The Institute for Sexual Health has started a new program called The Men’s Room. It’s described as “a series of frank, challenging and enlightening seminars.” The Institute’s Diverse Sexuality and Gender Program works with marginalized communities in a sexually affirmative way, and created The Men’s Room to foster psychological and sexual health.
The first meeting of The Men’s Room is sure to be a provocative and penetrating discussion, as it’s titled “In Deep: The Psychology of Barebacking.” I had the opportunity to talk with two of the therapists working on The Men’s Room—Michael Liberatore, MFT, and Rick Coons, Psy.D. What follows is a candid and honest discussion about gay men’s sexuality, HIV and barebacking.
What would you like to accomplish with The Men’s Room?
Michael Liberatore: The impetus for The Men’s Room is to talk about some charged subjects but to approach it with absolutely no stigma or shame. We want people to come there to have a healthy dialogue.
How is this discussion groups different than a support group?
ML: Support groups have collective goals where as in a forum, people are exchanging information but it’s not necessarily with an agenda that we are going to accomplish goals for people. Leading a group is a skill and part of the skill is knowing when it’s time to shut somebody down who is holding the group for hostage and when to allow people to speak and how to do it in a way that you aren’t bringing shame up for them.
Rick Coons: From the years we’ve been doing this, it’s second nature.
How can gay men be empowered by their sexuality and not stigmatized?
ML: I think it’s all about shame. If we talk about how the community can empower themselves, it’s about letting go of shame.
RC: As long as they are making choices based on informed risk and informed decisions, then that, for me, feels more like a basis for a healthy sexuality than one where you are making a choice and you don’t even know why.
Is barebacking a trend, a behavior, a community?
ML: We were looking at community as unexplored reasons why people bareback. Because I think that it’s so much more then being burned out on using condoms after 20 years. I think gay men are in constant search for community. We leave our small towns or get thrown out of our homes and we are still trying to find a community, whatever that community may be. Who knows if you are part of the bareback community? It’s like being part of the leather community, for example, you find like-minded people and it becomes a way of life. There are people that really live the lifestyle.
How would you describe the bareback community?
ML: I don’t know if we have that information. I think that is something that we are still hoping to find out. I don’t think we really know who it is. Is it a radical, in-your-face fuck you or is it someone who says “It feels good, I don’t want to wear a condom”? Who knows who that is.
Is barebacking a fetish or just condomless sex?
ML: It depends on how integrated it is to your life. If you go out and meet someone and don’t use condoms, are you part of the community or are you purposely and defiantly saying I will not use condoms for sex?
Can you have sex without condoms but not choose to be part of that community?
RC: These are the questions that we will explore. You have people that identify as part of the community and others who simply share the same behavior, and we hope to have all kinds as part of the discussion. Gay men seeking radically different identity find it in the bareback community and those who do it…
ML: There are people that will have sex without a condom and view it as a radical act and there are people who will have sex without a condom and just view it as sex, not radical at all.
How have prevention messages impacted gay men’s sexuality and their thoughts on barebacking?
RC: When prevention becomes that extreme position of safe sex, it causes the opposite effect in many people. [Prevention messages] are afraid to have the complicated, honest and nuanced discussion and allow people to decide for themselves what they are comfortable with. Prevention has an all-or-nothing strategy, and when you get into that, it starts to backfire.
Is there value in skin-to-skin contact or semen exchange?
RC: This will be a very useful part of the discussion. Some people like it and they don’t know why. And then just to have the discussion of what it means to that particular person, the intimacy and the bonding.
ML: Some view it as extremely intimate and others as a radical act. There is no right or wrong answer. It’s all up to the individual.
How does treatment as prevention and PrEP impact this discussion?
RC: People say, “Why do we need another reason for gay men not to use a condom?” It would be like denying the pill to women and saying, “Why do we need another reason for straight people not to use a condom?” It’s finding out how we can have more enjoyable sex that feels better, in a way that is safer. As a poz man with an undetectable viral load, I feel less anxious about giving the virus to anyone else. It’s a great choice people can have. Peace of mind that comes from knowing transmission is less likely.
