Barebacking has been this month’s buzzword among the finger-wagging elements of the press, and what a gift for the unthinking sensation-mongers it has been. And what a challenge to even our most liberal supporters.
The dizzying moral debate started when the Radio Four presenter Nigel Wrench wrote in The Pink Paper about his sexual adventures as an HIV-positive gay man. Part of those adventures involved having anal sex without a condom (“barebacking” as our imaginative American cousins have dubbed it). “Barebacking is happening at a sauna or backroom near you, without fanfare or announcement and often without words,” wrote Mr Wrench. “I know because I’ve been there and I know because I’m one of those who’ve done it.”
Shock, horror and condemnation were the immediate reactions. But Nigel Wrench is not a malevolent monster, out deliberately to infect his unsuspecting partners. He is always, he says, honest about his status and will always use a condom if his partner requests it.
This did not placate those who were outraged at the very concept of barebacking. Such irresponsibility, they cried. Such downright evil!
Or, as Wyn Evans wrote to The Guardian after it had taken up the debate: “The pernicious claptrap purveyed by Nigel Wrench in defence of barebacking is an insult to the intelligence, although I can applaud the fact that the article advertises to a much wider audience the current thinking amongst a deluded section of the gay community. So it’s OK now, is it, to spread AIDS to the community at large as long as it’s done as ‘the ultimate expression of intimacy’?”
Nigel Wrench’s fellow Radio 4 presenter, John Humphrys then entered the fray with an article in The Sunday Times. He took Nigel up on his claim that “Barebacking can be warm, exciting and involving” and therefore was legitimate among consenting adults, even if some of them are HIV positive.
“Surely,” wrote Mr Humphrys, “the moral issue is clear. Wrench tells us that since he was infected he has had unsafe sex ‘more times than I remember, often with men whose names I could not tell you’ although not with a lover who was unaware that he was infected. But how can it be right to pass on a deadly virus to someone, even if he or she has chosen to take the risk? It is difficult to see how even the most informed and profound debate could jump that hurdle of moral certainty.”
Mr Humphrys then warned: “The danger is that this sort of thing can be exploited by people who want to condemn a little more and understand a little less.” And, indeed, within days his prediction had come true. The Mail on Sunday decided to go big with it. They approached The Pink Paper for permission to publish Wrench’s article. Permission was denied on the grounds that the article would be used out of context. The Mail on Sunday used it anyway, confirming The Pink Paper’s worst fears about “decontextualisation”. (I understand a complaint has been made to the Press Complaints Commission.)
“The article reprinted below will no doubt appal most readers of The Mail on Sunday,” said the paper, before using it to launch into a wide-ranging attack on gay rights. “One issue [the Government has] under consideration, following a submission from the homosexual rights group Outrage!, is to relax the law on gay sex in saunas, clubs, public lavatories and so-called ‘cruising’ areas such as Hampstead Heath in North-West London. Over the last few weeks, a growing campaign to end the legal ban on gay sex in public places has gathered strength, with London mayoral candidates Frank Dobson and Steven Norris backing calls for police to turn a blind eye to such activities… We therefore decided we should publish the article… we believe that the general public should be given an opportunity to raise their voice before being presented with proposals for changes in the law which they may find horrifying.”
In an editorial, The Mail on Sunday said it found The Pink Paper’s reluctance to allow it to reproduce the article “disturbing”. “What can this indicate other than the wish to keep the population at large ignorant of the next set of demands for ‘rights’ from the gay lobby – ‘rights’ the vast majority will simply see as licence of the most appalling kind?” the paper asked.
The following week, the letters column was decorated with the predictable litany of horror. “As a gay man I would never put myself at risk or the health of others in sexual acts described by Nigel Wrench. The sordid and dangerous practice of sex in public places is sad and almost impossible to stop… Mr Wrench you are a disgrace.”
Ms L Awad thought Wrench “thoroughly reprehensible and irresponsible”.
But after the hysteria, what about the debate Mr Wrench had so earnestly sought? Even those who pride themselves on their support for gay rights and gay people found themselves bewildered by this one.
Obviously, some people don’t see the need for any further discussion. Barebacking is wrong, irresponsible, wicked, they will say, and that’s all there is to it.
