Eric J. Roberson
ENG 3305 – Essay Writing
Dr. JoAnn Pavletich – UHD Fall 2009 Semester
2 Dec. 2009
Gay Men and Barebacking: Radical or Realistic?
By Eric J. Roberson
Prepared for Dr. JoAnn Pavletich
ENG 3305 Advanced Essay Writing
Fall 2009 Semester
Gay Men and Barebacking: Radical or Realistic? Page 1 of 17
By Eric J. Roberson
Gay Men and “Barebacking”: Radical or Realistic?
By Eric J. Roberson
Sex is not a competitive sport, and if you are gay and think it is then you should listen up! “HIV
is a serious long-term condition, and young gay men remain the group of young people most at risk”
(“UK Same-Sex Relationships 1). Some gay men willfully and deliberately discard condoms in
preference for unprotected sex. Regardless of your age, this essay will not convince you on what to do
with your “hard on,” but it may help you decide to get tested and to put on a condom before your next
casual sexual encounter. Consider these three simple solutions: communication before sex, compassion
for others, and condoms for casual encounters.
If you happen to be straight and are reading this essay, do not put it down. Straight people who
have gay friends may learn about some of the challenges gay men face in leading fulfilling relationships.
You may also gain ideas on how to be more supportive. Regardless of your sexual orientation, the goal is
to expose how the internet has shaped the practice of barebacking and other mitigating factors that compel
gay men to consciously and explicitly eschew condoms during anal intercourse – colloquially known as
“barebacking” (Gastaldo, et. al. 172). This essay will present with clarity options that gay men have
when presented with the decision to forego condoms. An open mind will help you better appreciate this
Defining several key terms is central to understanding the controversy. Simply put, barebacking
is unprotected anal intercourse (UAI) between two men (Gastaldo, et. al. 172). All men who have sex
with men (MSM) will be considered in statistical demographics, regardless of whether they identify
themselves as purely homosexual. Personal accounts used herein may refer to barebacking as “raw” or
“uninhibited” sex. Relating to HIV disease, the terms seropositive means someone who has the HIV
virus, and serodiscordant is indicative of a couple of mixed serostatus, consisting of one person who is
negative and one who is positive. An undetectable viral load means the inability to detect HIV virus in
blood plasma, and undetectable viral loads are the modern gold standard for successful HIV treatment.
Gay Men and Barebacking: Radical or Realistic? Page 2 of 17
By Eric J. Roberson
These terms will be used throughout this essay, particularly while exploring the concept of serosorting,
which is the process of choosing a partner of the same HIV status.
As shocking and controversial as “bareback” sex among gay men may seem to most people, it is a
prevalent practice which has been around since before the nexus of the AIDS epidemic in America, and it
is an activity becoming more and more actuated through Internet communication. No community is
better than gay men at mobilizing a response to crises of an “implacable biological peril” (Adam 334) as
evidenced by the strides gay men made toward comprehensive and compassionate health care for HIV
positive people during the 1980s. It is easy to lend compassion to any community that has been ravaged
by an epidemic as gruesome as AIDS. Taking into account gay men’s experiences at the onslaught of the
AIDS epidemic, the decision to participate in bareback sex is complicated and requires thoughtful insight
into the ideologies that encompass the thought process. The goal of this essay is not to disprove the
recklessness of having unprotected sex with someone who is HIV positive, but rather to show the
complicated decisions some gay men must make toward fulfilling sexual relationships. Having
compassion will help you appreciate the personal accounts of HIV positive men that appear later in this
Before the advent of HIV in the 1970s, sexually transmitted infection (STI) outbreaks like
syphilis and hepatitis B routinely occurred among gay men in major metropolitan areas, which indicates
that men often had unprotected sex before the HIV epidemic began (Bimbi and Pearsons 277). As a
result of these STI outbreaks, empirical investigations led to studies about sexual behavior and sexual
expectations among gay men and how they utilized “sexually charged venues” such as bars and
bathhouses for sexual encounters (Bimbi and Pearsons 277). Since then, a new era has been ushered in
with the Internet becoming the first step in gay men’s quests for finding potential sex partners.
