Then and Now, and Now as Then

It must be at least two years now that I’ve had a link to Jeff’s blog. I seldom leave him a comment, but there’s something I like about his blog and Jeff himself that keeps me going back, although I can’t quite put my finger on what. I like the fact he’s articulate; I like the fact he’s flawed just as we all are as humans; I like the fact he chooses to write on a eclectic range of esoteric topics, to the point of being a bit of a nerd. That said, I don’t think that we have much in common and I’m not sure we’d have much to say to each other if we met in person. Perhaps that’s why I continue to read him: we live a world apart, although, in fact, we’re only two hours apart by plane.

Jeff is an aspiring writer. He’s been wanting to write professionally long before he got laid off his State job earlier this year. And finally, with the appearance of an opinion piece he wrote last month for a “traditional” media outlet (as opposed to the blogesphere), he is now a published writer. His opinion piece is a reflection upon viewing the documentary Gay Sex in the ’70s, which has recently been released on DVD but that I, personally, have not seen.

Unfortunately for him, but understandably if you take the time to read his article, it has generated a storm of controversy and nasty comments. I say “understandably,” for I have to agree with his critics that the tone of his writing is judgemental and condescending towards — and downright pitying of — the New York men who engaged in wanton anonymous sex in the ’70s, not to mention that his comparison with the Nazi Holocaust of the ’40s is completely off. But more to the point, in my humble opinion as a former editor, the main problem with his article is not so much that he struck the wrong tone or may (or may not) have engaged in some serious projection based on his own sexual biases and taboos. Rather, the problem I detect is that he failed to account for the historical context.

Indeed, it’s insufficent to point out that “we know today what they didn’t know back then — that unprotected sex can kill.” Even though I was too young to be an active participant, I understand that the mindset in the ’70s was one whereby gay men could have as much sex as they wanted and not have to worry about their acts leading to an unwanted pregnancy — a situation, I’m sure, many straight men either secretly or openly envied. Granted, sexually transmitted diseases were a concern then as now; however, not only was it a concern shared by gays and straights alike, but also, as Jeff points out, in the ’70s, we “lived in a world in which modern Western medicine seemed to be conquering disease.”

Yet more significantly, the ’70s were a time when very few put into question the practice of discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation; therefore, furtive and “discreet” encounters was the era’s “protected sex” that most gay men required to shield themselves from a very real, existing threat at the time. As much as there is still a long way to go in many jurisdictions with regard to gay rights, today’s conjuncture places wanton anonymous sex in the realms of choice and thrill, whereas in the ’70s, necessity dictated that most closet doors could only be opened a crack. In short, while I take issue with Jeff’s comment piece, I am not about to proffer cheap putdowns or another (pseudo) psychoanalysis on his biases as some of his critics have done. Instead, I’m choosing to phrase my reservations on the grounds that I think his article is a misfire, and it misses the mark because it views an historical period through presentist normative lens.

I think it noteworthy that I used to have a link to the above-critic’s blog. He’s an excellent writer, but after a while I got tired of what I perceive[d] as the lack of humility in his tone, whereas Jeff’s writing style, at least in his blog, is far less showy. I’m just sayin’…

The odd thing, though, is that I stumbled on Jeff’s article just as I’ve been meaning — and hesitating for some time — to write about the rise in recent years in the desire for unprotected sex among some gay men. I don’t have much free time these days, but occasionally when I do, for kicks, I look at online ads placed by guys from around the world. (Yeah, yeah …nekkid guys.) And on these profiles, many are those — HIV negative or positive, top or bottom — who state outright that they have and want only unprotected sex.

Whenever I read that, my heart sinks a little. I don’t understand it. To be blunt, the short-term sensual benefits of a guy engaging in barebacking simply don’t stack up against the long-term effects. Even if the parties involved are all “poz,” it seems to me that it’s rather defeatist, as in “I’ve ‘got it’ already, so why bother?” I’ve come to know guys who take their poz status to paint themselves as victims, and others, like Brian (via his blog writing), who take a totally opposite view. But there’s one thing both groups of guys have in common: the effin’ drugs they end up having to take. Although being poz is no longer the death sentence it was in the ’80s and early-’90s, it’s by no means a picnic. Certainly, as someone who has the good fortune of being negative, I certainly want to avoid that “little bit of fun.”

