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In the LGBT community, we’re used to a certain amount of safer sex proselytising passing us by regularly. In the beginning, this was little more than government-backed scaremongering (who remembers the iconic black tombstone with ‘AIDS’ written across?).
As time has gone on, and the battle against the stigma and ignorance of the 1980s has progressed, LGBT-led charities have instead responded with an increasingly nuanced and sensitive safer sex message. Gone is the old blame-game, and here in its place is frank information that (usually) tries not to be judgemental and instead aims to give people options that enable them to make better choices.
But despite this, gay and bisexual men still catch STIs at a disproportionate rate, and the Health Protection Agency and University College London discovered that the number of us who failed to use condoms increased by 26% between 1990 and 2010.
Funding on sexual health education has dropped in recent years, which has no doubt played a part in the drop in condom use. But there are problems in our own community which add to this as well. We do know about safer sex. On the whole, we do know what we should and shouldn’t be doing, even if we’re not sure on the details. But the discussion around condom use hasn’t become any easier despite this.
Part of the problem might be that, in the past, some safer sex messages were associated with guilt and shame. Moreover, gay sex has often been associated with death and scandal, which means even LGBT people can have a judgemental attitude to sex that reinforces this guilt and shame narrative. No one likes to turn the bedroom into a confessional. Confronting shame and guilt is never pleasant.
We also have a different attitude to sex – one heavily influenced by the discourses around queer bodies, queer blood and queer sex. Straight people don’t view unprotected sex in quite the same way we do in the LGBT community. After all, unprotected sex for straight people often leads to pregnancy, so the narrative there is one of life, love and creation too (of course, not always, but HIV is considered a much smaller worry).
Among men who have sex with men, there can be lots of judgements made about sex and HIV, which actually makes it harder for us to make informed decisions, because the stigma silences the conversation before it even begins. As long as there is ‘blame’ and ‘fault’ involved in discussions of HIV, there will be guilt and shame.
It’s far easier for people to pretend they’re going to use protection and do what they want to do anyway, than it is for us to have open conversations about condom use. And that’s a problem – how can we address behaviours if we’re pushing them into the shadows?
I’ve seen firsthand that people can’t talk openly about sex or condom use. How many people have wanted to discuss it but choked at the last minute because of the weight of it all? Who wants to talk about death and shame and guilt in bed? It’s hard. And when people do express a preference for not using condoms at all, rather than having a civil discussion, the reaction tends to be one of judgement and intolerance. Usually intolerance that masks guilt in one’s own mistakes.
Because everyone makes mistakes. Even the best informed people aren’t saints. What’s more, sinning has its own appeal. As can be seen with religion, guilt and shame can unfortunately be sexy. Or rather, guilt and shame are often tied to sex in complicated ways, because people are naturally taught that sex is shameful. So things that shame us become forbidden and exciting, and thus sexy.
Meanwhile, porn often promotes the idea of bareback sex as sexier, closer, more intimate. BB porn creates a fantasy world where we don’t have to worry about guilt or shame, so it becomes appealing to want to be in that world instead. It’s easier to ignore negative associations altogether – it’s liberating to be free of worry, after all.
It’s our understanding of gay and bisexual sex that needs to change. When sex becomes a celebration of life instead, perhaps we can move beyond the fear of talking about it.
I’m glad that the old-school shame-based safer sex education has been replaced with more positive and frank discussions. Contemporary sex education often centres decision-making and personal choice. Instead of telling people they must do this or they must do that, they offer suggestions and different options to manage risks, meaning that people can have the kinds of sex they feel comfortable with in the safest way possible.
Personal and collective responsibility plays a huge part in the way our community deals with HIV, but for people to be responsible, they have to care about themselves and others. Although we have won many rights on the path to equality, all the laws in the world can’t buy acceptance – and there’s a gloomy elephant in the room that looks a lot like low self-esteem.
LGBT people are more likely to consider or attempt suicide, to experience violence or to live with mental illness than their heterosexual peers. Every time we encounter inequality and discrimination, it reminds us we’re different, and not quite like the majority around us. It’s probably fair to say that we’ve internalised a lot of the negative attitudes towards us and that, at some basic level, many of us feel that we’re not quite as valuable or normal or worthy as straight people – no matter how hard we try to love ourselves and each other. If we don’t feel we deserve to be safe and healthy, then we’re less likely to make good choices.
Through a combination of culture change, work on wellbeing and coming together as a community, we might make the conversations easier to have, so that everyone can make the best choices for them. Sex education is playing a part in this, but we need to support and love each other as well, and build a tomorrow where we can talk openly and honestly – not just about condoms and sex, but about happiness, love and self-acceptance.
For me, the conversation around safer sex isn’t about ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but rather about what each of us needs to make the best decisions we can for ourselves and our community. If we think about that, and how we can support each other in meeting those needs, then we have a chance to make the conversation easier and more fruitful.