Barebacking is becoming an increasingly common practice (Bimbi and Pearsons 277), and
research reveals that there has always been a group of high-risk takers throughout the HIV epidemic
(Bimbi and Pearsons 277). Most literature and media coverage attributes new HIV infections to men
“slipping up” in the heat of the moment (Plant and Sheon 1), but “slipping up” is not always the case.
Gay Men and Barebacking: Radical or Realistic? Page 3 of 17
By Eric J. Roberson
This “understanding of unsafe sexual practices is superficial because it does not recognize several
determining sociocultural and psychological factors” (Gastaldo, et. al. 172). Barebacking is
distinguishable from the “unplanned, episodic, unprotected sexual encounters” (Adam 334) that some
men have, and the practice is frequently attributed to a variety of circumstances such as the following:
• “a resolution to erectile difficulties experienced with condoms” (Adam 334)
• a “momentary lapse” or “ trade-offs” (Adam 334)
• a result of “personal turmoil and depression” (Adam 334)
• “a byproduct of strategies of disclosure and intuiting safety” (Adam 334)
While on one hand knowingly HIV positive people are construed as the risk and the problem, the truth is
that the “vast majority of HIV transmission occurs from people who have no knowledge they are HIV
positive or are ignorant of how it is transmitted” (Adam 336). You may have met HIV negative men who
foolishly believe they are immune from contracting HIV from a positive receptive “ bottom” partner, or
HIV positive men who use their undetectable viral loads as a free pass for leaving condoms on the night
stand. Also consider this: when was your last HIV test? Most people would agree that if you have not
been recently tested for HIV, then you could unknowingly transmit the virus to your sexual partners.
In a 2002 study, 22% of HIV positive men and 10% of negative men reported intentional
participation in UAI. One year later, a similar study reported 61% and 42% of men, respectively, had
bareback sex—intentional or otherwise (Bimbi and Parsons 278). Research also shows increased
transmission of HIV between gay men over the past several years. Between 2001 and 2005, new HIV
diagnoses increased 11% among men who have sex with men (MSM) overall in the United States, and
between 2001 and 2006 new cases increased 23% in MSM aged 13-29 (Halkitis and Pollock 340). These
statistics are indisputable proof that barebacking is a worrisome issue for the gay community since new
HIV cases are rising rapidly. The data also proves that unprotected sex is still a prevalent practice among
MSM and it substantiates that barebacking is increasing drastically among men under age 30 (Halkitis
and Pollock 341). It is impossible to deny that living with the complications of HIV disease is
Gay Men and Barebacking: Radical or Realistic? Page 4 of 17
By Eric J. Roberson
disadvantageous for gay men; debating that fact is not the goal of this essay. The mission is to expose the
seriousness of the issue and to identify possible compelling reasons why condoms are not used by some
men and also to validate the potential solutions of communication, compassion, and condoms for casual
Statistics also provide incontrovertible evidence that unprotected sex among older, white, and
relatively affluent gay men in major metropolitan cities like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and
Washington, D.C., is increasing, despite the fact that older gay white men have been the traditional target
group for HIV prevention messages (Cox 1). If you are a gay man over 40, you have likely been
bombarded with safe sex campaigns most of your adult life. The “recent surge in HIV infections. . .
indicate that bareback sex is practiced by individuals from every sociodemographic stratum and
serostatus” (Gastaldo, et. al. 172). Considering the data, we must accept that bareback sex is a serious
issue facing the gay community that requires better understanding since unprotected sex is medically
agreed upon as the primary mode for HIV transmission among couples both gay and straight.
Many people consider barebacking “ostensibly irrational behavior,” however many men dismiss
their behavior using moral reasoning popular with the rest of society (Adam 334). “Barebacking raises
some of the central issues of contemporary theory around risk, responsibility, and ethics, and poses new
challenges for HIV prevention policies because barebacking discourse has adopted some of the major
tenets of neoliberal ideology by combining notions of informed consent, contractural interaction, free
market choice, and responsibility in new ways” (Adam 333). Defining neoliberalism is essential to
understanding the bareback phenomenon and how men who bareback try to justify their behavior as
rational. In an essay “Neoliberalism: origins, theory, definition,” Paul Treanor defines neoliberalism as
“Neoliberalism is a philosophy in which the existence and operation of a market are valued in
themselves, separately from any previous relationship with the production of goods and services,
and without any attempt to justify them in terms of their effect on the production of goods and
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By Eric J. Roberson
services; and where the operation of a market. . . is seen as an ethic in itself, capable of acting as
a guide for all human action, and substituting for all previously existing ethical beliefs. . . A
general characteristic of neoliberalism is the desire to intensify and expand the market, by
increasing the number, frequency, repeatability, and formalization of transactions.”
