all things condoms

The Fear Factor Ain’t Working

Posted by Condomologist on March 28, 2009

Zack over at The New Gay just posted a piece called “Condoms: Why the hell aren’t you wearing them?” in which he adamantly calls for fellow gay guys to use condoms so they don’t contract HIV and eventually die. Not in so many words, but that’s the gist of it, and if you insist on going bareback with a casual partner, he’ll call you a “dumbass.” I’m treading in murky waters here, because I’m not gay, I don’t claim to speak to/for the gay community (though I do work for an agency devoted to LGBT health),  and I have a pretty good sense of how HIV and AIDS have devastated gay communities. But I still think it’s important to call people out when they lack the nuance and thoughtfulness necessary to gently  and constructively encourage people to use condoms more correctly and consistently — something Zack seems to be lacking in his condom rant.

He tells us that “[i]t is no longer a choice to wear condoms when having sex with someone of an unknown status. You just have to do it.” Well, you don’t have to do anything. It would be nice if we all wore condoms all the time, but sounding off with such a commandment is eerily similar to the scare-you-into-abstinence crowd. There are a number of reasons people choose not to wear condoms — although Zack tells us that “none of them trump the one very important reason to wear one…a matter of life and death” — and in doing so, they can still reduce their risk by having fewer partners; asking their partner if s/he’s been tested; getting tested and/or treated for STDs other than HIV; using lubricant to reduce tearing; having a partner pull out before ejaculation. Certainly using condoms (in conjunction with all else I mentioned) is ideal, but while he makes clear he doesn’t want to shame those already HIV+, shaming and guilt-tripping those who have unprotected sex isn’t any better.

Zack: “If you don’t have it, though, I’m sure all those [currently HIV+] would gladly do everything possible to make sure you don’t get it. The best way to do this? I’ll keep saying it. Wear condoms. Tell your friends to wear condoms. Go about your daily life as if this is an act akin to breathing.” He ponders why, with the bombardment of bland, absolute, fear-based safer sex messages our generation has grown up with, people still have condomless sex — and then he piles on with more of the same. It seems to me that if we’ve gotten the message of “condoms or death” or “abstinence or death” for quite some time and neither has worked, then it makes sense to rethink our approach and be a bit more sensitive to the realities on the ground.

He recalls a former partner who mocked his sense of responsibility for insisting on using a condom: “I would have rather he called me responsible for choosing not to shoot him with a gun or hit him with a car. I wouldn’t consider those lethal acts to be anything less than off-limits in my own moral compass. Condom use should be considered the same way.” Well that’s his moral compass, but imposing that on others who are morally decent human beings seems crass, insensitive and unproductive. The fact is that most people — gay or straight — are aware of the protective benefits of condoms, and most people would rather not contract HIV. But to imply, as Zack does, that the younger gay generation does a disservice to older gay men who lived through the horrors of AIDS in the ’80s and ’90s when they have unprotected sex seems an unfair guilty burden to place upon them. Without question, the contributions of older gay men should be honored and respected, but it’s too simplistic to just say, Isn’t their experience lesson enough for you to start protecting yourself?

Rather let’s explore some of the underlying reasons gay men are engaging in risky behaviour. The shame and stigma of being gay in our society that leads to living often closeted lives of depression, confusion, and anger, thus men being less able and willing to negotiate condom use. The incredibly high rates of homelessness in the LGBT community that leads to survival sex on the streets. The homophobia particular to black and Latino communities where HIV is wildly disproportionately devastating young men who have sex with men (and women as well). Drug and alcohol abuse and use during sexual encounters.  Perpetuating myths, as he does in his piece, that men can’t contract HIV if they are topping (insertive partner) — while it’s certainly less risky than bottoming, if only bottoms contracted HIV, how to explain the recent studies which show circumcision as a clear protective factor against contracting HIV? The poor job we do in getting the message across that there are a range of condoms one can use, and certain styles/brands and the addition of lube on the inside of a condom that can make sex with a condom far more enjoyable. The list goes on.

I’m with you, Zack, in that we need to increase the consistent and correct use of condoms, and I applaud you for your ability to adamantly insist on condoms with such consistency. And being a straight guy, I’ll take the heat for jumping into this discussion. But I refuse to stand by while you imply that anyone who doesn’t follow your lead is a dumbass.


2 Responses to “The Fear Factor Ain’t Working”

  1. Jonathan, there are lots of gay men who agree with what you’ve written here. As you can see from the comments thread at TNG, this is a contentious, emotional, frustrating conversation for gay men. Thanks for your thoughtful contribution.

  2. Jonathan said

    Golikewater, thanks for providing some feedback both here and on TNG and being willing to question what, on the face of it, seems like a fairly agreeable, straight-forward point to make.

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