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19 Jul 2013

Many gay men enjoy bareback porn, but are concerned about its possible effects on sexual behaviour

Many gay men who watch pornography enjoy and sometimes prefer material in which condoms are not used, but have some anxieties about the potential effects of bareback porn on their own sexual behaviour.

However, they largely displace these concerns onto other gay men, seen to be more easily influenced, according to Sharif Mowlabocus of the University of Sussex, speaking at the 2nd International Conference for the Social Sciences and Humanities in HIV in Paris last week.

A second presentation to the conference explored gay men's differing understandings of 'bareback'.

Whereas in the pre-AIDS era, sex without condoms was standard in gay pornographic images, the majority of producers started to ask performers to wear condoms during the 1980s. In the late 1990s, ‘bareback’ videos started to be issued; their producers and actors often outspoken and defiant in the face of public criticism. This started as a niche in the porn market (the imagery was often transgressive in one way or another), but since then, images of sex without condoms have become pervasive.

This move has not been without controversy. One concern is the health of the performers – the issue is framed in terms of safe working conditions. Another concern is that the imagery may normalise unprotected sex, with a consequent effect on viewers’ own sexual behaviour.

Michael Weinstein of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation has alleged that “Unsafe sex in porn is one of the largest contributors to our current culture of unsafe sex”. He has succeeded in bringing about legislation to require condoms to be used when porn scenes are filmed in Los Angeles County.

Attitudes to pornography

Sharif Mowlabocus’ research was done in two stages – firstly, an analysis of the content of 125 pornographic scenes, and secondly, seven focus group discussions with a total of 50 gay and other men who have sex with men (MSM) in Brighton, England. The discussions addressed men’s feelings about porn in general before focusing in on the question of bareback porn.

Most of the men who took part in the research enjoyed and regularly watched pornography. Also, for some, gay porn had provided an early validation of their sexual desires and interests.

“Porn was more like…when you want to find out about it more, it’s kind of like a research tool because you want to find out the right positions to do, the right methods, you know, the right actions, to help … just to help pleasure someone properly, you know.”

Some men also shared porn with friends or watched it with sexual partners. Mowlabocus commented that porn is therefore more than just a substitute for ‘real sex’ or a masturbation tool – it can play a role in forming and maintaining relationships for example.

Whereas ‘bareback porn’ is most obviously and clearly characterised as being pornography in which condoms are not used, the research found that not all scenes without condoms were labelled as ‘bareback’.

There are different genres in pornography, and when the researchers described a scene involving two ‘twinks’ (boyish-looking, younger men), who are perhaps boyfriends, having unprotected anal intercourse, the focus group participants consistently refused to acknowledge it as ‘bareback’. Sometimes they ignored the lack of condoms or explained it away.

Scenes which were seen as ‘bareback’ tended to be transgressive in some way, an aspect often emphasised in marketing materials. Pornography involving a noticeable age difference between the performers, or of sex between men of different ethnic groups, or emphasising power imbalances (dominant ‘tops’ and a submissive ‘bottom’), was more likely to be labelled as ‘bareback’. Depictions of anonymous sex away from domestic settings were often considered ‘bareback’.

Pornography which drew attention to the exchange of semen between performers was also understood to be ‘bareback’.

Many of the interviewees said that they enjoyed watching bareback porn and that it was often ‘hotter’ than other forms of porn. As well as appearing to be more ‘authentic’ and ‘real’, several interviewees said that the ‘hotness’ of bareback porn often lay in the fact that it was representing something that was taboo. It was something that they thought they should not be doing, watching, talking about or enjoying.

This appeal of the transgressive is perhaps best illustrated by an interview quote given to Florian Voros, another researcher who spoke at the Paris conference:

“I discovered there were people against it, arguing it was degrading and dangerous. This fiendish side of it attracted me. And I started buying some.”

Sharif Mowlabocus found that his respondents had both positive investments in bareback porn and considerable anxieties about it. They raised the question of whether it might influence personal behaviour.

Men’s personal enjoyment of bareback porn could not be separated from its negative aspects, making it highly ambivalent, he suggested. “The erotic economy of bareback porn is built on a representation of risk and moral transgression,” he said.

Respondents displaced their anxieties onto other groups of gay men. For example, older men were worried that younger men (who hadn’t lived through the HIV/AIDS epidemic) might be more affected by bareback porn. On the other hand, younger interviewees thought older men were more at risk. HIV-negative men were worried that HIV-positive men might feel this was the way they were supposed to have sex now, whereas HIV-positive men were worried that negative men might be tempted to veer from the path of safer sex.

For themselves, the respondents insisted that porn was just fantasy and that they could handle it. Interestingly, this idea of porn as fantasy had not come up in men’s earlier discussions of their use and appreciation of porn – it was only mentioned once the issue of bareback porn had been introduced.

Mowlabocus noted that his respondents remained concerned about HIV prevention and condom use; HIV-negative respondents expressed a strong desire to avoid HIV infection. But while men see condoms as important, they do not necessarily find them erotic or interesting, he suggested.

“Bareback porn might be most usefully conceptualised as a phantasmatic process through which the constraints that HIV/AIDS have imposed upon gay male culture have now become eroticised,” he suggested.

Less theoretically, he and colleagues at the Terrence Higgins Trust have developed an intervention toolkit with suggestions as to how health promoters who are working with gay men can engage with issues around bareback pornography and unprotected sex, and work the topic into sexual health promotion interventions.

The suggested interventions include:

Ways of raising the subject of bareback porn as an opportunity for men to discuss in a more general way their concerns and questions about unprotected sex.

Ways of incorporating the subject into motivational interviewing, as a means of encouraging reflection on unprotected sex.