Neoliberalism theory further expands on interactivity meaning that neoliberal societies are networked
societies (Treanor 7) that create quasi-markets (Treanor 16). “In personal ethics, the general neoliberal
vision is that every human being is an entrepreneur managing their own life, and should act as such”
(Treanor 10). It is possible to contend that barebackers see themselves as sexual entrepreneurs managing
their lives separately from previous perceptions of acceptable behavior held at the beginning of the HIV
crisis. Throughout this essay, we will consider reasons why gay men are substituting common knowledge
about HIV transmission with personal beliefs about barebacking, attempting to substantiate these beliefs
using the tenants of neoliberalism, including how the Internet has created a social network to increase the
frequency and repeatability of bareback encounters.
Perceptions related to risk-reduction strategies are often poorly understood by the broader gay
community. “Healthy sexual behavior intentions and actions can be compromised by powerful emotions,
unforeseen barriers to initial intentions, and temptations,” therefore it is difficult to tell what people will
do when sex and emotions are involved (Halkitis and Pollock 341). Risk-reduction strategies raise the
question of whether monogamous gay couples in search of greater relationship fulfillment should be
coerced to always use condoms by safe sex campaigns. After all, two important concepts of neoliberal
ideology tied to barebacking are freedom of choice and informed consent. Integrating neoliberalism
theory with the decision making process of barebackers reveals the concept of freedom of choice and
lends merit to communicating your HIV status before having casual sex. Arguably, safe sex campaigns
are misleading and demoralizing if condoms are seen as the only viable option for two men, thereby
eliminating a gay man’s freedom of choice.
Gay Men and Barebacking: Radical or Realistic? Page 6 of 17
By Eric J. Roberson
From a hegemonic gender construct, gay men are more willing participants in risky behaviors
such as barebacking because risk taking is considered an appropriate expression of masculinity by the
dominant [straight] culture (Gastaldo, et.al 174). Conceptualizing risky behavior in this way arose from
social cognitive theory where “the individual is the principal agent in behavior prediction and change and
such paradigms are often applied in empirical studies of MSM sexual risk” (Halkitis and Pollock 341).
For example, a popular gay columnist by the pen name Scott Daddy acknowledges that “being renegades
and ‘bad boys’ just adds to the thrill of it all. The more taboo barebacking is, the more intriguing and
exciting it becomes. . . [bareback sex] is hot and it feels fucking great. Any top who tells you that
fucking with a condom feels as good as fucking raw is either a liar or hasn’t tried both. . . I prefer it raw”
(Scott Daddy 1). Gay men often mistakenly believe in the illusion of thrill seeking and fantasize about
being a “bad boy” to fulfill their sexual desires, and more commonly they use it to fit into the dominant
culture. Is the risk of contracting HIV worth the fleeting thrill of unprotected sex or the bogusness of
pretending to be a straight-acting “bad boy”?
Distorted meanings of masculinity pervade our society, as evidenced in the lyrics of the popular
song “He Wasn’t Man Enough” by Toni Braxton (Braxton). The lyrics call us to consider how men are
expected to boast and brag about accomplishments like power, sex, and status, often to the detriment of
their male peers, women, or minorities. Toni Braxton’s lyrics and myriad other songs by dance divas
popular among gay men suggest that promiscuity is appropriate behavior for them. Society often refers to
men as “studs” for their fugacious sexual proclivities, while women on the other hand are labeled “sluts.”
“Barebacking can thus be seen as merely the latest in a long line of challenges by gay men to submit to
the sexual status quo and the institutions that support” masculinity in the dominant culture (Plant and
Scheon 3). As a result of how society defines masculinity, some gay men develop what is referred to as
“a mangled identity after having internalized the homophobia of straight society” (Plant and Scheon 2).
