Unsafe Sex

Our intrepid reporter probes the gay orgies that have helped to spark a runaway syphilis outbreak

The online ad was clear. Framed by images of stretched anuses dripping with cum and engorged penises, some in the mouths of mustached men, the text read:

Orgy style, no attitude, private sex party for HIV POZ guys ONLY ! You must be in shape and 18-45ish. For invite, send pic/stats to brandonpozptyfl@aol.com. Visit our website at www.brandonpozparty.com for more info. This is the same legendary party that started it all years ago back in NYC. This is NOT a PnP [party-and-play] event. No drugs allowed please.

"The nation's oldest organized POZ only party" -- OUT magazine April, 2002

Neil Swaab

Cum check out what makes this party so great!

The advertisement was pushing an event called the Brandon Poz Party that is held in New York City and Palm Springs to Key West and Fort Lauderdale. It was one of at least four ads posted on the Internet in late April for so-called bareback parties (orgies in which men do not wear condoms) in South Florida. Websites such as Bareback.com, Barebackcity.com and Barebackjack.com list skin-on-skin sex parties according to ZIP code for cities across the country. They also provide personals sections where men can search for, as Bareback.com calls it, "local meat."

Recently, the Internet has emerged to replace the AIDS-ridden bathhouses of yesteryear. Bareback parties organized and advertised online draw men from South Florida and around the world into circuits of traveling sex parties. Gay and bisexual males have sex, swap bodily fluids, and in some cases exchange sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

Syphilis, a curable illness that was nearly eliminated from the area in 1998, has made a strong comeback recently, largely as a result of these parties, authorities say. In Broward, 131 new cases were reported in 2002. Four years ago, only 13 new cases of syphilis were reported here. "We had actually hoped [in 1998] that we could eliminate syphilis from South Florida in a couple of years," says Jim Cresanta, an epidemiologist with the Broward Health Department.

By contrast, health officials in Palm Beach County have seen a decrease in syphilis, with just 26 cases tallied last year. At least part of the difference is likely due to the makeup of Broward's population -- Fort Lauderdale is second only to San Francisco in its percentage of gay households, according to the U.S. Census.

In the past, public-health workers in Broward and elsewhere relied on patients to volunteer the names of recent sexual partners. "If they [cooperated] with us, they might go in the car with us and take us to the place where they had sex," explains Howard Sommers, acting director of the Broward Health Department's STD division. Health workers would then contact previous partners in confidence and offer free testing.

But bareback parties organized online make that impossible. "Now these fellas have no idea who they had sex with and where to find them," Cresanta says. (The knowing transmission of HIV to an uninfected partner without prior consent is a felony; doing the same with other STDs is a misdemeanor, according to Florida Statute 384.)

The phenomenon has been documented. In a 2000 study published in the Journal of American Medicine, an official with the San Francisco Department of Health linked an outbreak of syphilis to an America Online chatroom. Seven gay men diagnosed with syphilis said they'd found their most recent sexual partners there.

So a couple of weeks ago, I decided to respond to the ad for the Brandon Poz Party, which started in New York City and takes its name from a founder of the same name. In less than ten minutes, I created an anonymous Hotmail account and e-mailed the host, attaching a photo of myself, sans shirt, as instructed. At 24, I met the age requirement and figured that, despite a little flab around the belly, I could pass for an in-shape young man on the prowl for action.

One thing I wanted to discover was whether the apparent phenomenon of bug chasers -- or men who actively try to acquire the HIV virus -- was real. I had heard, in a much-publicized Rolling Stone article in February, and then from local activists, that Florida has a significant contingent.

My invitation arrived the day after I inquired. "Please introduce yourself at the gate with the screenname/email address you have used in communication with me," the e-mail from brandonpozptyfl@aol.com instructed. The orgy was to be held at the Inn Leather Guest House at 610 SE 19th St. in Fort Lauderdale, which is near a Harley-Davidson dealership on Federal Highway. Poppers -- slang for amyl nitrites that, when inhaled, help to relax the sphincter muscle and ameliorate anal sex -- were optional. No bug chasers allowed, the ad warned. I didn't think the warning would make a difference.

Dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, I arrived at Inn Leather on April 26 around 10:10 p.m., 20 minutes shy of the 10:30 p.m. deadline. The small, white stucco hotel looked like a duplex. Its only sign was a small plaque posted on the wall. A gatekeeper stood outside the hotel entrance, which was a gate in the eight-foot-tall wooden fence that surrounded the pool area and the building's west side.

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