Do gay men need to discover bareback sex or is it something they know instinctually? Can they learn it from porn or is it intrinsic to our sexuality?
ML: I came out in 1982 and I remember being in college and seeing an article about gay cancer; from the very moment I first conceptualized sex with a man, it did involve a condom. Out of fear. There was no option because of the fear around HIV.
RC: Look how unnatural natural sex is for people these days. Gay men need to be reintroduced to the concept of sex without condoms because we’ve been so deprived of it. The conversation is long overdue. We’re told to think of a very natural behavior as unnatural. We need to take a step back and say, “What is really going on here? What is the science?” Based on that. Let’s make informed choices.
ML: People need to discover how to talk about it again. How to acknowledge, even if they aren’t going to do it, that it’s a fun, sexy thought; that they don’t have to be afraid. That was the value when Treasure Island started pioneering raw sex videos—so that people could have the fantasy to facilitate a healthy conversation, or letting yourself indulge in the fantasy of what it might be like without shame.
How can gay men deal with the community expectation that they should always use a condom or else betray all the past generation worked for?
ML: I think it’s a gigantic gray area. It’s a really difficult situation for older gay men who buried three quarters of their friends. I lost a lover and more friends than I can count. Sometime two or three memorial services in the course of a weekend. It’s a really difficult thing to deprogram yourself from those memories. People in their 20s or 30s have no exposure to that. Unless you’ve lived it, you can’t imagine what that is like.
That’s not an easy answer to that question. It would require divorcing yourself form the trauma you experienced and you can’t divorce yourself from trauma. But keep the open mind that says we get to experience the sex we want to experience and we can’t be the arbiters of what’s right and what’s wrong. Looking at where your feelings of shame come from. Are you inheriting shame from somebody else foisting it on you and can you step out from underneath it? And say,“I don’t know if what I am doing is good or bad, but I need to experiment for myself and find out. Who am I really betraying?”
Don’t we have an obligation at some point to look at what our own needs are? Am I being true to myself, am I betraying myself? Fully understand that the consequences were my choice. People have the right to determine what’s going to happen in their life and then own the responsibility for it.
At 41, I seroconverted. I had lived through the very dark years in New York City. I was probably the only negative person in ACT UP. When I got it at 41, people asked, “Who gave it to you?” and I thought nobody gave it to me. I gave it to me. I made a decision that I didn’t want to do this anymore and I lived with the consequences of the choice.
RC: Those choices are based on a different reality. Some other components in this discussion that influence it are: the generational divide, which is huge, ageism, generational difference and the lack of mentorship, bridges of different generational ideas. We aren’t learning from each other. And to put an entire generational guilt on to another generation I don’t think is fair. It’s unfair to put that much responsibility and guilt on an entire generation.
ML: Fear-based and shame-based environments prevent gay men from reaching their full potential. At some point we have to say, “The choices are yours.”
Is community preservation more important than self-determination? How do we inject that discussion into gay men’s lives?
ML: I think we are afraid to. Any type of radical sexually is not popular to talk about. People become very scared and uncomfortable. And it’s always been that way. You can’t talk about it. It’s so unhealthy to have that pervasive attitude of fear. That’s really what we want to accomplish. A place you can come and talk and have a safe space to do so. That is the only way people are going to self actualize and figure out the meaning they have attached to things and figure out how to take care of themselves. No one else is doing it. Come in and talk and we aren’t going to tell you you’re bad for doing it or to stop. What we are doing is unique. We get it—kink, adult entertainment, sex work.
What is the individual takeaway?
RC: We are starting the conversation. We want to build out services that get more specific. If you want to continue the conversation in a different forum, we can provide that as well and continue to do that.
How do you respond to the accusation that it’s glamorizing barebacking?
RC: That is the same argument against sex education or giving condoms to teenagers—that it’s going to promote or glamorize sex. A truthful, honest conversation is going to include all of it—what people like about it, the dangers of it. Let’s have a realistic conversation, because not having the conversation doesn’t work.