It’s interesting, isn’t it, that barebacking is a term given to the behaviour of men who habitually have sex with other men without using condoms, yet there is no similar term for straight people who regularly engage in condomless sex. There is no barebacking subculture among heterosexuals, as there is among gay men.
Condomless sex among straight people certainly does not receive the same negative attention that gay barebacking receives. In fact, “barebacking” in the straight community receives very little attention at all. So why is it, that when it’s performed among gay men, it’s scornful, but among straight people, it’s normal?
Yes, we have barebacking in the straight community - we call it sex. Sometimes we call it condomless sex. A mistake. A moment of passion. A possible lapse in judgment.
Many established straight couples have sex without condoms. Many straight people who meet in bars and have casual sex do as well, but, as I said, it has no real name, no real identity attached to it, no real stigma. As far as I know, there is no real subculture for “condomless sex” among straights. There are certainly men who pride themselves on not using condoms, or who claim they simply cannot, but I don’t think they’re thought of as a subculture. I don’t think most straight people even know what the term “barebacking” means, to be honest.
While I recognize that barebacking as an identity and as a subculture is complex and the reasons it exists are many, I think the fact that there is even a term for it in the gay community but not in the straight community reflects the stigma surrounding gay sex in general. Meanwhile, barebacking has become a source of pride and identity for some gay men, perhaps even a response to some of the stigma - and perceived danger - that surrounds gay sex, so that it has become even more eroticized.
But in the straight community, is condomless sex the source of any particular eroticism? It’s clear that the exchange of semen is important for many gay men. I do think semen holds a sense of eroticism for straight women as well. Most of the women I know who like being ejaculated in like it because of the intimacy it provides. It is deeply personal, this exchange of bodily fluids, and can even sometimes result in the creation of human life. Knowing that possibility, I think, makes the act even more intimate-,a possibility of being connected to this person through another human being for the rest of your life. I suppose in that way, condomless sex is different in heterosexual sex. However, as Tim Dean suggests in his book Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking, the possibility of HIV transmission for gay men, can provide a similar connection.
Dean notes that there are three barebacking categories: those with the “desire or intention not to transmit HIV, barebacking with indifference to HIV, and barebacking with a desire or intention for viral transmission”.
Dean makes the argument that part of the excitement of barebacking, what makes it so desirable for many men, is the risk associated with it, the risk of contracting HIV. Some men actively and willingly seek out HIV men to bareback with. At one point, Dean refers to this as a “fantasy of risk” .
I suppose, if you’re not on the pill, perhaps there is a similar element of risk among heterosexual women that is exciting, but again, I really don’t think this constitutes a subculture. I’ve never heard of women admitting that they are excited by having condomless sex because of the risk associated with it, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.
I find it fascinating that “in bareback subculture being sexually penetrated is a matter of ‘taking it like a man’, enduring without complaint any discomfort or temporary loss of status, in order to prove one’s masculinity”. This hypermasculization of bottoming and barebacking could well be seen as a response to the stereotyping of gay men as feminine. I find this connection of barebacking or “taking a load” to masculinity interesting. Alternatively, I suppose in heterosexual sex, “taking a load” could be viewed as extremely feminine, because, if you’re not on the pill, it may cause the most “feminine” of results, getting pregnant.
When the possibility of HIV infection is an added risk, barebacking for some becomes even more eroticized. Dean describes getting HIV as a war wound, a sign of strength, and seroconverting as somewhat akin to losing one’s virginity. While I understand Dean’s point of bottoming and contracting HIV as masculine, it leaves me questioning- what about women who become HIV positive? By this definition, are they somehow less feminine?
Sometimes I wonder if it is the terming of barebacking itself that contributes to the stereotyping of gay men as mainly responsible for the continuation of HIV transmission. Even though new infections are rising in women, many people still erroneously view HIV as a “gay disease”. This can make prevention methods targeted to other groups less effective and can further stigmatize gay men. However, i t cannot be denied that HIV transmission risk is higher for anal sex than vaginal sex. But the reality is that condomless sex for anyone is a risk. Deeming barebacking among gay and bisexual men as irresponsible, but leaving silent what happens in straight sex all the time, not only further stigmatizes gay sex, but it also removes the responsibility of straight people to look at their own behaviours and the consequences of them.