Lately, in an attempt to try to understand the barebackers rather than judge them, I have been taking a look at my own risky behaviour outside the sexual realm. Take, for instance, the fact I’ve gone back to smoking despite coming so close to quitting last year. I cognitively know and understand that what I’m doing is not only irrational, but it could lead to a slow and painful death. In fact, lately that thought has been bothering me a lot (again). So why am I so freakin’ unable to knock some sense into myself and quit while I might still have a chance? I don’t know if it’s possible or fair to make such inferences given how chemical addiction complicates smoking cessation. However, I suspect there are possibly more psychological than chemical factors that make quitting the weed so difficult. Is it possible that a similar set of factors come into play among those who choose to bareback, either occasionally or exclusively?

Here’s the rub (pun intended or not): I have no problem with anonymous sex. In fact, I like it a lot. But not so much that I would take senseless risks. For instance, I remember one time a few years ago being in the dark back room of a bathhouse in Montreal after having spent the evening in several Village bars and getting pretty drunk, and suffice it to say that I was far from alone in said back room. At one point, however, some guy behind me attempted to stick his unshielded you-know-what in my you-know-where. Yet despite my state of intoxication — from both alcohol and what was going on in the room — I managed to firmly prevent the “intrusion” and remove myself from a …err …position that would have given Mister Bare an opportunity to try again.

I’m not telling you this to feel holier-than-thou, for let’s not forget where the hell I was in the first place. But it struck me only a few minutes later that [A] I was really drunk yet [B] I still assumed responsibility for myself. I guess one could call my m.o. “healthy distrust,” and I don’t care if it makes me seem like I’m buying into the faulty assumption that all gay guys are poz. Cognitively I know that’s not the case, but it’s akin to the little trick I play on myself every morning by setting the time 7 or 8 minutes ahead on my alarm clock. By the time I figure out in my sleepy mind what 7 or 8 minutes before 7:03 is, I’m reminded that I set the clock ahead for a reason — in that case, that I’m the slowest morning starter you’ll likely ever meet. Similarly, assuming everyone’s poz status reminds me of why I make that assumption and alerts me to the risk if not the fact — evidently even when I’m drunk.

In the same vein, the reason I have never done drugs (aside from the garden variety C.A.N. — caffeine, alcohol and nicotine) is not because I haven’t had the opportunity, but because I know myself to have an addictive personality. It is possible that I wouldn’t get addicted after one try, but it’s probable that I might. To me, the pleasant short-term trip is not worth the difficult long-term recovery.

Often, one will hear or read pop-psychology theories that attempt to explain why some people willingly engage in self-destructive behaviour. Commonly cited are ills such as low self-esteem, depression, low sense of worth, having a death wish or a desire to become a victim, and so on. But taking again as an example my own addiction to cigarettes, that doesn’t seem to fit. While I have my moments of self-doubt like everybody else, generally I’m satisfied with what I’ve accomplished and what I’ve become. I know there are a lot of things I suck at, but there are many endeavours in which I know I excel. I very fortunately do not suffer from dysmorphia; while I know I’m physically not a gift from the gods, I do think I’m the kind of guy that another guy wouldn’t mind bringing home to Ma and Pa. I’m far from perfect, for no one is; but I have few regrets so far and I’d like to continue this adventure as long as I can. Yet I persist in smoking.

Maybe it’s hedonism, pure and simple — both on my part and on the part of barebackers. Maybe it’s a simple, matter-of-fact acknowledgement that we’re all going to die one way or another. Maybe for some it’s a decision derived from seeing people spending their life doing all the healthy things, only to die of some horrible cancer in the span of six months, which could lead them to the conclusion that cause/effect relationships are nebulous (e.g., “My 93-year-old aunt has been smoking two packs a day since she’s 20” or “This poz guy stuck it up my ass three years ago and I’m still neg”).

Could it be as simple as saying that smokers and barebackers are engaging in some weird game of Russian roulette?