Most people would agree that “stud” is better defined as a man with courage and “guts” than one who
participates in risky promiscuous sex. If you are HIV negative and participate in bareback sex with
Gay Men and Barebacking: Radical or Realistic? Page 7 of 17
By Eric J. Roberson
casual partners, you should consider whether or not you have the courage and stamina to cope with being
The way barebackers perceive their masculinity is also linked to neoliberal ideology. If
marketplace successes are measured by the number and frequency of sales, then barebackers would be the
darlings of both Wall Street and the bed sheets if they could turn profits for their brand and market
exposure. The repeatability and frequency with which men are able to “penetrate” the market by finding
sex partners online is unmatched by the previous standards of bars and bathhouses. Thousands of men
have the ability to cruise for sex under their fingertips – 24 hours per day seven days per week – by
simply logging onto the Internet.
In addition, risk taking and barebacking have become scorching hot bedfellows. The philosophy
of barebacking has not only become believable to many men who chose to have unprotected sex for the
thrill of it, but “blamestorming” is commonplace among the menagerie of all other gay men who consider
barebacking a radical philosophy. Notwithstanding the ability to make profits, or rather “turn tricks”, it is
a viable conclusion that barebackers are the virile entrepreneurs of Internet sex marketing and rely on all
the tenants of neoliberalism to determine their successes, which are their number of their sexual
conquests. It is also a fair conclusion that barebackers are not “the smartest guys in the room,” worthy of
comparison to the leadership who led the energy-giant Enron to its demise (Gibney). Before getting on
the bareback bandwagon and bargaining your health in the marketplace, seriously consider all the risks of
unprotected sex and know your odds of contracting HIV or other STIs before your next bareback
interaction. Also, seriously consider the use of condoms for casual sexual encounters to reduce your
chance of contracting or spreading STIs to other men.
Grasping for Freedom
Experts have compared the effects of the AIDS epidemic to the numbing trauma of the holocaust
and the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “While those disasters are over, AIDS continues
to destroy yet another generation” of gay men (Plant and Scheon 2); nonetheless, “avoidance of HIV
transmission through safe sex and condom use remains a priority” (Adam 337). Since HIV is still an
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By Eric J. Roberson
incurable disease and transmission rates are rising, some people consider barebacking as self-destructive
behavior and a “symptom of gay men’s problematic socialization process in a homophobic society. . . as a
reaction to years of cumulative trauma” (Plant and Scheon 2). Gay men can minimize the impact of HIV
on younger men by confronting this evident martyrdom and choosing to use condoms for casual
encounters, thus preventing another onslaught of AIDS similar to that experienced during the 1980s.
A powerful force in society is the concept of freedom and the role it plays in decision making,
important concepts embedded in neoliberal ideology. Being able to “return to a sexuality no longer
constrained by the fear of infection” may allow men a certain sense of freedom in their lives (Adam 338).
Positive men who consider “sex with condoms unnecessary with other positive men” (Adam 338) report a
tremendous sense of freedom in their expression of sexual desire. Gay culture exploits the male body,
fetishizing both physical appearance and sexual penetration. The freedom to express desire and to rebel
against established norms are important aspects of sexual attraction for many gay men. One must
concede that being HIV positive can help men live life “free from the ethical quandaries of infecting a
negative partner” if they resort to serosorting and “engage in sex free from risk” of exposing others (Plant
and Scheon 4). As such, barebackers are able to more freely enjoy sexual encounters, to the point of
having fetishized semen exchange itself. Without a doubt, the process of serosorting works well if sexual
partners are knowingly either both HIV positive or both HIV negative because the possibility of
transmitting the virus does not exist. An appreciation for freedom in sexual expression, and perhaps in
bareback culture an appreciation for the taste and hunger for semen, brings to mind the appropriateness of
safe sex guidelines that espouse condoms as the only viable solution to preventing HIV. Do you believe
society should dictate a person’s sexual expression, even if it is conveyed through risky semen exchange?
If you believe in freedom of choice, then you must agree that it is unreasonable to take away the right to
unprotected sex for couples when both partners are HIV positive since they will not expose anyone else to
HIV during sex.
