Michael Weinstein, President of AIDS Healthcare Foundation
“Condoms are for pussies,” reads porn performer Mike Dozer’s T-shirt. The rapid increase in bareback porn is just one indication of the culture war that is brewing within the gay community regarding safer sex.
At the same time that gay marriage is about to become legal in the state of Virginia, many countries—like India, Nigeria, Uganda and the Ukraine—that are passing brutal anti-gay laws. (This will be the subject of my next column.) The gay culture wars are at full throttle.
If we go back to the very beginning of the AIDS epidemic, the gay community was slow to raise the alarm about sexual transmission of HIV. And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts, published in 1987, chronicled the reluctance of gay leadership to call for emergency measures to stop the spread of HIV at a time when AIDS was a death sentence. This, coupled with President Reagan not even mentioning the word AIDS for years, helped lead to the rapid spread of HIV and the deaths of hundreds of thousands.
The feeling then, as it is now, is that the gay community has fought for sexual liberation and we are damned if anyone is going to take it from us. Nevertheless, the relentless death of our brothers led to a radical change in behavior around 1985. Condom use became the norm in real life and in gay porn. And a remarkable thing happened—rates of HIV came down.
In 1996, the treatment revolution changed the landscape. The drug cocktail took HIV from being a certain death to a manageable disease. In the early years of these treatments, the regimens were complicated and the side effects noxious. In other words, treatment was no picnic. But in recent years, with the advent of one-pill-once-a-day medications, with fewer side effects, the fear of HIV has diminished, something we should all celebrate.
At the same time, syphilis is off the charts, HIV rates are stubbornly high and condom use is declining. And, there are louder and louder voices speaking out in favor of sexual license—“anything goes.” Implicit in what they are saying is that gay men have a ‘right’ to have whatever kind of sex they want no matter what the danger is to themselves or others—public health be damned.
This whole discussion is very confusing for the community at large. First, the majority of gay men are still using condoms. But any man would rather bareback if there were no consequences. These men are being told that protecting themselves with condoms in uncool, and that if you do become HIV-positve it is no big deal. If this point of view becomes the norm, we are in for big trouble. From both a health and political point of view, responsibility should trump sexual abandon. The older generation has a responsibility to tell young people that unprotected sex has profound implications and that we want you to stay negative.
Leadership means leading. Leading involves telling people things they may not want to hear. Men want to have unprotected sex without paying a price. But a price will be paid for them and our community at large. We aren’t doomed to make the same mistakes we made before unless we ignore the lessons of our own history.