4 min

What happened to mutual care?

The problem with every-man-for-himself in the age of AIDS

I am a product of vibrant queer male sex cultures.

My experiences began in the pre-HIV/AIDS era. Back then, a lot of us were kind of smug about not having to worry about birth control. Not being attached to the queer community until a few years post-university (I had sex with dudes, I didn’t date them) meant I was a bit late on the safer sex message.

In fact, it was a boyfriend from Florida who insisted we use condoms. He was HIV-positive, which I understood in abstract terms, but didn’t see having much relevance to me. Or where I put my Johnson.

Shortly after graduation, I found my testosterone-saturated, used-to-getting-it-All-The-Time self in New York City. Back in 1986 when queer men lived in a different Ground Zero.

At 22 and totally horned up, exploring my queerness meant having to find a way to reconcile my love of sex with the risks of HIV. There was an abundance of information available; in fact almost every bar had some sort of overt AIDS education event most weekends.

And those messages were consistently about two things: how to avoid transmitting HIV and how to take care of one another while celebrating our sexuality.

AIDS educators taught us how to fight the epidemic while celebrating our queer sexuality. Thank god for those guys. I got what I really needed in those early it’s-not-just-about-the-sex days of coming out. I got the sex and the wellness, and an invitation to be part of a community that takes care of one another.

So what the hell happened?

Today a newer HIV/AIDS prevention message seems dominant, something I call the “goalie” approach. It’s pretty simple: you protect yourself.

Of course that was a pretty critical component of the community of care approach I first encountered in the 1980s. You have to be sure to have condoms and lube, and you have to assert that it’s safe sex only. Be prepared, in other words, and let’s take care of one another.

The goalie approach—which also burdens women almost entirely with avoiding unwanted pregnancy—drops the last bit. It’s every man for himself. So, if everyone is an effective guardien du but, no worries, eh?

If sex were all about being rational, quite frankly it wouldn’t preoccupy me so much. Many of us—maybe all of us—have at one time or another made a stupid choice about sex. Back when we thought the most problematic outcome was a treatable discharge or some creepy crawlies, those lapses weren’t as critical. Or the outcomes so potential dire.

But the stakes are higher in the HIV/AIDS era.

Problem is, it’s not that straightforward. A lot of guys have a hard time asserting self-care, due to self-esteem issues, being loaded, or being depressed. Some guys are malleable in all sorts of ways, longing to feel accepted, or loved, or just to be touched by someone else. Or even just because that guy across the room is so damn hot.

So if that 20-year-old with drool pouring out the sides of his mouth in the sling room lets me bareback him, he must be okay with it since he isn’t stopping me, eh? Just because someone does (or doesn’t do, in the case of condoms) something, they haven’t necessarily chosen to do so. Not every decision is a thought-out, purposeful choice. And therefore consent can’t be assumed.

More and more men are trying to assert bareback fucking as the default, normal position. Some have been aggressive in their pursuit of it and walk away when I proffer a rubber. A handful have been deceptive and either pretend to put a condom on, or pull it off after a few minutes. On purpose. Without my consent; in fact, betraying the consent given. Fucking creeps.

The goalie approach leaves vulnerable people more vulnerable.

Vulnerable to others with similar issues, and to creeps—especially creeps who know themselves to be HIV-positive and who still deliberately fuck other guys without condoms without disclosing they’re HIV.

The goalie approach absolves such creeps of any responsibility in the other person’s becoming HIV. “Hey, he never said he was negative or wanted to use a condom, not my problem.” That’s a shitty attitude.

Why on earth would any reasoned, compassionate, person living with HIV/AIDS not want to avoid transmitting it to someone else?

I spend a fair bit of time in private men’s clubs. In the last five years I’ve seen the vibe here in Vancouver shift from one of mutual care and fun, to one of get what you can. Selfishness, in other words.

And you know what, me and a lot of my brothers out there are weary, sad, and pissed off.

Spaces that were a fantastic balance of raunchiness and camaraderie are now much darker. It’s getting harder and harder to find pockets of joy out there. And when it does happen, today’s special guest star and I invariably chat about how crappy our saunas have become. Not the facilities, the culture.

I came out into queer community during the first tsunami of AIDS devastation. There was a clear sense of collective responsibility: we took care of each other.

It wasn’t about controlling others, or being sex-negative. It was the opposite, in fact: finding common ground for all of us—poz, neg, unsure—to retain our sex culture, in fact, to save it.

While very few of us were “woo hoo” about making the switch to condoms for fucking, most agreed it was an inconvenience that, with practice and patience, was no barrier to celebrating queer male sexuality.

Now, 20 years since my first sex with another guy, I have shared a great deal of pleasure with other men. With two exceptions, there have been no health ramifications from these experiences; neither of which was of major consequence anyway.

My life is evidence that one can participate—heartily and frequently—in queer male sex cultures with an ethos of mutual care and suffer virtually no health concerns.

I have sex with men regardless of serostatus. In fact, I rarely discuss serostatus with casual partners because I don’t discriminate—and I know how to use condoms effectively, so my worries about HIV transmission are negligible.

Goalies are important, but they cannot replace an entire team. Our community’s history demonstrates that queer men are more than capable of working together to prevent HIV transmission—and have a great fucking time doing so.

The goalie approach doesn’t build community; in fact, it’s unravelling it. And that’s unacceptable to me.