Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

Thoughts on sexual safety and risk-taking in the era of the internet

Filed By Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore | January 30, 2008 8:17 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Living
Tags: ACT UP, barebacking, buena vista park, condoms, HIV/AIDS, Manhunt, public sex, safe sex, san francisco, stds, todd haynes

One of the things I like about Randy is that right away we’re having this conversation about sex and risk, I guess that's something that can happen when you meet at a sex club, I mean something that can happen on the rare occasion when you actually talk. And then talk again. So Randy's talking about this guy he had sex with a few times, they'd both tested negative and they decided to fuck without a condom and then one time Randy was talking about hooking up in Buena Vista Park or somewhere like that and the guy was kind of shocked, he said: well then I guess I should get tested.

Like that was the deciding factor -- I mean, you decide to fuck someone you've just met without a condom, but then you’re only worried about risk when you find out he's having sex with someone else? Or sex with someone else in public?

I assume that Randy was fucking the other guy, but it turns out that Randy was the one getting fucked. See -- we all have our different definitions of risk. I don't think it's particularly risky to fuck someone without a condom, but I do think it's risky to get fucked without a condom. This guy didn't think it was risky to fuck someone without a condom, until he knew that he was having sex in public. And Randy -- well, I don't know what he thinks is risky, yet.

There was a time when I would fuck paying tricks without a condom, because it was easier to stay hard. In my nonpaid sex life around the same time, I kept finding myself getting fucked without a condom, even though it wasn't something I wanted to happen. Basically it happened because, over and over again, someone would assume that just because his dick was teasing my asshole that meant I'd consented to get fucked, and to get fucked without a condom. This is what sex without talking has become, and no one has mastered the art and perils and disdain of sex without talking more wholly and unquestioningly then gay men in public sex environments, which is mostly where I've had sex.

Anyway, around this time -- 1999 in New York -- I remember going to some kind of workshop at Gay Men's Health Crisis in New York, and I really believed that I was having a crisis because I kept getting fucked without a condom, even if I always asked for a condom after a minute or two it had become so much easier to start without. I’d decided it was worth it to avoid that struggle with pain upon insertion. And the guy facilitating the workshop told me that he thought I had things under control because I knew what my risks were and I was minimizing them, and I thought wait, but that's not what I'm saying.

A few years later I decided that I didn't want to fuck anyone without a condom -- I wasn't worried about the risk to me, I mean I'm aware that this is considered high-risk behavior on most safer sex templates, it's just that to me the far far riskier act is getting fucked without a condom. Everyone has their own definitions, and my definition of safer sex is to empower people to do whatever it takes to keep themselves and their sex partners ravenous with desire and as free from harm as possible. My decision not to fuck anyone without a condom was about other people's safety. I didn't want to foster the culture of barebacking that seemed to surround me. So, even though I knew I was negative and therefore not putting someone as literal risk, I didn't want to participate in the glamorization or the tacit acceptance of barebacking as the model for anonymous or semi-anonymous sex.

Randy says he used to be neurotic about safety, what got him started on the bareback path was when he started cruising manhunt, and it just seemed like everyone was doing it so he thought well maybe I should relax. I ask him whether guys come in his ass, and he says sometimes, and I want to know whether it feels like an acceptable risk. He says well I'm totally paranoid about health, and I'm always worried about STDs but it doesn't seem like I can do anything. I say well, with STDs, you really can't prevent exposure unless you don't have any oral or anal sex, since a condom doesn't necessarily protect you, but the good thing is that you can treat an STD with antibiotics and then it's gone. With HIV, a condom gives you a huge degree of protection, and even deciding not to let anyone come in your ass dramatically lowers your risk, but of course it's about what makes you feel safer.

Can you tell that I'm trying to make some sort of intervention, but I don't know what to do other than to encourage Randy to speak as openly as possible? I don't know him well at all, and I don't know if we’ll have sex again because I'm not sure if he wants to, but I feel sad that I can't offer him the protection I want him to have. We talk about growing up and always thinking that we would die of AIDS, that's just the way it was, and how even when we've been totally safe, we still think wait a minute, what about that one time when someone came in my mouth and then I realized that two weeks before I'd bitten my cheek and what if there was still a remnant of an sore and maybe that's why I'm having night sweats?

