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."

Of more immediate concern is the nearly 40 percent of Broward County's 130,000 or so gay men, many of them HIV-negative, who, in a countywide survey on gay sexual activity published last year, told Department of Health researchers that they find it difficult to limit themselves to safe sex. Unlike Greg or Bill, most of these men have not embraced barebacking as a full-fledged lifestyle change. Instead many are dabbling in risky behavior because they are under the fallacious assumption that AIDS has been all but vanquished among gay men. "The new drugs have given people a new lease on life," says Ken Fontaine, a vice president at the Poverello Center, a food bank that feeds 3000 HIV-infected men and women in Broward County. "They've also promoted a devil-may-care attitude. People need to remember that we haven't defeated this. There's not one person cured of this virus."

Still, many of the youngest gay men often approach potential sexual partners with the naive view that healthy-looking young guys couldn't possibly be positive. A marginal few, who through some warped sense of survivor guilt view HIV-infection as a sort of badge of honor, are actually eager to contract the virus. Greg and Bill have encountered these men -- "bug chasers" looking for "gift givers" -- in person and online. "This is not some membership in a club," says Greg. "This is not some tribal badge of honor. This is still a bitch. Nobody in their right mind would want this." As for the handful of HIV-negative men who have fully embraced barebacking, Bill says most of them try to limit their sexual partners to other negative men. "There are barebacking parties for positive men and for negative men," he explains. "Negative guys want to bareback, and they don't want any chance of getting the disease. I suppose that's OK. I just wonder, how do you know? How do you know? At least I don't have to worry about it. Negative barebacking I really don't understand."

An invitation to one barebacking party in Hollywood reached Dr. Fallon recently through his office e-mail. (He's not sure how he wound up on the mailing list.) "Bring a towel and a hard dick," it read. "Brad needs to be fucked repeatedly so come help him out, OK?" No mention of HIV status was included.

Although unprotected anal sex is relatively rare in the backroom bars, both Greg and Bill have barebacked on occasion in those places with other HIV-positive men. They excuse the sexual abandon in the back rooms because, they say, most of the men are "positive anyway." Tell that to John, who thinks a "few might be positive," or to the tourist who spots the ad for the "sodomy in the park" party at Chaps in Scoop magazine and decides to indulge with the buff and healthy-looking men inside. "Most of the people I've seen doing really risky behaviors are tourists," says Bill. "They come down here, and I don't know what enters their minds. If they do it in Florida, it's like it doesn't count. They would never do these things at home."

At the Ramrod one night not long ago, a pantsless man in his forties was bent over the motorcycle out back. Another man's arm was halfway up his rectum. There was an almost gentle rhythm to the "fisting," and when they were done, the second man slowly removed his fist and quietly kissed the side of the other man's face. They parted without exchanging words.

Although it's not a high-risk activity in and of itself, fisting -- a once popular feat of "sexual athletics," as Greg refers to it -- has for years been known as the most dangerous form of sexual behavior. In the old days, before AIDS, anal sex and fisting often went hand in hand. The tears and abrasions that are frequent byproducts of fisting leave the rectal tissue raw and exposed, creating the perfect scenario for the transmission of HIV from one man's sperm to another man's bloodstream.

John was one of 12 founding members of the Miami-based Fist Fuckers of America. The other eleven are dead. Today John has cut fisting completely out of his sexual repertoire, but Bill, who was a member of the now-defunct group, continues to partake on occasion.

"Fisting burst onto the scene in the late '70s as part of this gay machismo thing," says Greg, who used to be heavy into fisting before the epidemic. "Fisting is the pinnacle of manly sex. In the late '70s, to be a successful sex jock, this is something you had to do. It was very, very popular among the hottest, youngest set. It was about reaching this sexual high bar, and it proved to be definitely very, very dangerous." Greg says that, during the AIDS crisis, fisting completely dropped off the map. "It became really marginalized," he says. "Fisting was really on the edge. It was bad-boy behavior. These days it's starting to experience a rebirth again among the young muscle set."

Not long ago Steve Cox, Greg's musclebound, HIV-positive boyfriend of two years, was part of the South Beach "muscle boy" scene, where sex and recreational drugs often collide with potentially deadly consequences. Steve had been living at his mother's house on Jupiter Island but moved to South Beach after the protease inhibitors brought him back from the brink of death. He moved to Fort Lauderdale after being turned off by the heavy drug use and reckless sex among the young gay crowd in South Beach. "The crystal was so rampant it was a problem," says Steve, a transplanted New Yorker who once used crystal meth with great regularity. "In New York it had gotten to the point where I was sprinkling it in my coffee in the morning in order to get to work," says the former stockbroker. In Fort Lauderdale, although drugs are not unpopular in gay dance clubs like the Copa and the Saint, Steve and Greg say they are far less prevalent than in South Beach and are generally rare in bathhouses and backroom bars.

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