We love ass fucking. Most of us practice safe sex, but an increasing minority don’t. And we’re not always good at communicating our wants and expectations around safe sex.
Those are among the findings of a 2002 survey of gay men.
The Sex Now survey, the largest-ever health consultation of Vancouver gay men, asked detailed questions about age, income, race, participation in the gay community and our sexual spaces, sero status, drug use, sex practices, relationships and attitudes toward safe sex. Then experts cross-referenced the statistics to find out important trends in behaviours and attitudes of gay men. They had a statistically big sample to choose from: 1854 throughout BC, 1182 in Vancouver alone. In fact, men were so eager to participate in the survey that organizers ran out of forms in Vancouver and Victoria.
The good news from the survey is that 23 years after the AIDS epidemic dropkicked the gay community, 73 percent of survey participants report that their sexual practices are consistent with sexual safety. So, extreme claims by some in our community that “everyone is barebacking” are clearly wrong. The other good news is that gay men are learning to assess risk when deciding exactly which practices to follow. Most use condoms. Others have worked out detailed agreements for safe sex outside their primary relationship. Some practice “sero sorting”-HIV-positive men have sex only with others who have the virus-or “strategic positioning”- positive man on the bottom and negative man on top (it’s important to note that this last practice has some risk).
The bad news is that unsafe sex is increasing among BC’s gay men and many of us are having a hard time communicating with sex partners to make sure we’re safe. Some 27 percent of survey participants reported at least one occasion of risky sex with a partner of unknown HIV status during the past year. There was a 25 percent increase in the number of men reporting risky sex since a smaller, less detailed survey was conducted through the pages of Xtra West in the year 2000. Statistics from the BC Centre for Disease Control back that up-the number of gay men testing positive in BC has climbed from 107 a year in 1999 to 158 in 2002.
The survey also found that young gays are at higher risk of practicing unsafe sex and much of that is because they haven’t yet learned how to negotiate before sex or mastered saying no when they’re not interested in fucking. Also, the more involved the survey participant is in gay culture-hanging out with other gays and frequenting our gathering places and sex spaces-the greater the likelihood that he will sometimes practice unsafe sex.
Clearly, we’ve got work to do in our community to reverse this trend.
It should start with a concerted demand that the provincial and federal governments start funding, and funding in a big way, the costs of prevention campaigns aimed at gay men. We’ve known since a national 1991 survey that Vancouver’s gay men were more likely to practice unprotected anal sex than were men elsewhere in Canada. Yet, less than 0.1 percent of the $11-million provincial AIDS program was being applied to gay men’s prevention by the year 2001. And by that year, federal government was funding only a program for Asian men’s outreach -since suspended-and one gay men’s outreach worker in Victoria. This is insanity! We should have been in the streets about this. Hedy Fry: are you listening? Leaders of the local AIDS groups: Why are you so quiet about this?
There is a silver lining to this cloud. There is a gay culture in Vancouver, and where there is culture, where there is community, there is also the opportunity to reach people, to inform them, to teach them what they need to know to save their own lives. To explain how to practice risk assessment, communicate in their relationships and get tested for syphilis and HIV anonymously at The Centre (1170 Bute St). There’s another bright light, if I may be so bold as to suggest it. The survey found that some 84 percent of participants read Xtra West, especially those who are most involved in the gay community-the very people who are most at risk. Advertising in this paper is the best way to reach our community, the survey’s statistics show.
Together, we can turn those numbers back around.
Gareth Kirkby is Managing Editor for Xtra.