The bareback contradiction

June 28, 2012 in General

In a recent post about the Bareback Brotherhood (BBBH) movement, I expressed deep concerns about the motivations behind its founder, Mark Bentson, and some of the practices which seem to be endorsed – either directly or indirectly – by his writings: the horror-film scenarios of “stealthing” and “gifting”.

There are, of course, many men who engage in bareback sex consensually without sociopathic tendencies.  They find it erotic, and aligning themselves with the BBBH movement is itself a turn-on, despite the elements of pathology and psychopathy riding round the edges.  Why?

New research suggests that the answer can be found inside our eternally contradictory brains with a process called “compartmentalisation”.  That’s the thing that lets us know something is dangerous/bad for us while going ahead and doing it anyway.

It’s a distorted thought process that is often seen in people who, for example, are vehemently opposed to equal rights for gay people but inexplicably seem to unconditionally accept a gay family member or individual in their life, without seeing the dissonance.

A new paper published in a recent issue of the journal Qualitative Health Research, entitled “Inner Contradictions In Men Who Bareback”, asked questions of 120 men located in New York City who self-identified as “barebackers”.  The men were recruited through popular dating sites, and HIV-negative men were deliberately oversampled.

According to the researchers, the majority of these men interviewed expressed a simultaneous desire to remain HIV-negative and continue with sexual behaviour that they knew exposed them to higher risk of becoming infected.

What’s happening in the thought process of these men at the time the pants come off?  Firstly, a form of self-justification:

“But somewhere after you—after you make the choice [to bareback], you submit to the experience, and you get wrapped up into the experience. . . . How do you make your way back once you, once you, once you’ve made that agreement? It’s like signing a contract.”

Secondly, being aware of the risk but simply pushing it out of the way as something to be dealt with later:

“If someone doesn’t put [the condom] on, then I actually get a little more excited, that, oh my god, he’s actually going to fuck me without a condom. And at that time, it doesn’t really come in my mind that, oh, I should talk to him first if he’s negative, or . . . like, the risks involved, or does he do this often? Like, any of that stuff. I’ll say, like, no, no, no, it will just kill the moment. Let’s just do all that later.”

Thirdly, a sense of the invincible.  Some believed that because they’d dodged the bullet to date and remained negative, they would continue to do so:

“I mean, I always, always tended to go with the gut feeling. With the gut feeling. And in the twenty-five years I’ve been on this earth, it has never led me wrong.”

And finally, a complete acceptance of the contradiction:

R: You know what? I usually assume everyone is positive. Which makes it seem even more stupid of me to fuck without a condom, but I do it.
I: Does it trouble you?
R: Eh, I tend not to over-process that sort of part.

This last quote is a frightening inversion of the thought process that was more common in the pre-meds era of HIV.  As my friend Michael Stevens recalls:

One night back in the 90s at Volt (long gone alas) I was chatting with a guy, and said to him “I guess you should know I’m HIV+” and he said to me “You really don’t need to tell me that, in fact, you shouldn’t tell people. We should all just assume everyone is HIV+ and always play safe.”

Some men in the study continued to associate gay sex with disease and loss, and – counterintuitively – had managed to rediscover their excitement and joy surrounding it by engaging in behavior which was more likely to expose them to infection.

The question for us is, what do we do about this?

Despite strongly-branded campaigns from the New Zealand AIDS Foundation urging gay men to “love your condom”, there are clearly men who don’t, and there is a vacuum of discussion around why they don’t.

This research shows us that for some men, the accepted wisdom of making people aware of risk is not enough to change the risk-taking behavior, and in fact may reinforce their existing choices.

When it comes to our mental and sexual health, I believe we need to talk more with each other and have deeper, more honest conversations about how we feel and what we get up to.

The researchers believe that this is the missing link currently in HIV prevention, which is primarily focused on individual responsibility:

“…it is striking how often our research volunteers commented that the interviewer’s questions provided a rare and welcome opportunity to consider and reflect on their sexual behaviors, attitudes, and needs.

“As opportunities for the shared processing of decisions about sexual risk and satisfaction decline, individuals relying on their own emotional and intellectual resources naturally will seek plausible explanations for their individual behavior.”

We’re long overdue for some collective discussion on this.  Alongside the instruction to “love” your condom, we need to hear from real-life men telling us why they do – or don’t.

Thanks to Tony Hughes at the New Zealand AIDS Foundation for providing access to the research.  Originally published at

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