3 min

Why are gay men giving up on condoms?

As PrEP use grows, men who choose to use condoms may face stigma

It’s becoming more difficult to openly discuss safer sex and especially condom use among gay men, says columnist Rob Salerno. Credit: settaphan/iStock/Thinkstock

The first time a guy I was hooking up with insisted on bareback sex was about four years ago, before PrEP was the buzzword on the lips and hookup profiles of a select segment of the gay community.

I was completely taken aback.

In years of hookups, I’d never yet encountered someone who wasn’t expecting to use condoms.

Why would someone want bareback sex outside of a committed relationship? Hadn’t the risks of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases been drummed into all gay men?

I didn’t lecture him, though those questions were screaming around in my skull. We both just agreed we weren’t what the other was looking for.

Since then, the number of profiles I’ve come across on hookup apps like Grindr and Scruff explicitly demanding raw or bareback sex seems to have exploded. In part, this has been enabled by the dawn of PrEP, but it clearly predates it.

I’ve also noticed some barebackers getting more aggressive in hookups: in the past year, I’ve had someone try to forcibly insert my penis into him and, when I said “no,” slap condoms out of my hand, and try to remove a condom without my noticing — as if my own personal safety choices were invalid and unreasonable.  

While the community is ever so careful to avoid shaming people who choose to bareback, it’s suddenly become perfectly acceptable to shame and belittle people who want to practice safer sex.

Moreover, it’s become incredibly difficult to discuss safer sex in the gay community over the past few years. Talking about condoms, acknowledging the risks of unprotected sex, or bringing up statistics that show increasing STD rates in the gay community often elicit charges that you’re shaming those who choose to bareback, effectively shutting down any conversation.

Those who choose to bareback sometimes say that their decision is an informed one, made in full consideration of the risks. But can that be true with so much misinformation out there?

Even our gay health organizations have reframed their safe-sex campaigns to concede that condoms make sex less fun, and to make barebacking sound less risky than it actually is.

In a strange irony, after fighting so hard to get inclusive safer sex education into our schools, we’re now worried that grown adults can’t handle safer sex messaging.

And with discussions about safer sex so effectively shut down, I’m worried we’re making it very difficult for those who do choose safer sex to know how to be prepared for it — to make condoms feel sexy, to have condoms ready, and to respond to guys who try to pressure them out of using them.

Back when it seemed like everyone was using condoms, there was something of an equality among gay men. But now the community seems increasingly stratified into those who choose condoms, and those who go raw. And it’s becoming clear that it’s the hurt feelings of those who bareback that take precedence over the health of the community.

Of course, back when everyone was using condoms, there seemed to be a lot fewer guys who claimed to have latex allergies or that condoms actively hurt their penises. I wonder what happened there?

I have a dog in this fight, I admit. I very much prefer using condoms in hookups. I find it much more enjoyable to have sex with reasonable certainty that I won’t be pissing razorblades for weeks afterward (or much, much worse).

And maybe this is naïve, but I also find it hot to know that my partner is concerned enough about both of us to use a condom.

I can’t explain why so many gay men are forgoing condoms — partly because any plausible hypothesis will be denounced as shaming those who choose to bareback. But, even if they’re making a fully informed decision, it’s worth knowing why these men are choosing to prioritize a marginal improvement in the fun of a sexual encounter over their bodies and health.

I can only suggest that until we as a community can agree to ask these questions, to have an honest, open conversation about what’s guiding our sexual choices and what the consequences of those choices are, we’re only going to divide our community further.