I was in ACT UP in the early ‘90s when I was 19, 20, and safer sex was deified and mandated. I knew a fair number of people who died of AIDS, but most of them were 10 or 20 or 30 years older except there was Billy, who lit candles in my bathtub when we had sex and it was so romantic, and why can't I remember the name of that queen who came over for a roommate interview and wanted to do touch healing on everyone? Daisy, right? But I've known more people in my immediate circle who seroconverted from 2001 to 2003 than in the ‘90s. I mention this because I do think something changed in the mid-‘90s, not just the introduction of drugs that actually worked for many people, but an expanded level of nihilism and objectification and I think a lot of this has to do with the internet and the abandonment of any model for idealized sexual community outside of long-term committed partnership.

When I went out with Jeremy, this was in 2001, 2002, he really really wanted to fuck me I mean this was his dominant attraction and I was in love with him and I also wanted him to fuck me but it was so difficult, I couldn't relax. I was allergic to the preservative in the lube or the latex and polyurethane condoms always broke, and anyway it was easier without a condom and hotter too and so we both got tested and turned out negative and then we decided he could fuck me without a condom as long as we both agreed that we wouldn't have sex with anyone else without a condom. And he wouldn't come in my ass. It's funny because that's what made me stop getting fucked without a condom -- it was about Jeremy's safety, not mine.

After Jeremy and I broke up, I decided I wouldn't get fucked without a condom at all, this was after my oldest friend seroconverted. He'd always been fastidious about safety -- when we were sleeping together in the early ‘90s, he’d even take out finger cots it's his finger was going near your ass, just in case he had a paper cut. I guess that was a different time than now when everyone to slide it in without asking, or we were creating a different culture we had confidence in our dreams. To be honest, I probably haven't gotten fucked more than two or three times since 2003, and I've been okay with that because I have enough health problems without HIV. And, there are plenty of other choices in my sexual toolbox.

But then I'm sitting on this guy's lap and his dick is up against my ass and I can tell where it's ready to go and I'm ready too, so so ready but I remember my promise to myself and I angle away. I'll admit that my one of my biggest fantasies is that someone pushes me against a wall or better a tree or gets me on my knees in the dirt and fucks me without a condom and comes in my ass, just like the rape scene in Todd Haynes’s Poison modeled on Genet. I didn't have this fantasy before barebacking became so normalized, but now the fantasy feels okay and actually kind of fun or funny because I’m committed to never letting it happen. I know all about slippery slopes. Randy is telling me about this friend of his who hasn't had sex in five years but she really likes to talk about it, she likes to talk about barebacking now that Randy introduced her to the term although she gets scared when he tells her about his experiences. She says: I'm worried about you.

I say: straight people always say that, and it's so annoying. But this is my intellect taking over from feelings, because the truth is that I'm worried too -- I'm worried about Randy and I'm worried about myself and I'm worried about everyone in the sexual worlds I inhabit. And maybe that's a good thing.

Mattilda blogs at

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OMG, sexual risk is way more complicated than "do this" and "don't do that" and I a lot of times wish it weren't but I also know that if there were rules like that, I'd probably ignore them.

My gawd, how barebacking is completely normalized. I posted on that a while back and there were quite a few user comments with stories of how everyone in town isn't using condoms, etc. I remember one night I was rejected by about 6 guys because I said no to barebacking and it made me so mad. I kept on telling myself that I wasn't entitled to having sex with any of them, that it's their risk to take, but that didn't make it all that much better since it felt like such and awful reason to be rejected!

I've grown since then, don't worry. Now I pretty much don't do the buttseches at all just because it's so messy (and not just physically! lol).

Sex communication. If you're having sex then you should take on the responsibility of being mature enough to discuss sex, how you have sex, how you enjoy having sex, and be confident and comfortable in your talking about sex, etc... If you can't have this conversation with any and/or all of your partners, if you cannot look them in the eye and see them comprehending what you're saying, then you shouldn't be having sex with them. Take care of YOURSELF.

Michael Bedwell | January 30, 2008 3:16 PM

Well, now that we've been treated to the galleys for this person's latest porn novella.... Should I be thankful we didn't have to pay for this exercise in exhibitionism? Will we hear about the German Shepard in Part II? I can share much more interesting story author Martin Duberman told me once about how far someone he knew took the term, "man's best friend."

I'm no prude, Jolene, but get a room!

Alex, you're right -- that is a terrible reason to be rejected, what a nightmare!

Eric, I actually think the "take care of yourself" model, while perhaps helping some individuals, has completely failed as a community/communal response. And, while it would be lovely if everyone to communicate openly and honestly about sex, I find it to be rarer and rarer among the people I encounter.

