Risk Reduction


Cultural Change?


Bill Weintraub

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In a recent 365Gay.com column, safer sex educator James Murray related the frightening story of a man who had contracted gonorrhea anally. The gonorrhea got into his bloodstream and he required intravenous treatments in a hospital.

Fortunately, the man recovered, and James devoted the rest of the column to examining the possible causes of the infection, including a lapse in condom use, and discussing ways in which the man might safely "still enjoy his butt" and "casual gay sex."

I wonder if this sort of advice is the best we as a community can do.

It's not that I doubt for a moment James Murray's or any other safer-sex educator's sincerity or dedication to helping men remain disease-free.

It's that I believe that the safer-sex establishment has defined its task too narrowly -- that it's concentrated on "risk-reduction," rather than looking at and attempting to change the underlying cultural messages which have gotten so many gay and bi men into serious and often fatal trouble.

Take for example the question of facilitating promiscuous anal sex, or, as James put it, helping a guy "enjoy his butt" during "casual gay sex."

Is anal sex worth propping up in this way? I think that upon reasoned examination we can see that it's not, for the truth is that in terms of both pleasure and risk, anal sex is a dubious practice to maintain at the center of our sexual culture.

First of all, there's a pronounced pleasure inequality in anal sex, particularly for the person being penetrated, the so-called bottom.

Gayhealth.com makes two telling statements about what he feels.

The first is that "the anus is not a vagina," by which gayhealth.com means that the anus is not an organ of sexual pleasure. And, gayhealth.com goes on to say, the pleasure for the bottom is, therefore, "psychological."

Which I would suggest is a polite term for "imaginary."

Of course many gay men will tell you that the brain -- that is to say the imagination -- is the biggest sex organ of them all.

But that isn't true. Just ask a man who's been rendered impotent by age or physical illness. The genitals are the generators of erotic energy, and though we may, either alone or with a partner, impose a fantasy upon our erotic sensations, those sensations are coming from our genitals, not from our brains.

In anal, whatever the man being penetrated imagines he's feeling, it's not genital, and in reality being penetrated anally is a poor substitute for genital sex.

Of course the man doing the penetrating, the so-called top, does experience very direct genital stimulation -- unless he's wearing a condom, as he should be, in which case his sensation is diminished.

Which is the second major problem with anal -- that unprotected anal sex is a vector for almost every sexually transmitted disease, and that, as James Murray points out, even a finger in the anus can transmit a potentially lethal infection.

Why then, if the pleasure in anal is unequal and variable at best, and the health risks so great, is anal considered superior to other forms of gay male sex?

The answer I believe is clear: Anal is exalted because it mimics heterosexual intercourse - by establishing penetrative hierarchies of top and bottom, dominant and submissive, male and pseudo-female.

Is that bad? Sure it is, for it plays into internalized homophobia, our worst enemy.

Many LGBT people, once they've come out, believe that they've left internalized homophobia behind, that only homophobia coming from the nongay majority need concern them.

Unfortunately that isn't true. It simply isn't that easy to shed the lessons learned in childhood, particularly when they're reinforced by so many of the cultural institutions in which we all live, surrounded by fundamentalists and posturing politicians and faggot-hating jocks and foul-mouthed rock stars and a homophobic military and an ambivalent media -- all of whom believe, on some level, that gay men are women.

And poor substitutes for women at that.

That's why there's so much parodic femininity among gay men - because they've internalized that homophobic self-image.

Many observers of the Holocaust have described how Jewish self-hate, a product of worldwide anti-Semitic propaganda, made it easier for the Nazis to exterminate the Jews -- remarkably, most Jews cooperated with their oppressors, in part because they believed that they were as manipulative, greedy, and ugly as their killers claimed, and therefore less deserving of life.

After the Holocaust Jews realized they had to take self-hate and its destructive effects very seriously, and it's not surprising therefore that Larry Kramer, himself a Jew, was the first AIDS commentator to point out that no other minority would have accepted the level of death that gay men did.

Larry, that is to say, correctly saw our tolerance of the epidemic and the behavior that spread it as a symptom of our own self-loathing.

To which I would add that another symptom of that self-loathing is our gay male topsy-turvy devaluation of oral and frottage, both of which are less risky than anal, and both of which offer far more mutuality of pleasure -- in frottage in particular, sex is genital-genital, the experience is equal, and the erotic stimulation is as great as it can be between two men.

Yet, despite anal's many problems, and the existence of attractive alternatives to anal, safer-sex educators have concentrated on anal risk-reduction, rather than questioning the primacy of anal itself, justifying their actions by saying their mandate doesn't extend to cultural change.

But I think that stance is disingenuous at best. The truth about the safer-sex community is that it's in the business of changing behavior by formulating and disseminating cultural messages about sex, that those messages inevitably impact the culture, and that one of the effects of its focus on repetitive messages about anal sex and condoms has been to strengthen the dominance of anal sex in gay male life.

Although that effect was no doubt inadvertent, it has to be corrected, for its continuation ignores a substantial segment of the community, may very well be increasing unsafe behavior, and arguably constitutes a misuse both of public and community monies and of the community's trust.

So were I giving advice to James Murray's client, I would suggest to him that there are highly pleasurable and less dangerous alternatives to anal sex, and that safe promiscuity is an oxymoron -- a contradiction in terms.

If enough of us in the community of men who have sex with men start thinking and talking in this way, there will be a genuine cultural shift among gay and bi men. Our assessments of the pleasure and risk in anal will become more realistic, and promiscuity less fashionable.

There's a role for the safer-sex establishment in this process, but not until it drops the polite fiction that all it's been doing is risk-reduction. Because that's not true. The safer-sex community is a primary formulator and purveyor of cultural messages about sex, and at present, those messages are supporting anal sex and promiscuity.

Bill Weintraub

Please note that "Risk Reduction or Cultural Change" is the third article of a trilogy on gay male sexual mores. The first two, which were published, are

Part 1: Is Gay Sex Trying Too Hard to be Straight?; and

Part 2: Do Gay Men Have to be Promiscuous?

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