“How could you be so stupid?” asks someone about having unprotected anal sex in the shockumentary, The Gift.
It’s a good question.
And judging by the moral outrage of those who attended the screening, it’s a question on the lips of a sizeable chunk of the gay community-or at least those with a strong enough interest in this film to turn out on a sunny Saturday afternoon.
The Gift, and its director, has drawn condemnation from other audiences as the film has toured the queer film festival circuit. The Gift is certainly a brilliantly provocative piece of emotional manipulation-I think the word propaganda is not out of line. But let’s be thankful if it starts a community-wide discussion that helps keep people HIV-negative-without shaming anyone.
The first time I saw it, at a home screening after agreeing to sit on a panel addressing the important issue of unprotected anal sex, I found myself all worked up and unable to shift from my emotions to my head. It brought back the anger and sadness I’d felt in 1994 when I wrote a piece for Xtra West featuring interviews with young gays having unprotected sex. It brought back the frustration I’d felt a couple of summers back when I kept running into men who wanted to be topped without my using a condom. I wrote about that last fall, and my refusal to take part in unprotected sex, suggesting that we as a community are failing these people and wondering what our collective response should be. Almost nobody wrote in with suggestions-where was the indignant audience who attended The Gift showing? (Xtra West has regularly explored the dangers, causes and potential responses concerning unprotected anal sex).
It took me another viewing, and some time spent deconstructing the messages in The Gift (messages about the gay community that Christian Republicans would not be uncomfortable sitting through and getting all holier-than-thou about) before I succeeded in getting out of my self-satisfying state of judgementalism and instead focussing on what’s really happening around us.
If we’re really serious about minimizing the spread of HIV, we need to look beyond the intentional behaviour of that small minority of deliberate HIV “gift-givers” and “bug-chasers” and focus primarily on those who don’t want to get or give HIV. We need to help each other to better assess risk and make safer-sex choices so that we don’t catch the still-fatal virus-or give it to others who don’t want it.
Before going on, I want to send a message from many in the crowd at the screening to those who know they are HIV-positive or have good reason to suspect they may be: don’t ever have unprotected sex. Some folks at the screening view unprotected sex as a form of manslaughter and they’re very, very angry at the idea. Some in our community expect you to wrap that sausage every time unless you’re in a longterm relationship with someone and you’ve both tested positive-or negative. Get it?
But the movie audience’s primal scream of indignation and frustration is not going to solve anything. Research shows telling people to use a condom every time is counter-productive. “Just say no” doesn’t work for drugs and it doesn’t work for unsafe sex. And given that fear-based campaigns no longer work, and there’s tons of research to demonstrate that, we need to turn to what does work. We’ve moved into an era of risk assessment, a time when many of us draw up a mental balance sheet before every sexual encounter. I’d suggest that all too often our math is off, our risk assessment based on incomplete information and faulty assumptions.
Studies show, yes, repeated studies show that the virus is most often transmitted between boyfriends having sex in bed. That’s right, in an ugly twist of fate, their very intimacy-and the false security coupled with a hunger to get ever-closer to their partner-is often involved in spreading the virus.
It’s not promiscuity that kills.
So, creating a climate of shaming, stigmatizing and scapegoating is both ethically wrong and counter-productive: if shaming worked, we’d all be practicing heterosexuals. And let’s not create an attraction to forbidden fruit by moralizing on the topic. No matter how frustrated we are, let’s climb down off our high horses.
So, what does work? What has research found? First, that focussing on a holistic approach to gay men’s health helps, in the long run, to encourage people to make healthier all-around decisions in their lives. We need to get beyond focussing all health efforts directly on AIDS-there are other health and social issues like ageing and loneliness that are equally deserving of attention. Progress here will also result in people protecting themselves.
Second, that people often put themselves at risk because of low self-esteem or lack of knowledge. In a world where gay men grow up believing they’re not as good as others, some of us end up putting ourselves at risk. Similarly, in the youth-obsessed gay culture, ageing gays often become lonely and feel undervalued-and make bad choices. Those issues require society-wide and gay-community-wide solutions.
Third, the federal government and the regional health board have shortchanged West Coast gay men’s programs for health and AIDS prevention. Very seriously shortchanged us. Prevention messages cost money; we must demand government cough up.
Fourth, let’s focus on building a caring gay community. If people feel they belong to something worth belonging to, if they feel part of a mutual support network of thousands of gay men, they’re more likely to value their own individual lives and protect them. And they’re more likely to take care of the person they’re having sex with. Shaming and scapegoating works against this.
Finally, and most importantly, is our behaviour one-on-one, in couples (where most transmission takes place) or one-night stands. Study after study has shown that gay men are no better at communicating over sexual matters than are straight men. We find it hard to tell our partners if we’re HIV-positive. If we’re a negative bottom, we assume no one would fuck us without a condom unless they, too were negative. If we’re an HIV-positive top, we assume that a bottom would not allow themselves to be fucked without a condom unless they, too were positive. These assumptions are often wrong and, frankly, deadly. We simply must talk to each other.
In a world where gay men are clearly not using condoms every time, they need to have all facts in front of them in order to exercise informed risk-assessment, informed consent. We need err on the side of protecting our partners.
There are many, non-shaming, ways that we as a community can-indeed, must-step up and share in the responsibility of caring for one another while fucking and in all aspects of our lives. Without scapegoating.
Gareth Kirkby is Managing Editor for Xtra.