only long enough to prove their orgasm, and then re-enter Dawson immediately to show the injection of semen.
This was not a film that was made in the absence of HIV, but was created because of HIV. You can practically hear a disembodied voice whispering, “Watch closely. This is how gay men have sex now. That is where semen belongs. Fuck AIDS.”
Depending on your point of view, it is either a transgressive act of eroticism or an incredibly irresponsible act that demonstrates how to become infected with HIV. Or perhaps both.
In the center of all of this was Dawson himself, and never has bareback porn had such a virile and athletic leading man, much less one that bottomed with such disarming delight. “He was a higher quality male model that hadn’t been seen in that kind of extreme scene,” said Sohl. “The movie changed things because of Dawson. He was adorable, and actually smiles and laughs. He is Cialis joyful in that movie.”
“Bareback porn companies have blood on their hands,” became a common refrain among gay men and health advocates. Gay sex advice columnist Dan Savage equated the videos to child porn, believing they take advantage of the naïve and the vulnerable. Some accused TIM of making snuff films.
The video was wildly successful, ubiquitous wherever porn was shown. Even Sohl was surprised. “Our staff and even my friends would say ‘I go into a porn booth, a sex party, a hookup, and its playing,’” he said. “It was everywhere.”
Adult bookstores which had previously shunned TIM videos responded to customer demand and began stocking them, even creating bareback sections on their shelves. Gay porn sites that once refused to feature bareback clips began including them. Dawson and the film became the definitive symbol of a bare, wanton sexuality that eschewed condoms and refused to be denied or intimidated by the virus.
Soon, more companies produced bareback porn, and they were able to attract “collegiate jock” types who were younger, more muscular and the very picture of health and vitality. The faces and bodies in bareback videos had been transformed, erasing all evidence of HIV, much like the invisibility of HIV/AIDS in our broader culture.
When considering the legacy of his film, Sohl is more pragmatic than proud. “The concept of taking twenty loads in 2004 was beyond taboo, but to say it in 2012… it doesn’t seem as extreme today,” he said. “I’m sure someone else would have done it. It just so happened to be us.”
Neither does Sohl admit to any trepidation about the safety of his actors, then or now. “I’ve been doing this since 2004, with thousands of men, and have had only one guy claim to get an STD (on my set),” he explained. “Probably 50 percent of my casting job is being an HIV counselor,” he adds, without a hint of irony. “I spend a lot of time talking about HIV. My feeling is that people need to be responsible for their own actions and make informed decisions.”
One of the people making decisions while living with HIV is none other than the actor known as Dawson, who disclosed his HIV positive status to The Windy City Times in 2005. While his HIV status may surprise no one, something else he said in the interview was sadly revealing. “It was after turning positive that I made the decision to look into doing a movie for Treasure Island Media,” he said at the time. “I had seroconverted a few months before…”
After an HIV diagnosis, many people use it as an opportunity to re-examine their lives, make different choices, or otherwise take steps to enjoy their life in whatever ways are important to them. For the man who would be Dawson, his seroconversion was followed by the choice to be an unapologetic cum whore in front of video cameras. This may have been his fantasy, but it certainly fuels the stigmatizing belief that people with HIV are irresponsible vectors of disease, spreading infection and abandoning whatever sexual values they may have previously held.
Perhaps, then, the film was a treatise on the kind of sexual liberation available to HIV positive gay men today, demonstrating the “new normal” for those who take their meds, eliminate the viral activity in their blood, and “fuck freely and without fear,” as TIM founder Paul Morris once put it. Or did it simply portray poz men as sluts, a charge leveled by disgusted (and possibly jealous) HIV negative men?
“What a person is seeing has more to do with them than with us,” said Sohl. “The best mode of action is not to confirm or deny anything. I will see a scene online that I directed,” he says, referring to the many porn sites that pirate pieces of his work and give them new titles, “and it will be renamed ‘negative bottom takes poz loads,’ as if it were a conversion scene. We never said that. Or people think the bottom is using crystal meth. That says more about the guy watching it than what actually happened.”
That relationship, between porn and viewer, is something of particular concern to some HIV prevention advocates who believe bareback porn encourages unsafe sex in real life. This resulted in AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s recent campaign to mandate condom use on pornography sets, a move that was popular on a simplistic level but did nothing to address the myriad of factors associated with actual HIV risk and relative safety, such as an undetectable viral load, serosorting, or the precise sexual behaviors involved.
While social cognitive theory states that we make behavioral decisions based on watching others, very little research has been conducted on the causal relationship between bareback porn and real behavior. In what little has been studied, researchers can’t decide if barebackers watch a lot of bareback porn, or bareback porn makes people barebackers.
It is a riddle that Max Sohl is surprisingly happy to solve. “Absolutely” he said. “Of course it is going to influence what people do.” When asked, then, what is the responsibility of porn, Sohl would have none of it. “The responsibility of porn,” he says impishly, “is to make the guy watching it shoot a load.”
Dawson is, now and forever, committed to videotape and featured on dozens of online porn sites, happily receiving the prize he so ardently desires. He and his progeny of newer, younger porn actors have crossed a line and they’re never coming back. Their video escapades are available online everywhere and for everyone, including young gay men who are just coming out and surfing the internet for validation of their sexuality.
What those young men will almost certainly see online are depictions of unprotected sex, because bareback videos now outperform scenes of condom usage on every site that carries them – and most of them now do. It is unquestionable that bareback sex will be viewed as typical to the uninitiated, and anyone crafting safer sex messages to those young men is going to have a difficult time trumping those images. The “use a condom every time” message is officially dead, drowned in buckets of bodily fluids by Dawson and his barebacking brethren.
Dawson’s 20 Load Weekend redefined bareback porn and the men who appear in them. It influenced subsequent videos and expanded the availability of bareback films. It depicted a prevailing truth about gay sexual behavior “post AIDS,” and arguably encouraged risky sexual adventure-seeking. It led to the saturation of bareback porn online, making unprotected sex normative to whomever might be watching. To dismiss this film, to minimize its social and cultural impact, would be to demonstrate a profound misunderstanding of gay sexuality today.
“Barebacking is a right,” gay anthropologist Eric Rofes once wrote. “After all, practically every straight guy in the world gets to do it without being told they are irresponsible, foolish, or suicidal… Barebacking is liberation. Barebacking is defiance.”
How foolish, prescient, liberating, enlightening or destructive barebacking may ultimately become is something that may only be revealed in the next chapter of our gay community’s troubled history.
(Photo of Dawson and Jesse O’Toole courtesy of Max Sohl and edited for content. Other images courtesy of Treasure Island Media [NSFW].)
TWO MORE POSTS ON BAREBACKING and/or GAY SEX:
“Your Mother Liked it Bareback” loses all patience with the finger pointing and judgments being hurled around between gay men when it comes to choices about unprotected sex. In short, it asks us to broaden what it means to have “safer sex,” and to acknowledge there are now many prevention techniques that do not involve condoms. Check it out.
“Why I Stopped Going to the Baths” is a riot, explaining my decision to stop, well, going to the baths. Any posting that begins with “The last time I went to the baths I stepped in poop,” can’t be all bad, right?
Tags: aids, barebacking, culture, gay, hiv, meth, Recreation, research, serosorting, Sexuality, testing
Posted in Family and Friends, Gay Life, Living with HIV/AIDS, Meth and Recovery, My Fabulous Disease, Prevention and Policy | 1 Comment »