Biological Imperative or Cultural Dictate?
Bug-chasing,
Barebacking,
and the
Safer-Sex Establishment

by

Bill Weintraub

The February 6 2003 issue of Rolling Stone has a cover story on "Bug-Chasers" -- HIV negative men who actively seek to seroconvert through unprotected anal sex with HIV+ men.

The story, by Gregory Freeman, drew an almost immediate response from a Newsweek/MSNBC reporter, Seth Mnookin, who claimed that quotes from safer-sex educators about the extent of the phenomenon had been fabricated.

Clearly both Rolling Stone and MSNBC, following the old journalistic maxim "if it bleeds it leads," consider the topic sensational, though their timing is a bit mysterious.

Bug-chasing is hardly a new phenomenon, and in the form of barebacking -- that is, unprotected or condomless anal sex -- has been present in gay male life not just as a reality but as a cultural movement since at least 1997, when Sean Strub and the late Stephen Gendin began to popularize it in the pages of POZ magazine -- the nation's largest monthly targeting HIV+ readers.

For make no mistake: Barebacking is bug-chasing.

Any time you have unprotected anal sex, you invite infection with HIV.

Indeed, even men who are already HIV+ risk infection with a variant and often drug-resistant strain of the virus when they bareback.

Nevertheless, what Rolling Stone played up as particularly scandalous in the story was a statistic, disputed by MSNBC, that as many as 25% of new anally-transmitted HIV infections could now be attributed to bug-chasing.

According to Rolling Stone, that would mean about 10,000 of the 40,000 new infections per annum resulting from unprotected anal.

But what difference does it make if the person anally infected was bug-chasing or simply barebacking?

Truth is, they're the same thing.

The Real Story

The real story here, which both Mr. Freeman and Mr. Mnookin missed, is the culture which underlies barebacking -- that is, the dominant culture of anal sex, which tells gay men over and over again that if sex isn't anal, it isn't truly gay.

A culture which the safer-sex establishment, in the name of honoring diversity and moral relativism, refuses to challenge and with which it is now in effect co-dependent.

For the reality is that the safer-sex "profession," while acknowledging the power of cultural messages in solidifying the identification of gay with anal, has itself become, through its incessant "use a condom every time ... every time" campaigns, one of the prime purveyors of the notion that every sexual encounter between men must culminate in anal penetration.

It is that peculiarly gay biological imperative, first heard in the mid-1970s and gathering force ever since, which has given rise to bug-chasing and barebacking, both predictable consequences of the unceasing exaltation and romanticization of anal penetration which dominate gay male life.

For if, as the analists claim, penetration is the highest form of intimacy between two men, then clearly skin-on-skin anal is its ultimate and purest expression.

So long as gay men are force-fed and believe the message that "it has to be anal to be gay," most of them will bareback some of the time, many will bareback all the time, and more than a few will actively seek to sero-convert in pursuit of the ultimate anal erotic high:

Death.

The only way to stop unsafe sex then is to debunk anal and destroy its mystique.

That's why on this Man2Man Alliance site we tell the truth about anal: that it's dirty -- because there's always fecal material present in the anus and rectum; dangerous -- because of the almost innumerable STIs, more than one potentially fatal, which are transmitted anally; and demeaning -- because it turns one man into a pseudo-woman and makes his partner his oppressor.

Frot (phallus-on-phallus sex), in contrast, offers men true skin-on-skin genital-to-genital contact, free of dirt, disease, and degradation. It's far less dangerous and far more pleasurable than anal, and in time it will become the majority practice, even among so-called gay men.

Out of the mouths of babes

Mr. Freeman, the author of the Rolling Stone piece, stands accused of fabricating quotes.

If he did I can't imagine why, since in my experience it's not necessary to falsely attribute farcical ideas to safer-sex educators, who consistently damn themselves in their own words.

For example, in a column for the Canadian online news-source 365Gay.com, AIDS Council of Toronto's safer-sex counselor James Murray remarked that "One lapse [in condom use] in nine months is consistent use."

Really? Where I come from, consistent means consistent, and a lapse means inconsistent, but apparently not in the topsy-turvy world of HIV education, where it's considered consistent to be inconsistent.

Similarly, and in the same column, James talked about a client who had developed a dangerous case of gonorrhea through unprotected anal (he had to be hospitalized and receive antibiotics intravenously), and then described exploring with him ways in which he might, despite that alarming experience, "still enjoy his butt" during "casual gay sex."

When I suggested, in a proposed rebuttal column (see Risk Reduction or Cultural Change) that it might be wiser to steer the client clear of anal and promiscuity, 365Gay refused to print it -- indeed, the putative publisher of 365Gay, Rob Sanders, said in an email that he'd like to, but that I'd "been around too long" and had "too many enemies."

So my article was dismissed on the grounds of longevity in the struggle and analist opprobrium -- not on its merits.

Mr. Freeman was luckier -- his article was printed, and in it he quotes an HIV educator as saying "If someone comes to me and says he wants to get HIV, I might work with him around why he wants to do it. But if in the end that's a decision he wants to make, there's a point where we have to respect people's decisions."

