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."

Bill and Greg prefer the bathhouses because they are much cleaner and more comfortable places to seek sexual pleasure. They are generally well lit and private and feature lockers, gyms, individual rooms with sheets and mattresses, swimming pools, saunas, steam baths, and showers. There are two bathhouses in Fort Lauderdale, on Broward and Oakland Park boulevards. Like swingers clubs the bathhouses are on sturdier legal ground than the bars because they are private clubs that require membership for entry and don't sell alcohol. At the start of the AIDS epidemic, bathhouses in cities like San Francisco and New York were mainstays of gay sex life for the most sexually liberated men. Blamed in the mid-'80s for the rapid spread of the virus, most bathhouses were shuttered. Though the clientele of the Fort Lauderdale bathhouses dwindled to a trickle, the establishments never closed their doors. Today business is booming.

Bill spends most Saturday nights at the Clubhouse on Oakland Park Boulevard, a bathhouse that attracts an older, less physically exclusive clientele. He rents a room and spends a few hours waiting for sex to come calling. Bill, who refers to sex as "play" and is these days exploring his most masculine fantasies, straps a strip of leather around his bicep and sprawls out naked on a mattress. The door to his room is left open, and men wander up and down the corridor, peering inside. He hopes another HIV-positive man will stop by and offer to have unprotected anal sex with him. On most nights he's not so lucky and settles for oral sex and lots of touching. "The hardest thing in the world in the baths is getting someone to fuck you," he says. Though he's no longer interested in using condoms, Bill says he has no intention of infecting anyone. The first thing he does when he settles in at the baths is put away the condoms that are usually laid out on a table by the bed. "If a guy looks on the table and there's no condoms, he knows I bareback and I'm HIV-positive," says Bill. "The message is clear." Still, just to be safe, he always discloses his HIV status, which is not to say everyone else is so responsible. "I'll tell someone, 'You know I'm positive,'" says Bill. "They'll say, 'Oh really, so am I.' Of course I'm thinking, 'Why didn't you tell me earlier?'"

When Bill says he likes to "bareback," he's using a word that carries all sorts of political baggage. To bareback is to make a conscious decision to banish condoms from the bedroom and embrace the inherent dangers of "skin on skin" sex. In many cases it is a political as much as a personal decision, one that in recent years has polarized the gay community.

Before AIDS most gay men, willing to risk getting STDs like the clap or gonorrhea, almost never used condoms. When it became clear that unprotected anal sex was killing thousands of men, condom use became almost universal. Or at least that's what the AIDS-prevention people would like to believe. Although unprotected sex is only now starting to come out of the closet, it persisted throughout the darkest days of the epidemic, according to Greg. "People turned to condoms out of sheer terror," he says. "Condoms are an artificial panacea. I think people were often using them improperly and with great irregularity. Condoms slip off, they break, and they fail. The only real protection is full disclosure."

Greg is part of a growing number of HIV-positive men who have, since the arrival of protease inhibitors, embraced sex without condoms. He is also one of the most outspoken proponents of bareback sex in South Florida. "We were condemned to sex with a barrier," he says. "The possibility of enjoying the intimacy that comes with the exchange of bodily fluids was taboo, forbidden, off-limits for the rest of our lives."

Both Greg and Bill belong to the same local barebacking group, a loose organization that matches up men through an e-mail list and occasional sex parties. Their membership in this new brotherhood has put them at the margins of gay life.

A February cover story on barebacking in POZ magazine, a national glossy catering to the HIV-positive community, drew a barrage of virulent letters. "My stomach turned in disgust and my T-cells probably dropped due to the stress of being so upset over your bareback articles," reads one letter. "I was outraged to read about the attitudes of those who bareback," reads another. "Are their lives so empty that they have to resort to such risky behaviors to feel alive?" Such reactions are not unusual when it comes to discussing barebacking, a behavior Greg and Bill view as risk-free as long as their partners are HIV-positive. That attitude is clearly controversial and still medically questionable.

A few years ago, when it became evident that some infected men were engaging in unprotected sex, the medical establishment began looking into the likelihood of reinfection. Many believed that one HIV strain could piggyback on top of another, forming a supervirus that would kill people twice as fast. While that scenario has recently been disproved by AIDS researchers, the jury is still out on another form of reinfection. Many, including Center One's Dr. Fallon, believe that the exchange of bodily fluids, rather than creating a supervirus, facilitates the spread of drug-resistant strains. That scenario is supported by a number of research studies and an article published last July in the New England Journal of Medicine. "After they proved there was no superpathogenic virus, a lot of HIV-positive people thought they had nothing to lose if they had unprotected sex," says Fallon. "That's certainly not true." If the research Fallon is talking about proves to be accurate, increasing numbers of men in the coming years will become infected with mutated strains and stop responding to the protease cocktails.

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