Opinion
4 min

How bareback culture has evolved since the AIDS epidemic

For some, bareback sex is intimate and liberating. For others, it’s dangerous and frightening

“With the research finding that being undetectable means it’s highly unlikely to transmit HIV, we’ve entered a new era that can once again re-visit barebacking.” Credit: Elvert Barnes/Flickr/Creative Commons

When I was in my early 20s, I had bareback sex for the first time. 

It was with this French guy. We had a long-distance relationship and I was planning on moving to France for him. We both got tested for HIV, and the results were negative so we decided to fuck “raw” during one visit. The taboo of it seemed to make the sex hotter — for the first few times anyway. 

There was also a level of intimacy; it made us feel much more committed to each other. I ended up moving to France. 

I’d always been fascinated by bareback sex. Whenever I saw guys fucking raw in porn or at a bathhouse, I always thought it was really hot but I was so terrified by the virus that I also found these scenes unsettling. I’d wondered whether they were HIV-positive, or if just they didn’t care whether they became positive. And if that was the case, why didn’t they care?

The latex condom was created in the 1920s, but with all the issues people had with them, condomless sex wasn’t out of the norm before the AIDS epidemic. With the advent of antibiotics in the 1930s and 1940s, gonorrhea and syphilis were curable while other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) were manageable, if not completely treatable.

As a result, most Americans were willing to chance it with unprotected sex, so much so that between 1965 and 1970, condom use had dropped to half, (in sociologist Joshua Gamson’s essay “Rubber Wars,” he says that during those five years, condom use declined 22 percent). 

The Gay Men’s Health Project in New York tried to distribute condoms in a bathhouse during the 1970s, but they didn’t catch on — one criticism was that gay men saw condoms as a contraceptive method for straight folks. Sales in the US then fell by half during the mid-1970s and 1980s. Then came HIV in 1981.

By 1983, the cause of AIDS was still unknown. What they did know was that it was sexually transmitted and there was good reason to believe that semen was the major mode for this transmission. A booklet called “How to Have Sex in an Epidemic” appeared in May of that year, which was one of the two publications to promote condom use as a preventative tool. 

Between 1986 and 1987, condom sales jumped 20 percent nationwide at US drugstores.

Still, bareback sex means different things to different people. For some, it’s frightening, dangerous and irresponsible. For others it’s intimate, liberating and natural.

The late 1990s and early 2000s gave rise to parties and events exclusively for bareback culture. Biohazardmen, a party in Berlin that’s been going on for more than a decade, is for HIV-positive men. According to their rules, anybody who attends the party is declaring that they are HIV-positive and understands that everybody else at the party is positive too — there should be no discussion about HIV or health status, illness or medication whatsoever. 

There’s also, BarebackRT.com, the largest hook-up site for barebacking. The site allows for inclusive sero-status profile options, from “Positive” and “Undetectable” to “Neg + PrEP” and “Do Not Care.”

The bareback scene continued to evolve further in 2010 with the CumUnion sex parties (they label themselves as “pro-choice” without explicitly saying that it’s a bareback sex party, which still reinforces the taboo), with the first following Dore Alley in San Francisco that year. This “pro-choice” party grew in popularity over the last six years, hosting more than 30 parties every month in 23 cities around the world, including at Steamworks in Toronto.  

When Truvada was approved for PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) in 2012, it allowed men the same bareback experience but without fear of contracting HIV. But PrEP created a division in opinion, often based on morality, unfounded fear and judgement. While some say it encourages risky and irresponsible behaviour, PrEP has also allowed HIV-positive and negative men to come together without stigma or fear. With the research finding that being undetectable means it’s highly unlikely to transmit HIV, we’ve entered a new era that can once again re-visit barebacking.  

But there’s still intense opposition to bareback sex, even with PrEP. Serosorting continues to divide HIV-positive and negative men. PrEP is still not accessible to everyone. The president of AIDS Healthcare Foundation, Michael Weinstein, has been adamantly against PrEP, infamously calling it a “party drug.” In my opinion, his questionable intentions have caused more harm than good. 

PrEP may not be perfect — it doesn’t protect against other STIs, for example —but it’s a highly effective tool in preventing the transmission of HIV. In the US, where there were over 39,000 people infected with HIV in 2015, which could’ve been prevented with PrEP, it seems wrong that the leader of such a large organization would dismiss it, and then double-down on that claim.

Despite this, his perspective does offer insight as to why these taboos exist. Weinstein claims that the successful promotion of safe sex was one of the biggest legacies of the AIDS movement, with condoms at the centre of this prevention movement. I can’t argue with that, but what he fails to realize is that PrEP is now safe sex too. Perhaps this history is why some people have trouble letting go of old-school notions.

Fear of STI transmission also seems to contribute to this taboo, which is definitely something to consider while having bareback sex.

Support and opposition for bareback sex, condoms and PrEP will surely continue until we find a cure for HIV/AIDS. For me, bareback sex is just not an option right now. I’m no longer on PrEP and as far as I know I’m negative, so condoms are necessary. 

To be honest, I still find sex with condoms amazing, so to each their own.