Choices, condoms and consequences

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Last article, I addressed the oft-deleterious relationship poz folk develop with barebacking post-diagnosis. While some HIV-poz folk said my thoughts helped give them perspective on barebacking, my critics questioned — amongst other things — why I never said, “Use condoms. They’re the best preventative measure against contracting HIV.” In fact, many people worried that I might have condoned unsafe sex unwittingly.

My critics have a point, and I’m grateful both that they said something and that, as per my intent, people are talking about HIV. Therefore, I’m devoting this article to flesh out (ahem) the condom vs. barebacking war that has waged ever since the first outbreak of HIV.

When condom use and HIV meet in writing (academic journals, articles, columns, editorials, etc.), a tumultuous debate ensues. Whatever stance a pieces takes, it’s not uncommon for its statistical surfeit to distract readers from making a choice. Statistical back-up or no, the readers must ultimately choose how they will use condoms (if at all), and then take responsibility for their actions. You can be the most well-read person on HIV transmission, but it all means nothing when, suddenly, in the heat of the moment, you’re overwhelmed with the urge to bareback (I don’t need to elaborate on why).

Scaring people into condom use doesn’t always work either. Actually, it can inadvertently glamorize barebacking simply because people demonize it: It’s the old, “You want what you can’t have” scenario.

Nevertheless, if we can encourage a greater dialogue about HIV (as is this column’s intent), barebacking and condom use, we’ll be able to educate people while emphasizing the need to make their own choices. Because frankly, it would be better that people learn how HIV is transmitted than default out of fear of condom use.

But let’s get down and dirty about the whole condoms vs. barebacking war. To start, consider this hypothetical:

A couple. They just met. They both want to bareback. They don’t know their own HIV status, and express this. They don’t know if they’re carrying any other STIs but, to their knowledge, they’re not. And they’re both completely aware of the consequences they may incur from barebacking.

At a glance, these people — strictly regarding sex between themselves — are making a consensual choice to bareback. But this begs the question: Is this a good or bad decision?

I can almost see the “Yes, you idiot! Of course it’s a bad decision!” boiling over in some of you. Now, I’m not advocating for either course of action. This hypothetical is based on principle, not risk factors.

Does the potential of contracting HIV objectively rule out barebacking, or does mutual consent justify it? Honestly, it’s difficult to qualify either choice for several reasons: What if one of these people happened to be HIV poz? What if they slept with other people, still with mutual consent, and end up spreading the virus? Even if HIV meds can afford a long, healthy life post-infection, was it still a bad decision to bareback?

Say that one of these people in the hypothetical was one of your friends. What would you say to them, knowing that they had chosen to bareback despite the known risks? What would you do in their situation? While I think we can all agree that it’s good to get tested regularly and use condoms, again, how often does that happen?

In my travels, some of the people I encountered stated that they never used condoms: They freely bareback because they believe people should enjoy their sex life, and condoms are medieval, boner-killing technology.

Even though these people engage in, by conventional standards, risky sexual behavior, surprisingly they all got tested regularly and were much more educated about how one can contract and transmit HIV. And because they only bareback, as well as knowing their risks, they’re very particular about their sexual/romantic partners. All in all, these people know the risks, know their status and have made their choice.

And, folks, that’s exactly what you have to do. The choices, as well as the consequences, are yours as to how you act sexually. I’m not going to advise you either way. It’s not my place, and I refuse to do it. What I will say is that you’ll feel a lot better and more informed about the decision you make if you make an effort to talk about it. Don’t worry about what people think. Be honest about how you feel and what you want to know.

We’re all in this together, folks. Now get out there and start talking.

Aaron Stella is editor-in-chief of Phillybroadcaster (www.phillybroadcaster.com), an all-inclusive A&E city blog site. Since graduating from Temple University with a bachelor’s in English, he has written for several publications in the city and now devotes his life to tackling the challenges of HIV in the 21st century.