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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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
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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 email@example.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.
After a rainy day, the ground was still wet, and cloud cover made for a dark evening. Black lights lighted up Inn Leather's secluded pool area, which was visible through the gate. Behind the gatekeeper, toward the rear of the fenced area, I could make out about four men lounging on plastic furniture, their bodies creating slim silhouettes on the dusky patio. I couldn't tell whether they were fully clothed, in bathing suits, or naked.
The gatekeeper, a man in his late 20s with short black hair and a neatly manicured goatee who wouldn't give his name, didn't let on that he was there to screen attendees. "Hello," he said, his eyebrows rising to make sure I knew it was my turn to talk.
But I knew what he wanted me to say: "I'm firstname.lastname@example.org."
Gatekeeper pulled a Palm Pilot from his back pocket and tapped the stylus on the screen a few times. "Yep," he said, looking up from the device, "I've gotcha right here." Already, about 35 men had arrived, he said.
I asked if I could just watch. I'm straight, not gay, and I didn't feel right taking off my clothes while surrounded by an orgy. Call me shy.
The gatekeeper seemed baffled. "I don't know," he said. "No one's ever asked before." He dialed on his cell phone. "Matt, can you come out here?"
Matt strolled out of one of the rooms. A handsome blond who appeared to be in his early 30s, Matt had his shirt off and held a red plastic cup in one hand. Jovial and smiling, Matt didn't look like someone ravaged by illness. His hairless torso was ripped, his muscles drawn distinctly, and his abdomen divided into a six-pack. I hadn't expected an HIV-positive man to look like Matt, but that was indeed naive. Combinations of protease inhibitors known as "cocktails" make HIV manageable. In fact, many HIV-positive men look even better than Matt.
"This is Trevor," the gatekeeper told him.
"Oh," Matt replied, "I remember the name."
I asked Matt if I could watch. "I've never been to a party before," I admitted.
"I don't know how anyone could just watch and not participate," the gatekeeper interjected, his voice tinged more with curiosity than disdain.
"Haven't you ever been to a bathhouse?" Matt asked.
Matt explained that the party had two rooms -- one for "getting warmed up" and the other for sex. I could start in the first room, Matt told me, and then work my way up.
Next, he looked me up and down. "But no," he said, "you just can't watch."
I tried to be persuasive, describing how I'd had only monogamous partners and how I just moved to Fort Lauderdale to escape a failed relationship. (To be fair, that was only partially true. I have had monogamous partners, but all have been female, and I moved here after being laid off from a weekly newspaper with which I had a professional relationship.) Watching would be therapeutic for me, I said.
Rubbing his bare feet slowly on the cement path leading to the room doors, Matt stood firm. To come in, he explained, the clothes would have to come off.
Matt had one last sales pitch: "You'll meet some nice people and have great sex."
I again declined, and Matt reminded me that the parties occur regularly if I want to come back at another time.
As I walked back to my car at the end of SE 19th Street, a man passed me and smiled. His shaved scalp glimmered dully in the moonlight, and in one hand he carried a plastic Publix bag containing a towel. Later, the bag would hold his tank top, shorts, and ankle-high boots.
He was most likely HIV-positive, but even if he weren't, the gatekeeper and Matt wouldn't have known any different. He might have been a bug chaser. Or he might have infected someone with syphilis or herpes.
At least three more bareback parties will take place in Broward County this month, according to online ads. One of them will be hosted by a Chicago man who would like "to collect as many loads as possible" while he's in town. Matt will also hold another Brandon Poz Party in Fort Lauderdale on June 28.
In response to the recent syphilis outbreak, the Broward County Health Department recently began free testing at the Gay & Lesbian Community Center. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has promised help, but so far nothing has arrived, Cresanta says. "It's a nightmare," the epidemiologist says of the party atmosphere.
I never talked with anyone actively trying to contract the HIV virus. Sam Burns, a San Francisco writer whose 2000 short story Bug Chaser was one of the first writings to address the real if fringe phenomenon, explained the barebacker's logic in an e-mail to New Times: "I think they represent a remarkably common condition in modern American society -- the pursuit of intimacy. Since the rise of AIDS, sex has demanded wearing a condom. That meant having sex while encased in the equivalent of a Hefty trash bag. How intimate is that?... I think the intake of fluids actually becomes a type of desire, as if obtaining the essence of another person -- even if only for a moment, and only in the physical sense."
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