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Tuesday 09 November 2010

Religion, Risk and Unsafe Sex?

Posted in: Comment
By Craig Young - 15th February 2010

Do former Pentecostal religious allegiances lead gay men into unsafe sex?

I'm not talking solely about self-esteem issues from a religious upbringing or past church membership that casts gay men as diseased, mentally ill, pathological and/or 'sinful.' These issues can be dealt with through therapy or antidepressant medication. Instead, I am talking about Pentecostal belief structures and how they might shape uptake of gay identity.

Pentecostalism emphasises supernatural intervention and perceives the surrounding world in terms of enveloping 'positive' or 'negative' 'spiritual' influences. Secular popular culture is 'demonic,' but 'signs and wonders' and 'miracles' can 'occur' within Pentecostal sects. In New Zealand, we're probably most familiar with televangelists Peter Mortlock and Brian Tamaki or elderly antigay fixture Bill Subritzky.

It was when I read about US 'snake handler' Pentecostalism that alarm bells began to go off inside my mind. Granted, this version of the belief structure is mostly limited to the Southern United States, but this particular risktaking mindset may well be applicable to other risk-taking activities within Pentecostal sects- or outside them? Shortly after the emergence of Pentecostalism as a distinctive form of fundamentalist Christianity in 1907, one George Went Hensley founded the first Pentecostal snake-handler sects, arguing that he was immune to their venom, back in 1910.

Now, to be charitable but sceptical, there may be many reasons for this- nonvenomous or pretrained reptiles, low temperature sluggish animal behaviour, prior venom milking, dietary satiation or relative domestication. However, these commonsense precautions didn't occur to subsequent snake-handler sects, with the result that therewas a steady stream of venomous snakebite fatalities throughout the twentieth century. Indeed, Hensley himself succumbed in 1955!

How is this belief structure relevant to unsafe sex? To test any theoretical causal relationship between recent or ongoing Pentecostal religious allegiance and unsafe sexual behaviour amongst gay men or men who have sex with men, we would need to evaluate whether the ex or current Pentecostal man who has sex with men still has a 'providential' approach to risktaking behaviour, assuming that the deity will 'magically' protect him if he undertakes unsafe sex. We could also check whether Pentecostals have higher than usual rates of industrial accidents, motor vehicle fatalities, STI exposure and/or other indications of high risk-taking behaviour. But would this apply to unsafe sex as well?

In anecdotal instances, there does seem to be a case to answer. In his account of fallen US Christian Right activist and megachurch minister Ted Haggard, Mike Jones recorded that Haggard did P/crystal meth while visiting him when he was a gay sex worker. Granted, low self-esteem could be one background factor behind use of this dangerous drug, but what is the relationship between latent or active Pentecostalism, supernaturalist disregard for rational risk aversion and precautions, low self-esteem and actual risky behaviour? Remember, there is a partially causal relationship between P/crystal meth use and consequent unsafe sex between men.

(Although he was a conservative Catholic, much the same applies to French right-wing Catholic gay author Marcel Jouhandeau. He kept undergoing sexual 'binges' with men, followed by intervals of 'repentance' and then consequent 'indulgence' in forbidden fruits (...) as it were.)

Moreover, as in Haggard's case, there may also be signs of oscillating and unstable interaction with gay sex on site venues and sex workers, and this unstable gay personal identification may impede their uptake or processing of gay safe sex media and messages.

Wemay need to investigate the biographical backgrounds of ex-Pentecostal gay men who have had sex with men seriously as a potential risk factor for unsafe sex, particularly given supernaturalist approaches to denial of risk and conflict about identity and applicability of prevention messages to their particular instances.


Mike Jones: I Had to Say Something: The Art of Ted Haggard's Fall: New York: Seven Stories Press: 2007.

Chris Mikuls: The Cult Files: Millers Point: Pier 9: 2009.

Craig Young - 15th February 2010

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