Gay Men and Inconsistent Behaviour
Gay Men's Health Promotion
Numerous studies of gay and bisexual men (most notable Men's Survey '90 and the national Men's Survey) have indicated that while the majority of gay and bisexual men have adopted consistent safer sex practises, a sizable number of these men still report incidences of unprotected anal intercourse.
For the past twelve years, most HIV prevention education targeted to these men has presented messages encouraging gay and bisexual men to use condoms with "everybody, every time". While these messages have helped to develop community norms regarding the consistent practise of safer sex, these same messages have also had the adverse effect of creating an environment in which gay men who have had unsafe sexual encounters may feel unable to talk openly about the feelings and/or situations that led to this behaviour. Admitting to unsafe sex has become something the gay community frowns upon - as a result, a veil of silence regarding this issue has been placed over the community.
This has created a schism within the community between the "good" gay man who is able to maintain safer sex practices all of the time, and those who may maintain safe situations for long periods of time, but occasionally "slip up" and have an unsafe encounter.
In an attempt to break the silence on this issue, Gay Men's Health Promotion, in partnership with the HIV Health Promotion Programme at ACT will be developing a series of healthy sexuality/affirmation campaigns targeted to gay men. As an informal needs assessment to help identify some of the issues/situations that may lead to unsafe encounters, a discussion group was planned for Monday, November 21st 1994. This group would offer an opportunity for gay men to come together and discuss issues related to HIV, intimacy and unsafe sexual encounters. An advertisement was placed in XTRA! magazine which featured a torso shot of an attractive gay man, along with the heading "WOULD YOU HAVE SEX WITH THIS GUY WITHOUT A CONDOM. IF SO, YOU ARE NOT THE ONLY ONE". The ad then discussed the upcoming group, time and location. Participants were asked to
call and register.
Not surprisingly, turnout for the event was very low (only four participants). While those who attended the group said that they found the ad very provocative, they also felt some apprehension in attending a group in which participants are, for all intensive purposes, admitting to unsafe sex.
Discussion initially focused on the low turnout - participants were asked to comment on possible reasons for the low numbers.
Most participants said that although the ad was eye catching, it was also very intimidating. One participant said that his fear would be that other group members might point him out (for example while in a bar) as someone who admits to having unsafe sex. This comment clearly supports the notion that there has not been a forum for gay men to talk openly about unsafe sex, and further supports the notion that "good" gay men are able to have safer sex all of the time. Those present also noted that the more "intimate" the nature of the topic for discussion, the more difficult it would be to talk about. This could also have influenced the decision whether or not to attend the group.
Discussion then turned to some of the possible reasons behind unsafe sex. Participants agreed that this was not due to a lack of knowledge - they acknowledged that generally gay men have "the facts". Instead, other factors influenced people's ability to have safer encounters.
Drugs and alcohol, coupled with feelings of isolation and rejection experienced by many gay men, were seen as factors influencing one's ability to negotiate safer sex. Some gay men may have heightened feelings of rejection, isolation and depression - as a result of the general homophobia in society and also as a result of multiple losses to AIDS. Sex may be used by some of these men to try and end these feelings of isolation.
Often, alcohol is consumed in order to feel more comfortable approaching potential sexual partners. Approaching sexual partners (in a bar) entails a certain amount of risk regarding the possibility of rejection from peers; some gay men may therefore consume alcohol in order to "get up the nerve" to talk to someone. The use of alcohol was seen as potentially impairing judgment and the decision making process regarding practising safer sex. Moreover, some participants felt that some men might not insist on safer sex with a new partner if they felt that talking about safer sex might result in their partner rejecting them.
Similarly, participants spoke of the feelings of powerlessness that many gay men may feel. As gay men, we are often made to feel quite worthless within society as a result of homophobia.
As one participant noted:
"No one has ever told me that I matter. It's almost as if I am just tolerated for being a gay man. No one has ever said that they like me because I am a gay man. It's like when you come out to your family - they often say 'Don't worry, I still love you', implying that there is something negative about being gay."
Because some gay men may feel that they do not matter, they may jump at any opportunity to feel that they are wanted - and as a result may not insist on safer sex because of the possibility of rejection from a partner. These feelings of powerlessness may translate into some gay men feeling that they do not have the right to be "in control" - both sexually and in other aspects of their lives.
Another possible suggestion for unsafe sex was linked to gay culture's obsession with youth. All the participants noted that gay media - XTRA! and fab magazines, as well as gay porn - rarely, if ever, include images of older gay men. This focus on youth and beauty has led some gay men to feel that growing old will not be a positive experience. Some men may feel that they need to have as much sex as possible while they are still relatively young - and thus desired. Since growing old is not valued, there is less of an importance on protecting oneself so that you will live a long life.
This concept is also linked to the many losses that the gay community has suffered. So many men have passed away (due to AIDS) that many gay men may not see themselves as having a future - or of growing old. Others have experienced so many losses, or have so many friends who are living with HIV, that they may feel that they do not want to live to an old age - because all of their friends will already be dead.
For HIV+ individuals, there may be a feeling that "I'm going to die anyway, so I may as well have as much sex as possible while I still am able." As a result, these individuals may be exposing themselves to reinfection with HIV or other STDs which could further damage their immune system.
In summary, while the turnout for this group was small, all participants felt that it was a useful forum to discuss the complex issues surrounding unsafe sex. In fact, one participant stated that he was glad the group size was so small - it made the session less intimidating and allowed him an opportunity to speak.
Participants were enthusiastic about the idea of future groups, however they felt it may be necessary to word the sessions in a less "direct" way in order for people not to feel intimidated about the discussion of unsafe sex. Issues of intimacy and disclosure of unsafe sexual practices are very complex and are perhaps better discussed in a one-on- one session as opposed to a forum or group discussion.
Further discussion groups might be billed as a discussion about meeting people in the age of AIDS, with part of the discussion focused on unsafe sex and its possible causes. In this way, the advertisements would not scare off potential participants.