Letters to POZ
Dear Community Members,
In November of 1999, the national HIV publication POZ ran an article by barebacking activist Stephen Gendin and his lover Kyle McDowell describing how Stephen had infected Kyle (who had been HIV negative) with a multi-drug-resistant strain of the virus during unprotected anal sex.
I thought their courageous first-person account was a clear example of the dangers of what I call the cultural dominance of anal sex among gay men and of the refusal by the national gay media to examine both the causes of that dominance and sexual alternatives.
So I wrote a letter to the editor.
POZ refused to run it, and has in general refused to run any examination of anal sex or frot.
But POZ did run about 30 letters condemning Stephen as evil.
I don't think Stephen was evil. I think he was acting on a cultural impulse that had been insufficiently examined, on what historians of ideas call "received ideas," that is, ideas that most people take to be true without examination.
The idea among gay men that anal sex is the "best" kind of sex is a good example of a received idea. It needs to be reconsidered.
In any case, Stephen died in July. He was a good guy. He was a barebacking activist, and I think that's a bad cause. But he was a good guy.
Below you'll find two letters to POZ, the original from late October 1999 and a second from August of this year. I hope you'll read them.
One of the reasons I'm doing this website is in the hope of bringing together enough men into frot that we might begin to effectively challenge the national gay consensus on anal sex.
I'm open to suggestions on how to do that -- but I think one way is to persude the national media to run letters like these.
FIRST LETTER TO POZ:
October 29, 1999
To the Editor:
What a sad story Stephen Gendin and Kyle McDowell tell ["Protect Me From What I Want," POZ, November, 1999]. And how brave of them to tell it.
But I wonder if they have been victims not only of HIV but of certain received ideas about sex and romance as well, namely that anal intercourse is the most important expression of male-male intimacy, and should be the culminating event of any act of male-male love. It's striking that neither of them ever seems to have seriously considered that a great passion could be expressed in a way that was less dangerous.
In point of fact, the primacy of anal sex in gay male life is relatively recent. When I came out, at the beginning of the Gay Liberation movement, sexual matters were decidedly laissez-faire, and so far as I could tell no one sexual act was deemed of greater import than another.
That began to change in the middle of the 1970s, when gay men started to assume the trappings of an ethnic group, with increasingly rigid standards about appearance, politics, and sex. As America moved toward Reaganite conservatism, it was the hyper-masculine clone and with him anal intercourse, with its patriarchal ranking of tops and bottoms, that came to dominate gay male life. And, ironically, although in the mid-80s Safer Sex educators tried to legitimize alternatives to fucking, their necessary emphasis on condoms only served to further intensify the identification of gay sex with penetrative sex.
I was acutely aware of this change in sexual mores, because neither as a lonely adolescent nor as a sexually active adult was I interested in anal sex. My fantasies and my practice instead centered around a type of sex that I called cock-rubbing and that my peers, often dismissively, called frottage.
Despite enormous pressure to conform, I resisted those who wanted me to betray my most inward impulses, in part because, as a Gay Liberationist, I believed that any attempt to impose a sexual straitjacket was morally wrong. In time I met a truly wonderful man who accepted and loved me, sexually and in every other way, for who I was, and we became lovers. Although eventually HIV, which he had acquired before we met, claimed his life, we had a long, loving, and passionate sexual life together, spanning more than a decade, in which anal intercourse played almost no part, and in which there was none of the falling off of interest which Stephen and Kyle report.
So anality is not always the answer. Indeed, having lived close to thirty years as an openly gay man in an America gripped by sexual hysteria and erotophobia, I have concluded that the only way to survive is to constantly challenge the dominant paradigm, be it heterosexuality or anal intercourse. From my perspective, bare backing, which last year Sean Strub and others tried to elevate to the level of a revolutionary act, merely supports the status quo, that is the (fallacious) idea that the only real sex is anal sex, and that unprotected anal sex is its truest expression. But sex is what you make it: cock-rubbing can be every bit as intense, as passionate, and as intimate as butt-fucking. And the truth about bare backing is simple: it's dangerous. It would remain so even if a cure for HIV were found tomorrow. Sadly, the world is an unforgiving place, and to expose a vulnerable part of your body to every pathogen that may come tripping down the garden path is suicidal.
Ultimately, however, the issue is not one type of sex rather than another. What matters is history -- knowing how you got where you are - and ideology -- figuring out what you believe and understanding the consequences of those beliefs for your life. Yet POZ rarely offers reliable guidance in either of these areas. For example, the term Gay Liberation is not often encountered in the pages of POZ, unless it's being used by some neo-conservative like Andrew Sullivan to defame a generation of activists and heroes. But Gay Liberation -- both its history and its beliefs - is relevant to the lives of young men like Stephen and Kyle precisely because it was not about the imposition of a new set of sexual standards or rules, which it understood to be destructive; rather Gay Lib was part of a larger movement that encouraged people to question authority and to discover and express their authentic sexualities in self-loving ways. POZ would better serve its readers if, before it took off on flights of pseudo-revolutionary fancy, it made some effort to understand, and accurately report, the principles of our truly revolutionary past.
SECOND LETTER TO POZ:
August 14, 2000
To the editor:
Kudos to publisher Brad Peebles for bringing attention to questions of personal responsibility and self-hate in rising infection rates.
In so doing, he echoed some of the points I made in my letter to the editor published in POZ a month earlier (8/00).
But he didn't go far enough. For months now I have been knocking at POZ's door, asking you to run a letter examining the underlying cultural assumptions that led Stephen Gendin and Kyle McDowell, and by extension thousands of others, into a disastrous personal decision. You have refused on grounds of length. I have asked you to publish a link to an article of mine in another journal (White Crane) raising similar questions. You won't even reply to that request.
What I say is this: People are dying. To hell with length, and to hell with your notions of journalistic etiquette.
I was there, 18 years ago, when Larry Kramer first announced, in effect, that "We Are Killing Ourselves." Like a lot of other people who knew Larry, I liked him but thought he was being erotophobic and hysterical.
Guess what? I was wrong. He was right.
For 18 years now we have waited for science to pull a rabbit out of a hat. Hasn't happened. We used to complain that funding was too low. But we've just gone through 8 years of the most liberal AIDS-funding-friendly administration that we're ever likely to see. And we still don't have a cure, and POZ itself admits that a cure is not likely anytime soon.
Yet it is in our power to end the epidemic, in the sense of stopping new infection, today. But in order to do that we have to look really hard at the cultural assumptions underlying the dominance of anal sex in gay male life. That's the only way to do it. It's simply not enough to tell people to be safe. As long as man penetrating man is celebrated as the ultimate gay sex act, as long as frottage and JO and a host of other forms of sex are sneered at as marginal and incomplete, people will continue to have unsafe anal sex. That is the logic of the cultural dominance of anal sex, and it is inescapable.
A few days ago I posted the URL to the White Crane article, the URL (www.whitecranejournal.com/wc01080.htm) that you guys refuse to run, at a couple of the Yahoo frottage and related clubs. I was overwhelmed by the email and instant messenger response. Man after man thanked me and confirmed that they'd been put down repeatedly for not being into anal sex. It was the sort of grass roots upwelling that I hadn't seen in years.
But of course POZ wasn't in on it.
Why? Because POZ has now become part of a bloated AIDS establishment, unable and unwilling to effectively examine the behaviors that prop it up. The pity is that for so long as POZ and institutions like it remain so willfully blind, the epidemic will continue.
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