And Michael, I love it when people start a comment by saying "I'm not a ____________, but"... I think your mirrors could use some more use.

Michael Bedwell | January 30, 2008 10:37 PM

And I think your parents must have toilet trained you using electro-shock.

The people you encounter....on the Planet Mary?

Well, now that we've been treated to the galleys for this person's latest porn novella

Michael, what exactly is your definition of porn, sweetie? While there are many hot, important, and stimulating ideas in her post about sex and the sexual spaces we inhabit, none of them were particularly erotic to me. But if someone out there is able to get off reading this well that's just one more thing that's great about it!

And Mattilda, I do think that maybe you're right - it is a good thing.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | January 31, 2008 12:24 AM

it doesn't seem like I can do anything.


I understand the difficulties of negotiating safer sex, the taboo attraction of barebacking, the uncertainty of what is and isn't safe, the role played by self-esteem in it all, etc.

What I don't understand is the passive nature of the statement above and abdication of all responsibility....

And Michael, why'd you continue reading if the piece put you off?

Michael, well at least you have some insight into my parents...

And that, thanks for the insight -- "if someone out there is able to get off reading this well that's just one more thing that's great about it!" -- love it! And the affirmation.

And Brynn, that's a good point about responsibility -- I think a lot of people in gay/queer male sexual spaces do abdicate responsibility, but I also think one can never underestimate the dramatic hopelessness that a lot of these same people feel regarding sexuality, identity, and the possibilities for love and care and transformation -- and the ways that all of this is magnified by a consumerist gay culture that just tells us to buy the right products and the right partners and the right kids and then everything will be okay.

And, good question...

Thanks for sharing this piece. I think it is important for us to not characterize ALL bareback sex as risky and harmful, as there are contexts in which this behavior occurs in which harm is not part of the equation.

Understanding our own motivations and comfort with varying levels of risk is crucial for all of us to make thoughtful decisions. Personal stories like this offer an insight into ourselves that most prevention campaigns never get close to....

And to further muddy the waters, Swiss experts yesterday announced that HIV cannot be passed sexually by a positive person on ARVs with an undetectable viral load. Read more on this here:

I find myself agreeing with Eric... You have to be the main responsibility for yourself. After all, you can't control anyone else but you. :)

If you stand firm in your decision, you're not only protecting yourself but your partner(s) as well.

I don't think anyone's disagreeing that people should make their own decisions about sexual risk and have those discussions, Bil and Eric, I think part of the issue is why people aren't making those decisions and having those discussions.

Sure, it's fun to go around and tell people to "have those conversations or don't have sex!" or to "wrap it up" or that they'll die if they don't use a condom or whatever the meme is now, but why don't we try to think of solutions, or at least causes to these problems? I think we can do both. The former can help build a consciousness around these issues, but we've got to wonder why, with all the knowledge that's out there, barebacking is so effin' rampant in the US and HIV rates are headed back up.

Brynn on hopelessness~ I read that line as more of "No matter what I do I'm always at risk and that'll bother me," which I can totally identify with. Almost everything worth doing has some risk, and sometimes it's a bit overwhelming, at least to me.

Bedwell, et al~ I totally got off reading this. Mmmmmm... Negotiated sexual risk.... Rampant gay consumerism.... Community building in a post-internet age.... Oh, gimme more, Mattilda!

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | January 31, 2008 3:34 PM

Almost everything worth doing has some risk, and sometimes it's a bit overwhelming, at least to me.

I can totally understand and identify with that sentiment.

Jim, of course you're absolutely right -- there are all sorts of situations in which bareback sex carries no potential for harm -- and thanks for that fascinating link!

But Bil, I totally disagree with, "If you stand firm in your decision, you're not only protecting yourself but your partner(s) as well." I think this feeds into a self-centered approach to (safer?) sex that results in the nihilistic hyper-objectification so common in gay sexual spaces, the me-first mentality that ends up creating endless repetition of dissatisfaction camouflaged as getting off. Wait -- that was a bit wordy: what I mean is that I think the exact reverse is true, that this model has dramatically damaged communal notions of respect and communities of care.

And Alex, wait a second I'm licking something sticky off the floor after reading your comment...

And Nick, my voice software seems to have called you “that" in comment number 8 -- my apologies!

And Brynn, yes risk is such an essential component of so much pleasure and pain and pain in pleasure, pleasure in pain...

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | February 1, 2008 1:12 PM

Almost everything worth doing has some risk, and sometimes it's a bit overwhelming, at least to me.

I can totally understand and identify with that sentiment.