3 min

Why no one wins the blame game

Two of Ottawa's next generation of HIV activists talk bareback sex

Recently I chatted with Mikiki, HIV activist and quick-witted loudmouth, about barebacking and the effects of fear-based HIV prevention. Here’s an excerpt:

Mikiki: Whenever me and my friend hear of some straight couple that got pregnant unexpectedly, we look at each other and say, “Barebacking!”

HIV is an issue that has destroyed the sense of entitlement of our community. It has destroyed a sense of security within our own desire. Queer sexuality is still pathologized and the naturalism of unprotected sex is still so taboo to talk about.

Barebacking is not, first and foremost, even about harm reduction. It’s about people’s natural inclination. And about the fact that straight people get to do something that, culturally, we aren’t allowed to even name.

NL: It’s a relief to hear you say that. At a recent conference I went to, a doctor broke down the ways HIV could potentially be transmitted through oral sex better than I’ve ever heard it. And then he went through transmission with anal sex, from top to bottom and from bottom to top.

I like rooting transmission in physiology, in our bodies, because it moves HIV away from discussions of fear and hearsay and ideology and morality. It shifts it to: “No, dude, it’s about your body.”

Mikiki: Yup.

NL: But what that doctor didn’t point out after explaining how HIV could be transmitted from mouth to dick or dick to mouth, was what the Canadian AIDS Society says about it all: there are 6 billion people on this planet and, despite searching for the last 20 odd years, we still have no recorded evidence of someone getting HIV from receiving a blow job.

[The Canadian AIDS Society’s HIV Transmission Guidelines for Assessing Risk differentiate between sucking cock and getting your cock sucked. Giving head is classified as low risk and getting head is even safer: “There have been no documented cases of transmission through getting fellatio,” it says.]

To me, it’s unethical not to say that in a discussion of the physiology of oral transmission. I left there feeling afraid all over again. And I know how that fear eventually plays out: This week, I hooked up with a dude to give him head. I sucked this dude’s dick and I had internalized what this doctor at the conference had said and I walked away wondering, “Was that really worth it?”

Mikiki: Arrggggh!

NL: And this is what freaks me out because I know in my head that the likelihood of transmission from me sucking him… well, the Canadian AIDS Society uses the words “quite remote.”

Mikiki: Yeah.

NL: But I left feeling like, “You know what, Nicholas? It would have been better to stay home, watch porn and jerk off.”

Mikiki: Isolate yourself.

NL: Isolate yourself. And also: negate what is natural. Or shroud what is natural in this feeling of fear, guilt, shame, blame. Even though I’m an HIV outreach worker, even though I understand the physiology inside out, even though I know stigma and poverty have a lot more to do with HIV transmission.

But I still can’t totally resist that doctor’s message, which is: “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”

Mikiki: And when you position transmission information that way, then the condom becomes the signifier of fear, guilt, shame, blame. Because that’s the barrier that you could have used to potentially reduce that risk. Because you’re no longer thinking of that activity as a remote possibility. You’re now thinking of it as a risk.

All of that stuff just keeps enforcing the guilt. It repositions all of the prevention work we do and all of the condoms and harm reduction-tools we give to people. It makes those objects reminders of the fact that they are taking risks, at rates far greater than they actually are.

NL: And what I also think was lost in that moment, and what that doctor at the conference certainly didn’t affirm, was that everything I did in that encounter was good in terms of harm reduction.

Mikiki: Yup.

NL: I could have taken it up the ass without a condom with that dude, but opted to suck him off. We should be applauded for choosing to reduce risk like that. Instead I left there with everything soaked in a fear of HIV. Whereas I should have left thinking, “What a laugh! I’m out doing stuff that is so ridiculously low risk that it makes no difference.” I should have walked away and said, “So what’s next?”

Instead I was a man who was horny, who found a great outlet for that horniness, and who walked away feeling regret, wishing I would have just not bothered.

I don’t think we’ve taken account of what that does to gay men’s psyches and our feeling of — you talked about entitlement.

Mikiki: We’re forbidden from defining for ourselves what meaning queer sex will play in our lives. Instead, it’s always a negotiation of whether we’re becoming an epidemiological statistic.