This may be the more comfortable approach but the issue can’t simply be dismissed that easily. Barebacking isn’t going to stop – any more than gay sex of any kind is going to stop – simply because people think it’s wrong. Bringing it into the light and discussing it is the only way to find out what is going on. After all, it isn’t an unusual practice. According to a study in San Francisco, of 3,000 gay men between the ages of 15 and 25, 41 per cent had recently participated in unprotected sex.
Nigel Wrench tries his best to remind people that having sex is always a two-way transaction (outside of rape, of course). If an HIV positive man is going to be sexually active on the gay scene he has the option of being open with his partners (which might result in him becoming a pariah and outcast) or he can tell himself that the other person is responsible for his own protection. That is to say, both partners in this sexual transaction have the right to say either: “stop”, “go” or “use a condom”. If you are going to permit a stranger to fuck you – or even a friend whose sexual history you aren’t entirely sure of – then the responsibility to produce a condom rests as much with you as with him.
There can be no doubt that so long as the sex is consensual, responsibility is equally divided. If you offer up your arse to a hunk, and you’re worried about getting HIV, then it’s your responsibility to insist he has a condom on his dick before he shoves it in – whatever your assumptions or his reassurances about HIV status. Melodramatic talk of people being “deliberately” infected by evil HIV-positive monsters will not wash. We cannot escape our own responsibility to protect ourselves.
And because this issue is all tied up with those pesky but powerful feelings we call love and lust normal rules of common sense don’t always apply. There are complications galore, not least of which are the inhibition-destroying effects of alcohol and drugs that often accompany this kind of sex.
Psychotherapist Alan Pope pointed out some others in The Guardian: “Gay men who are HIV negative can feel excluded by their status. This is particularly so for the bereaved or those with positive friends. It makes them feel that their identifications are with those who are different from them. To belong means you need to get infected. Additionally some gay men are caught up in the guilt of the survivor.” This may be difficult for some people to take on board, but that doesn’t make it illegitimate.
There is also the question of people in long-term monogamous relationships who know that they are both HIV positive or both HIV negative, and for whom, therefore, barebacking is not an issue. But then comes the added complication for those who are both HIV positive of re-infection with another strain of the virus that might be resistant to drugs.
All this must be a nightmare for health professionals working in the area of HIV and AIDS. In the early days “safer sex” was easily explained – “just say no” or “use a condom every time”. It’s obvious now that these messages aren’t sufficient. A whole generation of young gay men have lived their whole sexual lives in a world where HIV is present, but where death from AIDS is a rarity. The development of protease therapy has removed the edge of fear that previous generations of gay men lived with. We no longer see the horrific images of emaciated young men clinging on to a life of repeated infection and hospitalisation, and therefore the barriers begin to crumble. Complacency develops.
A new approach must be found that will convince young people that AIDS still has the potential to kill them and is something to be avoided at all costs.
In the meantime, gay men – because they are human beings – will continue to sometimes behave irrationally, even suicidally, in their sexual lives. And the heterosexual majority, as well as a good number of gay people, will continue to condemn them for it, and resent the money that their care takes out of the NHS. As Wyn Evans wrote to The Guardian: “The cost to the exchequer for keeping an AIDS patient alive for one year is of the order of £15,000 at least. Perhaps the real debate should be whether those who contract AIDS voluntarily should absolve the state from responsibility for their welfare.”
Mr Evans might, at first glance, seem to have a point. But let’s not forget that, for the first time, the number of people becoming HIV positive from heterosexual sex is higher than that of gay men. And the rise in the incidence of gonorrhoea and syphilis among straights is an indication that condoms have gone out of fashion with them, too.
Perhaps, then, to carry Wyn Evans’ point to its logical conclusion, anyone who acquires a sexually transmitted disease should be excluded from health care at the public expense. Or perhaps Mr Evans wouldn’t want to go that far. Perhaps he thinks only gay young men behave irresponsibly and so only they should be penalised.
I think that’s called discrimination.
As far as Nigel Wrench is concerned, the cost of honesty has been a heavy one. According to the London Evening Standard, the BBC has bowed to public outrage and announced that Mr Wrench is being “rested from his presentational duties”