Gay Men and Barebacking: Radical or Realistic? Page 9 of 17
By Eric J. Roberson
HIV was once seen as a death sentence but has now become a manageable disease for most
people. The fact that “scientists have not proven that unprotected sex between HIV positive men is
unsafe” contributes to the dilemma for HIV positive couples deciding to abandon condoms (Plant and
Scheon 4). Further complicating matters are advancements in HIV treatment. While on one hand new
therapies are giving men “a reason or simply an excuse” to abandon condom use, on the other hand many
falsely believe that undetectable levels of HIV virus in their blood is the equivalent to being HIV
negative; therefore, they believe the risk of exposing sex partners to HIV is minimized (Plant and Scheon
2). The truth is that every casual encounter increases the risk for an array of STIs including HIV, and gay
men must be empowered by the dominant culture to consider the risks of contracting other infections
before having casual sex.
Based on research and personal accounts from interviews, gay men have indicated that “bareback
sex produces greater stimulation, heightens emotional closeness with a partner, and is a means of
rebelling against established norms” (Gastaldo, et. al. 173). Barebackers believe they are celebrating
intimacy and closeness to their sexual partners while the practice of unprotected sex is often condemned
by many people, including other gay men, who do not fully understand barebackers’ motivations. These
attitudes alone reaffirm that condoms as the only viable option for two men is an overly simplified
solution to a complex problem of how two men can safely and appropriately express sexual intimacy.
For people who disagree with the practice of barebacking, consider showing compassion toward gay men
who bareback based on the underlying motivations and reasons for giving up condoms.
On the most basic level, people have to talk about their HIV status in order to prevent
transmission. Communication is a simple solution that can help minimize HIV transmission. According
to a study that appeared in the scholarly journal AIDS Education and Prevention, “HIV positive men are
choosing to seek out other HIV positive casual partners and may be actively avoiding negative partners.
HIV positive study participants engaged in bareback sex with more HIV positive [men] and HIV status
Gay Men and Barebacking: Radical or Realistic? Page 10 of 17
By Eric J. Roberson
unknown partners than HIV negative study participants” (Halkitis and Pollock 351). This practice is
known as serosorting, or selecting a partner of the same HIV status to have sex with.
Every bareback encounter does not expose gay men to HIV. This fact demonstrates a valid
connection to the neoliberal ideologies of informed consent without any other attempt to justify the
relationship. For example, two negative men who bareback cannot spontaneously generate a strain of
HIV (Scott Daddy 2). “Negotiations can take place, risks ascertained, and personal responsibility can be
assumed” before someone decides to have a bareback sexual encounter (Scott Daddy 3). This calls us to
remind ourselves that “HIV is a health issue, not a punishment for being gay or cosmic retribution for
making bad decisions” (Scott Daddy 3). As in neoliberalism, responsibility and informed consent are key
components of bareback identity in which men must “navigate, negotiate, choose, and realize moral
obligation” (Adam 335).
More empirical evidence emphasizes that positive men do not set out to intentionally infect HIV
negative partners in that they know “coping with HIV disease is onerous, and hardly anything to be
wished on someone else” (Adam 341). “Some positive men feel quite strongly about” protecting HIV
negative partners from the virus by insisting on condom use or avoiding an encounter with an HIV
negative person altogether (Adam 337). Barry Adam, a prominent investigator in HIV risk-reduction
strategies, has conducted research that reveals common responses such as:
I mostly only have sex with poz guys now. . . I don’t want to have sex with somebody and infect
them especially if they don’t know… I’m not going to go convert some little 19 year-old boy who
doesn’t know his ass from his elbow because I would feel totally responsible and I can’t do that.
So I mean, I’ve actually given lectures to some of these guys on the internet saying, “Listen guy,
you got, you better do some thinking before you do this.” (Age 50s, HIV positive.)
Compassionate people must admit that having sex without condoms is fair for two men if the risk of
exposure to HIV does not exist, being mindful that problems arise when communication breaks down and
disclosure does not occur. If individual responsibility is not discussed, or two partners mistakenly assume
they are of the same serostatus, then risk is not mitigated. Do you ask every sexual partner their HIV
Gay Men and Barebacking: Radical or Realistic? Page 11 of 17
By Eric J. Roberson
status before having sex? Adam’s interviews with HIV positive men underpin the failings of the rhetoric
of personal responsibility through disclosure so often celebrated by neoliberalism:
There was a fellow I called one time—this was less than a year ago—and he was fairly young.
He was only 25 or so and we… went home… After having had intercourse and I was washing up,
I said “So how long have you been positive?” And he said, “I’m not positive.” And I said,
“What!?” Because I sometimes understand where tops think—there’s this stupid idea that tops
don’t get the disease, that somehow they’re immune… There is that foolish idea… So anyway,
we ended up dashing off to St. Mike’s [hospital emergency] and doing, you know, the emergency
cocktail thing and all those other sort of stuff. (Age 30’s, HIV positive.)
The alarm about potentially infecting a negative sex partner is noteworthy, but the responsibility of going
to real lengths to help find post-exposure prophylactic (PEP) treatment for HIV exposure is more
important, lending evidence that emotions like care and compassion exist in bareback culture. One must
not disregard the expression of genuine concern expressed between the two men. Since communication is
part of the solution, everyone reading this essay can agree that it would have been easier if the HIV
positive person confronted with the above situation would have asked his partner’s serostatus before
consenting to unprotected sex.
Introducing the Internet
The context in which men meet casual sex partners plays a role in both the number of partners
they have and whether or not they engage in barebacking (Halkitis and Pollock 340). Men who meet other
men online for sex have higher rates of unprotected sex and STIs (Vogel 2). But the Internet has also
increased conversations among gay men about barebacking which reflects an improved climate for
discussing the controversial topic (Plant and Scheon 2). According to a 2009 study appearing in the
scholarly journal AIDS Education and Prevention, men who bareback practice serosorting when “using
the Internet to meet casual sex partners. Being HIV positive was found to be a better predictor of this
behavior [serosorting]” (Halkitis and Pollock 351).
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By Eric J. Roberson
According to Deb Levin, the Executive Director of Internet Sexuality Information Services, the
Internet is a communication medium that allows men to connect with potential partners faster and easier
compared to other places such as nightclubs and bath houses. Levin says “It is a lot harder when you are
working face-to-face because you have to sort of summon up the effort to talk to somebody and to break
the ice and to ask them to come home with you; whereas [sic] the Internet, everybody is there for the
same reason; it is very quick, it is very easy” (Vogel 2). Consequently, the Internet is different from other
venues where men meet for sex because it makes engaging in the practice of barebacking easier.
“Internet sites facilitate sexual experimentation and the expansion of bareback networks. [These] virtual
environments often constitute entry points to physical places where sex may occur” (Balan, et. al. 475).
Levin offers five reasons why the Internet has become a popular way to meet potential sex
partners. The Internet is accessible, affordable, anonymous, acceptable, and approximate (Vogel 3).
Accessibility refers to ease of use – gay men are frequently Internet savvy and Internet connectivity is
available almost anywhere via wireless hotspots such as those found in bars and restaurants. The Internet
is affordable in cost; no payment is needed to use Internet bareback sites (Balan et. al. 486). Perhaps most
importantly, the Internet affords a sense of anonymity, and it has become quite acceptable to meet men
online for sex. Recent data observes more than 80% of MSM are meeting for sex online (Vogel 3). As
Levin further describes, approximation allows men in both dense metropolitan areas and rural areas to
meet quickly and easily (Vogel 3).
The Internet debate studied by two prominent researchers Carballo-Diéguez and Bauremeister
found that “Barebackers also defend their right to self-determination, espousing the philosophy that each
person is responsible for his own doings” thereby tying neoliberal ideologies to the Internet. Like the
commodities markets, the Internet has allowed new value systems to evolve and new relational forms to
be explored and developed for men who participate in barebacking (Balan, et. al. 486). Yet, the new era
ushered in by the Internet poses several new challenges for HIV prevention efforts. Internet sites reaffirm
a “call to community” that supports the discourse of barebacking and normalizes the behavior as a
subcultural norm (Balan, et. al. 485). “Bareback internet sites bypass the discussion on risk” emphasizing
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instead “choice and individual responsibility” (Balan, et. al. 486) as an “environment traditionally
isolated” from safe-sex prevention messages such as posters and free condoms (Vogel 2). The Internet
is also an easy way to access x-rated videos, particularly bareback porn, which could influence decision
making (Scott Daddy 1). Idolization of bareback porn stars can cause men to turn taboos seen on film
into expressions in real life of their wildest fantasies, just as people can be persuaded by the latest
hairstyles or fashion trends of Hollywood celebrities.
Nonetheless, the Internet can be helpful. Bareback Internet sites help men choose partners of the
same HIV status through the process of serosorting (Balan, et. al. 486). Some gay men claim that the
larger community of men needs to have more non-judgmental discussions about serosorting as a solution
to HIV transmission (Scott Daddy 3). The results of a 2005 study corroborate the notion that the Internet
can be used to relay important facts where men interested in barebacking can find information quickly
about the practice; so, finding sites where like-minded men meet (Balan, et. al. 484) could be the linchpin
for a broader discussion on HIV prevention methods since the Internet makes finding sex partners easier.
Conversely, any “interventions from outside the gay community may be perceived as thinly veiled attacks
on an already marginalized” group of people (Gastaldo, et. al. 173). Fostering a community of support can
also meliorate grief and depression as a result of HIV prevention fatigue. Although the Internet is a
virtual communication medium, it is an ideal place for communication and compassion to become part of
the solution to rising HIV infection rates.
This essay describes how bareback sex is an emotionally charged and controversial issue that
requires more understanding than simply insisting gay men wear condoms every time they have sex. Just
like people who smoke or obese people who indulge in fatty foods, MSM have found ways to rationalize
the very behaviors that put their health at risk. Efforts to prevent certain ostensible behaviors implant “the
very desires they are aimed to eradicate” (Plant and Scheon 3). “Breaking the rules gives meaning to our
actions and this quest for meaning has only intensified as a result of the AIDS epidemic” (Plant and
Scheon 3). Although barebacking may seem idiotic and reckless to some people, it is a normal
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By Eric J. Roberson
expression of identity for many gay men, and the Internet has made finding bareback partners almost
effortless. Some gay men abandon condoms in an attempt to overcome the constraints of their former
oppressive relationships with the AIDS epidemic, which can be construed as a grasp for freedom.
Correlating bareback sex to modern neoliberal ideologies gives rise to new interpretations of bareback
identity and culture which are enlightening for compassionate people who want to understand the
dilemma of bareback sex.
The Internet has given men a safe place to discuss and potentially act on their desire for bareback
sex (Plant and Scheon 3). “Internet access has facilitated casual and anonymous sexual encounters by
increasing initial contacts between potential partners through the use of chat rooms and virtual
communities” (Gastaldo, et. al. 171). However, when barebacking is discussed among men on the
internet, it is less “often framed in terms of pathology (relapse) or sin (slipping up)” (Plant and Scheon 2)
and can often be attributed to the following principles linked to neoliberal ideology:
• informed consent (upfront disclosure of HIV status)
• contractual interaction (serosorting)
• free market choice (choosing a partner of seroconcordant status)
• personal responsibility (the onus is on you personally)
• networked society (vis-a-vis the Internet).
Since “slipping up” is not always the case, barebacking must be considered a reaction to overly-
simplified prevention efforts that have failed (Plant and Scheon 2). Communication is a mitigating factor
aligned with neoliberal ideologies like personal responsibility and informed consent. Along with
compassion, communication is essential to helping each other decide when it is reasonable to leave the
condoms on the nightstand. Getting tested and knowing your HIV status is paramount in the quest to
reduce new infections, particularly among younger gay men, along with serosorting and the use of
condoms for casual sexual encounters.
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By Eric J. Roberson
In a 2009 article for Outsmart Magazine, author Kelly McCann perfectly summarizes the need for
better HIV prevention messages. “With more than 50,000 new HIV infections occurring in the U.S. every
year, it is obvious that our current awareness campaigns are not working. Many of our citizens are not
heeding the traditional prevention messages broadcast throughout our communities. In today’s jaded
world, where many people are experiencing prevention fatigue, we must develop creative and innovative
ways of raising awareness of the disease. We need HIV messages to be powerful and memorable and
impactful enough to make us sit up and take notice. We need prevention ads that make us think and
generate discussion” (McCann 26).