I don't know whether Mr. Freeman invented that quote, but in my experience, that's how the safer-sex boyz think -- "we have to respect people's decisions."

And it's really breath-taking.

Can we imagine any other area of life where moral relativism would be allowed to hold such total sway?

For example, would we say that if white people choose to murder Blacks, that's their decision?

Or if Germans choose to gas Jews, that's their decision?

Or if an otherwise healthy individual wants to shoot himself, we have to respect his decision?

No, we wouldn't.

It's only in the area of HIV and gay male life that we purport to believe that it's okay for people to acquire and even pass on a fatal disease.

Why?

Because it's transmitted anally, and we're not allowed to criticize anal.

Anal -- A Sacred Cow

Don't believe me? Ck out the message thread titled You should be put in jail on our Personal Stories board.

Jamie Turner, the author of those words, which were addressed to me, works for the same safer-sex LGBT clinic, Boston's Fenway Community Health, as does Dr. Marshall Forstein, who's quoted in Freeman's piece.

Forstein claims to have been misquoted.

But Jamie didn't. He admitted saying what he had said: that I should be put in jail for asserting that frot is safe -- but then added, after I had complained to his employers and after some no doubt significant prodding from his boss Lisa Whittemore, "Of course I didn't mean it."

Which is just as well, since Frot is safe: you can't get HIV, hepatitis C, or gonorrhea through frottage.

He also claimed that our site was homophobic.

In what way I wondered.

For our site is full not just of pictures of guys gettin it on cock2cock, but of rapt testimonials to the glories of love between men.

Some of them even penned by me.

Yet Jamie Turner, a safer sex educator, didn't hesitate to call me homophobic.

Which begs the question -- can someone who says that sex between men is one of the highest expressions of the human spirit be a homophobe?

I don't think so.

But Jamie Turner does.

Because in the world of the safer sex establishment, if you're critical of anal sex, effeminacy, and promiscuity, you're ipso facto a homophobe.

I told Turner that true homophobia was to be found among analists, barebackers, and bug chasers, who have created for gay men a world of humiliation, pain, disease, and death.

He didn't respond.

My colleague Chuck Tarver then asked him if he had been as vigilant in visiting bug-chasing and barebacking sites as he had been in visiting ours.

No reply.

So -- why is it homophobic to say that anal and disease and effeminacy and promiscuity are bad for you?

But not homophobic to say that bug-chasing is a personal decision?

And why is it okay to say that a frot activist should be put in jail?

And not okay to say the same of bug-chasing or barebacking activists?

I mean, can anyone imagine what would have happened if Mr. Freeman had suggested that the webmasters of bug-chasing sites be incarcerated?

He would have been savaged.

Case in point: when Stephen Gendin, leading light of the barebacking movement, died, he was accorded a hero's funeral, complete with an encomium from Larry Kramer.

Why? The reality is that his advocacy of barebacking got a lot of men infected with HIV, including, famously, his own lover, Kyle McDowell.

Yet how many men have been infected with HIV through the practices advocated on this Man2Man Alliance Frot site?

None. Not one.

Yet I should be put in jail, says safer-sex guru and Fenway Health employee Jamie Turner.

And, presumably, buried in Potter's Field.

The Responsibility of the Safer-Sex Establishment

So it's not just the bug-chasers and barebackers who are the problem. It's the whole culture of anal sex, including the safer-sex establishment.

And that's what we need to see in Mr. Freeman's article, whether he invented quotes or not.

That there's a dominant culture of anal sex among gay men, a culture which produces both barebacking and bug-chasing, and that safe sex educators facilitate not just the gay male obsession with but the gay male practice of anal -- even, it would seem, when being into anal includes an anal deathwish.

Of course the safer-sex establishment defends itself by claiming that its mandate does not extend to the sort of cultural change I advocate; that, rather, it's only empowered to reduce risk.

But, as I've said before, that argument is disingenuous at best. The reality is that the safer-sex establishment is now one of the greatest producers and conveyors of messages about sex and judgements about sex in our culture, and that safer-sex educators need to recognize and own up to their own role as major players in shaping the sexual culture of men who have sex with men.

Were they to do so, however, they would have to examine their own complicity, even if unwitting, in the continuing epidemic, start to rein in their emphasis on anal, and begin to help the community make more realistic assessments of pleasure and risk.

Assessments which would, inevitably, expose anal penetration for the poor substitute for true genital sex between men that it is.

So what is needed is for men who have sex with men, but most particularly gay men, to begin to understand that anal, promiscuity, and effeminacy are profoundly homophobic, and that the current emphases in gay male life on anal raunch, dom/sub kink, and pussyboy sleaze all pander to gay self-hatred and sexual loathing.

Comprehension of that sort -- of not just the physical but the psychological and spiritual reality of anal penetration -- would stop not just the current epidemic, but the next one that's out there waiting to happen, dead in their tracks.

Bill Weintraub

February 1, 2003


For further discussion of these points, please see our Man2Man Alliance policy paper
Multicultural Pansexualism or Heroic Love
and the introductory section of our
Media Watch column.



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