The Gays and the Lack of Condom Use

The Southern Voice, Atlanta’s gay newspaper, just finished a two-part series on condom use and gay men. The articles expose the different relationships that gay men have to condom wearing in the new millenium. The first story in the series from last week focuses on young gay men, who came of age after the heightened awareness of HIV in the 1980s/1990s.

There was once a time, in the not too distant past, when there wasn’t a gay social function — whether held at a club, community center or festival — that didn’t stock condoms seemingly by the truckload.
There was once a time, in the not too distant past, when many gay men — older men, teens, even gay porn stars — wouldn’t think about having unprotected sex, particularly with casual sex.

Times have changed.
Jay Dempsey runs the P.O.O.L. program for gay men at AID Atlanta, and begins each new group by asking attendees whether condom use is still the sexual norm among local gay men.

“The answer’s always no,” Dempsey said.

The change in gay men’s views toward condoms is often associated with the onset of highly effective anti-AIDS drugs in the mid-’90s, when the perception of the disease transformed from an automatic death sentence to an almost invisible, manageable illness. Experts agree that no longer seeing friends suffer or die from AIDS has affected how gay men approach safer sex, but other factors have changed as well.

The second story focuses on so-called condom fatigue–the idea that older gay men have grown weary of wearing condoms. The practice has increased with the proliferation of barebacking happening due to sex parties, online sex-seeking sites, and raw porn.

For many years, Tierney said, gay men faced a simple decision when it came to using a condom: Do it, or die. With contracting HIV no longer meaning sudden death, Tierney said gay men are now engaging in “higher level reasoning” that includes considering which sexual position they assume, the type of sex they’re engaging in, their partner’s viral load and a host of other factors.

At the same time this week, a story broke in the UK about two porn actors contracting HIV after a third actor first tested HIV negative before their shoot, but later tested positive.

I have noticed in the last year since being single again that several men I have had sex with have stated to me when I pull out my rubbers that “It’s OK. I get tested every 3 months, 6 months, or yesterday, or whatever.” It’s amazing to me that we’ve come to assume that getting tested is the same as HIV prevention, which is hardly the case. The HIV antibody test is only checking for the antibodies your body produces to fight HIV, which takes about 3 months to show up. It is not testing for the virus itself. That’s why the porn actor actually had HIV, but must have recently seroconverted, which is why his first test was negative: Negative for the HIV antibodies.

Some people will say that “wearing condoms is not natural, which is why gay men want to have sex without them.” That’s true, which is why I am hoping we eventually get both a vaginal and anal microbicide. But at the same time, there are many things we do to prepare for sex that aren’t necessarily natural. Lube isn’t natural, for instance.

But more importantly, we need to begin to debunk the myth that HIV is solely about individual behavior. It’s not–otherwise HIV rates would be equally distributed amonst populations. But we know that black gay men have fewer sless unportected anal sex, and in some studies fewer sexual partners than white gay men, yet black gay men have much higher rates of HIV. We know that poverty, structural racism, violence, housing instability, mass imprisonment and homophobia are all reasons black gay men have more disease burden (called “social determinants” of health).

I am part of a new movement called “prevention justice.” And the Prevention Justice Mobilization (PJM) is a series of HIV-prevention events and actions around the United States from November 1 to December 15, 2007. We are uniting to demand leadership in the fight against HIV/AIDS and justice in prevention policies.

The events and actions will include:

  • Local events around the country across the range of prevention justice issues, including on World AIDS Day (December 1)
  • Events at the National HIV Prevention Conference, Atlanta, December 2-5, including Unity Rally on December 4!
  • A statement of Prevention Justice principles and accompanying materials like a Prevention Justice Briefing Book and a World AIDS Day Action Kit


Why Prevention Justice?
It’s no accident that the groups at the lowest rungs of the social and economic ladder also have the highest rates of HIV, including African-Americans, (especially black women and black gay men); Latina women; gay men and other men who have sex with men; transgender people; undocumented immigrants and people residing in the Deep South. And good prevention policies are vital for the health, rights and dignity of all people, including people living with HIV.
Prevention Justice believes that the best way to prevent HIV/AIDS is to ensure that all people have the economic, social, and political power and resources to make healthy decisions about our bodies, sexuality, and reproduction for ourselves, our families, and our communities.

The Prevention Justice framework changes not only the way we look at HIV prevention, but how we go about advocating for HIV prevention. Prevention Justice means the people and communities most affected by the epidemic are at the forefront of policy efforts, and that HIV prevention cannot be separated from human rights.

What are the Prevention Justice Mobilization goals?

  • Unity and Leadership in the Struggle against HIV!
  • Promoting unified actions and cooperation among AIDS groups and prevention advocates.
  • Demanding the resources we need to fight HIV and win progressive policies, rather than competing with one another for crumbs.
  • Mobilizing progressive organizations across the country that work on intersecting issues (like racism, criminal justice, immigration, gender-based violence, welfare, housing and economic and environmental justice) to explicitly incorporate HIV/AIDS in their efforts and to engage the AIDS community to support a progressive agenda for all communities.

Mobilized for Prevention Justice!!!

  • Endorse the Mobilization as an organization or individual
  • Affiliate your local events from November 1 – December 15 with the Mobilization
  • Organize a local event for World AIDS Day and list on our site as part of the Prevention Justice Mobilization – we have a World AIDS Day Toolkit to help your efforts
  • Mobilize people from your community to attend PJM events in Atlanta, Dec. 1-5

The PJM was initiated by Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project (CHAMP) in collaboration with SisterLove, the Georgia Prevention Justice Alliance, the Harm Reduction Coalition, the National Women and AIDS Collective, the New York State Black Gay Network, ACT UP Philadelphia, the Center for HIV Law and Policy, and AIDS Foundation of Chicago.

2 thoughts on “The Gays and the Lack of Condom Use

  1. While I would agree with you that HIV, and it’s transmission, are not solely about personal behavior, I am not convinced that the issues this movement will address identify the chief reasons why people engage in risky behavior.

    I think when we are talking about sexual transmission of HIV, we have to look at more of the specific issues in the lives of those most at risk. For Black gay men, I know so many (myself included) who have used casual sexual encounters as a (poor) substitute for love and companionship. At times desperate for intimacy, we do things we often know we shouldn’t because the need to just have someone there, to touch another body, is so great we ignore the risks. As a nearly 50 year old man who hasn’t been in a committed relationship in more than a decade, desire plays a far greater role in satisfying my primal needs than logic and reason.

    What prevention programs exist to help those who are lonely and horny?

  2. Well I hear you Bernie. But the thing is, are we as black gay men more lonely than others? Perhaps. But that still doesn’t explain higher HIV prevalence, especially when you consider the data that shows we don’t have more risky sex nor more sexual partners.

    So even if we’re having sex out of lonliness and the need for companionship, that doesn’t mean we’re necessarily having more RISKY or unprotected intercourse in those moments.

    So the point of the PJM is not to discount individual risk and the need to fund behavioral interventions (which I think we would argue that interventions that effectively address loneliness are isolation are valuable interventions), but to suggest that we need a wide range of interventions, behaviorial and structural. I would argue that dealing with homophobia/transphobia in the black community would actually go some ways to what you’re saying. Part of the reason we’re lonley is being devalued by the larger black community, dehumanized by white supremacy, and are not able to fully access public space as ourselves without the threat of physical violence (which impacts the means by which we are able to seek out companionship to some extent, though I don’t want to demonize how people obtain sex necessarily).

    So I don’t think what you’re offering is out of the scope of the PJM. The opposite, actually.

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