Ways of using the subject during group work in order to overcome the mechanisms of displacement of responsibility or 'policing' during discussions on sexual behaviour.

Bareback and the gay community

At the same conference session, Gabriel Girard of Concordia University, Montreal, presented an analysis of how his 30 French gay male interviewees understood ‘bareback’. His interviews did not focus on pornographic images, but on sexual practice.

In France, ‘bareback’ (the English word is used) has been the subject of intense and divisive debate among writers, activists and HIV prevention organisations. Those arguments have often been organised around an opposition between ‘individualistic’ behaviour and attachment to the ‘gay community’, which is often seen as capable of establishing behavioural norms. The researcher wanted to see if this frame of reference helped make sense of his interviewees’ perceptions of bareback.

Some of his participants felt part of the ‘gay community’, believed that barebackers threatened it, and that they should be excluded from it – one man said that men who bareback “are doomed”. Deliberately not using condoms suggested a lack of respect for gay men who had died of AIDS in the early years of the epidemic.

Other respondents had a more understanding view of barebacking, and could find explanations in terms of psychology, contextual factors or the history of the epidemic (e.g. the arrival of effective HIV treatments). Moreover, many of these respondents were critical of the way in which different sexual practices, with divergent motivations, were sometimes all publicly described as ‘barebacking’. Mainstream media discussions of the issue were seen as stigmatising, a threat to the gay community.

And while some of these respondents did practise unprotected anal intercourse with casual partners, none would call themselves a ‘barebacker’. The public moral condemnation was too strong.

Other respondents distanced themselves from the ‘gay community’, something which would threaten their individual autonomy. “These are people who are doing whatever they want; for me, it is really far from me, I am not at all in it,” said one man.

For these respondents, it was up to the individual to protect himself, regardless of external norms. One HIV-positive respondent defended his choice not to tell casual partners about his HIV status and to let them decide whether to use a condom or not.

A final group of respondents did not see themselves as part of the gay community either, but did take advantage of the gay scene and of gay social networks to meet sexual partners, for example. In their discussions of bareback, such men described a shared responsibility between sexual partners, who can both make rational, informed decisions.

Girard said that debates about barebacking need to go beyond an opposition between individualism and the community, but that his respondents’ different understandings of the term do suggest different perceptions of responsibility and social order.

This article was first published by NAM/Aidsmap.com and is republished with permission.


References

Mowlabocus M & Harbottle J Bareback Pornography And The Ambivalent Gift. 2nd International HIV Social Science and Humanities Conference, Paris, session CS69, 2013. (The presentation slides can be viewed on the conference website; for further information, see the Porn Laid Bare website).

Girard G What’s In A Word? French Gay Male Discourses On Bareback And Conception Of Risk. 2nd International HIV Social Science and Humanities Conference, Paris, session CS69, 2013. (The text of the conference presentation is available here; free registration required).

Abstracts are available on the conference website.

Reader's Comments

1. 2013-07-19 20:28  
ofc still some of them do it worldwide no exception lol
2. 2013-07-19 21:40  
Bare Back sex feels really good and is very dangerous. Very often the people who believe they will not pass it on are the ones that do. Nobody would willingly pass on such a virus. It is such a shame that making love can be so dangerous on an emotional level the man of your dreams might be HIV+ . I am HIV Negative for the record.
3. 2013-07-19 21:40  
Bare Back sex feels really good and is very dangerous. Very often the people who believe they will not pass it on are the ones that do. Nobody would willingly pass on such a virus. It is such a shame that making love can be so dangerous on an emotional level the man of your dreams might be HIV+ . I am HIV Negative for the record.
4. 2013-07-20 02:25  
While I agree we should use condoms and get tested for partnered relationships before unprotected sex. I do not believe that unprotected porn is the cause of the problem. We all know that the body types and acts in porn movies do not represent the reality of most peoples sexual life and are a fantasy and the consequences of such acts are or should be well known. I do support mandatory testing within the porn industry and in a warning for safe sex before a video starts.
5. 2013-07-20 03:58  
I personally, and strictly personally, do not believe that watching unprotected sex induces any kind of behavior that wouldn't happen otherwise. Same way as Hollywood movies won't make you behave like the Terminator, and FPS video-games won't make you shoot neighbors. (unless you have a predisposition for that behavior). Anyway, just play it safe and be responsible, and try to know someone well before jumping into bed, you'll be just fine. So, watch the porn you wish, but don't be random in real life.
6. 2013-07-20 11:10  
If an individual chooses to have unprotected sex, he must be prepared to accept the consequences. Pointing fingers never gets anyone anywhere. Some people refuse to accept that they have a mind of their own by choosing to be "lazy"...or simply just not choosing to do what is safe. In any case, make a choice and accept the consequences - whether that choice is "stupid" or not.
7. 2013-07-20 12:25  
All I can say is BE A RESPONSIBLE PERSON.. Be responsible to yourself and everybody around you. Of course having a knowledge about the transmission and to the virus and setting up your limits will do a big thing.. Sex is fun if you do it in a responsible and safe way...
8. 2013-07-20 17:32  
Condoms in the video is a dissapointment to me.
I would expect what I don't or can't do by myself otherwise it's not worth buying.
If you feel it's OK to have a sex without condoms simply due to the fact that video models didn't put on condoms, you're short of common sense as a gay guy.
Would you be allowed to kill someone after you see a violence movie?
9. 2013-07-20 18:34  
I read this and didn't know whether to Laugh or Cry .. I didn't do either .. I decide to write this WTF letter to the editors.
#Editor(s) at Fridae:
I have just read this article and after reading the earlier article on the rise of HIV in BKK .. I am reluctantly coming to the conclusion that any article that can be found is being allowed into the 'News & