This article by Wilson Shaw @WilsonShawBeats first appeared in FS Magazine, a publication of GMFA, here.
“Do you bareback?” is a phrase I have heard so many times now I reckon it’s up there with how many times Adele’s album is being played round the world this second.
I’m a HIV-negative guy (as far as I know from my last test!) who really wants to get to the bottom of why I have noticed a pattern in my own sex life: I have encountered several men who tell me they are positive but undetectable and, on that basis, persistently ask for condomless sex, often refusing to have sex at all if I insist on using a condom.
I feel cautious opening up a discussion about this preference for condomless sex amongst HIV-positive men because I am not HIV-positive and do not want to contribute to the stigma people living with HIV face, but I talk about this from a place of compassion and eagerness to understand.
I want to avoid generalising about all men who are HIV positive – and focus specifically on the behaviour around condomless sex.
When asked about my status I say ‘as far as I know’ because I understand I might have an STI or HIV and not know it yet. I’ll admit I treat all sexual partners with the same scrutiny – not based on what they look like or how much I want to plough them.
It seems pretty obvious that those who are genuinely undetectable might want condomless sex due to the mounting evidence that when undetectable the virus cannot be transmitted to a sexual partner.
However, in a chill-out environment or on Grindr’s desolately impersonal chat service how can you possibly just take someone’s word for it (when they might not know themselves)? I’ve found more and more guys at these two locations take an all or nothing approach to condoms with sex. I’ve felt huge amounts of peer pressure in a group environment and sometimes have been one of only two or three guys at a group of 30 who use condoms.
The problem I have is that if I compromise for a guy and bareback there is a risk, whereas if he compromises and uses a condom there is almost none. I also don’t like arse to mouth so maybe that’s another reason why I prefer to use them.
So I want to hear from positive guys out there who prefer condomless sex.
Do you feel that condoms are less important once you have been diagnosed because you already have the infection?
Why can some not compromise and use a condom, considering the risks of having sex with a stranger?
If it’s just about how it feels, is it really worth putting yourself or someone else at risk of a variety of infections?
Do we as gay men feel the need to have condomless sex considering how normalised it is for our straight counterparts? Has it always been a rebellion?
I have wondered at times if, for some of the guys I have met, condomless sex may be rooted in a very self-destructive pattern of behaviour; from a source of pain and a lack of care for one’s own wellbeing. This would explain why chemsex and condomless sex do seem to go hand in hand sometimes. In both cases they put the individual in a more vulnerable situation.
Of course, this is very possibly a sanctimonious line of thinking – given that it’s unlikely I’d suggest it as a topic of frank discussion when I’m about to fuck someone. If things I have suggested are putting words into the mouths of men with HIV then I should be corrected – my aim is to increase understanding and awareness by an honest dialogue with men who clearly feel strongly about their preference for sex without a condom.
So tell me what you think.