Risk is something everyone subjects themselves to in life, and risk is an important concept for
some barebackers’ identities (Gastaldo et. al. 174, 177). Since articulations of condom use have shifted
because of HIV treatment advancements and improved healthcare for gay men, society must mobilize to
meet the challenges posed in a new era of HIV as attitudes about the life-threatening epidemic evolves
(Adam 334). “It is not hard to understand how barebacking has since come to be construed… as a
transgression of the covenant worked out in the 1980s and 1990s, and barebackers have been constructed
as ostensible rebels… beset by too much ‘AIDS optimism,’ ‘condom fatigue,’ or safe sex ‘relapse’ ”
(Adam 334). Since barebacking is not a new practice and HIV diagnoses are rising, a logical conclusion
is that HIV prevention messages must be adapted to suit how gay culture has evolved, partly due to
Internet communication. Better communication, more compassion, and condoms for casual encounters
are three viable solutions that can help gay men have greater relationship fulfillment in the era of Internet
Gay Men and Barebacking: Radical or Realistic? Page 16 of 17
By Eric J. Roberson
Adam, Barry D. “Constructing the Neoliberal Sexual Actor: Responsibility and Care of the Self in the
Discourse of Barebackers.” Culture, Health & Sexuality 7.4 (2005): pp. 333-346. Web. 5 Oct.
Balan, Ivan, Alex Carballow-Dieguez, Curtis Dolezal, Gary W. Dowsett, Peter Lin, Oswaldo Luciano,
Robert H. Remien, Ana Ventuneac. “Cybercartography of Popular Internet Sites Used by new
York City Men Who Have Sex with Men Interested in Bareback Sex.” AIDS Education and
Prevention 18.6 (2006): pp. 475-489. Web. 5 Oct. 2009.
Bauermeister, Jose and Alex Carballo-Dieguez. “ ‘Barebacking’: Intentional Condomless Anal Sex in
HIV-Risk Contexts. Reasons For and Against It.” Journal of Homosexuality 47.1 (2004): pp. 1-
16. Web. 1 Oct. 2009.
Baurenmeister, Jose and Alex Carballo-Dieguez, Curtis Dolezal, and Ana Ventuneac. “Assessing
Motivations to Engage in Intentional Condomless Anal Intercourse in HIV Risk Contexts
(“Bareback Sex”) Among Men Who Have Sex With Men.” AIDS Education and Prevention 21.2
(2009): pp. 156-168. Web. 28 Sep. 2009.
Bimbi, David S. and Jeffrey T. Parsons. “Intentional Unprotected Anal Intercourse among Sex Who have
Sex with Men: Barebacking—from Behavior to Identity.” AIDS & Behavior, 15 June 2006: pp.
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Braxton, Toni. “He Wasn’t Man Enough.” Heat, LaFace Records/BMG, 2000.
Gibney, Alex. “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.” Independent Lens 8.22 (2005).
Gastaldo, Denise and Dave Holmes, Anthony Lombardo, and Patrick O’Byrne. “Bareback Sex: A
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191. Web. 1 Oct. 2009.
Gay Men and Barebacking: Radical or Realistic? Page 17 of 17
By Eric J. Roberson
Halkitis, Perry N. and James A. Pollock. Environmental Factors in Relation to Unprotected Sexual
Behavior Among Gay, Bisexual, and Other MSM.” AIDS Education and Prevention 21.4 (2009):
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King, Edward. “How New Understandings of AIDS Pathogenesis and Improvements in Antiviral
Treatments Will Impact on HIV Primary Prevention.” HIV Prevention and the New Virology
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McCann, Kelly A. “Achtung, Baby: AIDS is a mass murdered. It’s time to treat it as such.” Outsmart
Magazine, Oct. 2009: pp. 26-27. Print.
Plant, Aaron and Nicolas Sheon. “Protease Dis-Inhibitors? The Gay Bareback Phenomenon.”
Managingdesire.org, n.p., n.d. Web. 2 Oct. 2009.
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Treanor, Paul. “Neoliberalism: origins, theory, definition.” InterNLnet, 2 Dec. 2005. Web. 19 Oct.
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