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Voice Male Spring 2004


Reflections on Safer Sex

By Les Wright

I was very encouraged recently to be asked for my thoughts on safer sex and sexual practices in the gay male subculture today. Everywhere there are public health announcements promoting the virtues of safer sex. We have seen numerous ad campaigns come and go, yet none of them seems to have had any of the desired effects upon their target audience. And in my everyday social encounters nowadays, it seems safer sex is a taboo topic for conversation. It seems gay men would rather risk infection in order to keep a hard-on than to talk about safer sex, maybe even negotiate some limits.

Human beings are social creatures and sexual creatures. It is in our nature to be sexual, regardless of the specific form that takes. Sexual appetite comes with the territory. I usually say that sex is "good," but it is also necessary, just as eating, sleeping, and leading a meaningful life are necessary first and foremost, and become "good" if we work at them.

Every day that you decide to get out of bed and go out into the world, you have accepted a certain amount of risk. Maybe today you will be hit by a bus, or a tornado-swept house from Kansas will drop on your head. Who knows?

I assume a certain amount of risk-taking when I become sexually active. I accept those risks. I also expect any sexual partner to share the same level of responsibility. I engage in sexual practices that, for the most part, fall under the published "safe sex guidelines." Any specific limits, or gray areas, I expect to negotiate up front with my potential partner. If there is no negotiation, or no discussion, then I stay well within those limits. And even with negotiation, there are certain limits I will not cross. If this is not acceptable to my partner, then we do not play. These are the rules that are observed in SM/leathersex play circles. I am not interested in fooling around with a fool, whether a virgin, a novice, or a longtime player.

I define and practice safer sex from a definition and actual sexual practice worked out a good 20 years ago, when I was living in the eye of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco. Let me add that in my travels outside of New England, I have found that the same rules and the same sensibilities still apply--in New York, in Fort Lauderdale, in Montreal, in Dallas, in Washington, D.C. I think some of this is a "generational thing," and some a "street-wise" urban gay survival skill.

I have HIV. I have lived with HIV for well over two decades. Like a seasoned lion-tamer, I bear the scars of where I have been bitten and clawed. It is a miracle that some of the sessions of taming the lion did not kill me. The point is, I am by no means perfect: I played very unsafely for years before I got the message about safer sex. I have had the good fortune of learning from usually fatal mistakes. Not many gay men have had that opportunity. I should point out that I was infected at a point in time before anyone even knew HIV was out there. Suddenly, all my friends and lovers and fuck buddies started getting sick and dying. It was still months before I would know anything about these mysterious attacks of illness and sudden death.

We always learn the best from the mistakes we make. Sometimes that's the only way we learn. I am in no position to moralize to my youngers, nor do I think proselytizing has the least amount of effect anyway. If anything, telling other gay men how, where, and what kind of sex to have only puts more bad ideas in their heads. Half of what I have done sexually over the years I never would have done, had I not seen someone else do it and make it look like forbidden fruit.

I do not know what the answer is, except that each one of us must figure out our own answers and apply them, at least for as long as they work. And then we need to go out and come up with new answers. Key to the answer for each of us is how we define the problem. Sex is natural and necessary, yet we, as gay men, live in a society that tells us that our being natural and having needs is an unacceptable concept. Gay sex, by definition, is forbidden fruit, even if it's just thinking about having it.

And when we enter the arena of active sexual practice we have to deal not only with all of those internalized negative values seriously clouding our natural sexual and emotional needs and desires, but with other men (whether they identify as gay or not) and all of the baggage they are carrying, much of which they are not tuned into.

Part of my answer, for myself, is this: Know what choices you are making, for you are making choices all the time. HIV infection is not like getting a speeding ticket or flunking a test. You will live with the consequences and there is no one to give you "another chance." May you realize this when you still have the choice to make your own choice.

Les Wright teaches cultural studies courses and serves as Chair of the Department of Humanities and English at Mount Ida College, is founder and executive director of the Nashoba Institute for Non-Hegemonic Masculinities, and is a regular reviewer for

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