Sexual Roulette

Despite the risk, HIV-positive gay men are engaging in unsafe sex in the wake of improved AIDS medications. Don't believe us? Check out South Florida's "backroom bars."

Despite the legal and sexual hazards, the bars draw droves of HIV-positive leathermen like Greg and Bill and HIV-negative risk-takers like John, who, although he passed through the worst of the epidemic unscathed, regularly rolls the dice. These bars, where the increased activity looks like a watered-down version of the sexual madness that preceded the AIDS crisis, are good places to take stock of evolving attitudes on sex, death, and HIV among surviving veterans of the epidemic.

Oral sex, the quickest fix, is by far the most popular activity in the backroom bars, as it was in the '70s and early '80s, when blowjobs were often precursors to a slew of other activities. These days a blowjob, viewed by many in the bars as virtually risk-free, is often an end in itself. At the height of the AIDS epidemic, when most sexual exchanges were viewed with terror and trepidation, the "prevention people" at AIDS service organizations prescribed condoms for everything, including oral sex. The basic message -- all sex is dangerous -- gave rise to "jack-off parties" and slick campaigns designed to eroticize condom use and spread the news that the "best sex is safe sex."

Today that message has been diluted, and even AIDS-prevention leaders like Dr. Stephen Fallon, head of outreach for Broward County's oldest and largest AIDS service organization, Center One in Fort Lauderdale, acknowledges the comparatively low level of risk accompanying oral sex. HIV, transmitted through blood and semen, usually dies when swimming in saliva. The virus can, however, be contracted when genital fluids come in contact with abrasions in the mouth -- clearly a potential risk when you're on your knees in some dark corner servicing droves of men you've never met. Of far more concern, especially considering the often fragile health of the HIV-infected, are the myriad other sexually transmitted diseases -- including herpes, hepatitis, and gonorrhea -- that can survive in the mouth.

In the early days of his infection, when Greg was frail but still strong enough to leave the house, he would venture to the bathhouses in Washington, D.C., to "service" other men. "I felt I could be an orally receptive partner and not feel like I was putting anyone in danger," he says. He finally stopped going after he realized, finding himself with a "constant throat infection," that he "couldn't go to the bathhouses and suck dick all night without getting sick." These days, he says, he tries to limit the men he "services" to the HIV-infected. "HIV-negatives are much less likely to know what they've got," he says. "They are less likely to monitor their health and far less likely to talk about it."

On a Friday night in March, John, who is HIV-negative and an indiscriminate oral receptor, went on a whirlwind tour of the backroom bars as he does at least once a week. At all three places, there were dozens of men engaging in full fellatio, but not a single condom was evident. It was "Alcatraz night" at the Eagle, an older bar that shut down and then reopened a few years ago next to a lamp-and-mattress store in the Lauderdale Manors Shopping Center. The front room was laid out with rubber cages, and there was a mock prison shower towering above the bar. It was still early. In the back room a single man was on his knees, his face buried in another man's lap. Dozens of other men milled about, casting cautious glances at one another but exchanging no words.

At Chaps, the newest and most rambunctious of the backroom bars, John grabbed a kiss and an O'Doul's nonalcoholic beer from a bartender in a Boy Scout uniform. Gay porn played on TV screens scattered around the bar, and in a large cage in the center of the room, two robust black men in jockstraps were intertwined. Around midnight, beyond the black partitions separating the bar area from the sex rooms, an old man with a great big Santa Claus beard was on his knees. He paused from the oral work at hand, smiled, and surveyed the unzipped trio lined up assembly line-style against the wall, waiting their turns.

John, who still fears the virus, largely limits his sex play in the bars to oral sex. He is at once repulsed and entranced by the places. "I resent that those of us who are sexual addicts are faced with bars that keep thrusting it in our faces," he says. "It's like being a diabetic and having a tray full of candy thrown in your face every time you go out to socialize."

Bill visits the backroom bars less frequently than John does, generally preferring anonymous sex in bathhouses. Still, he defends the bars as good alternatives to more clandestine public-sex environments like Holiday Park or the restrooms at the Galleria Mall. "I think there are a lot of people who have a great deal of trouble integrating their sexuality into their lives," he says. "You could call it shame, but I see a lot of people who withhold themselves from sex until they can't stand it anymore, and they want to get it as quickly as possible. It's better they go to the bars than risk arrest going somewhere else."

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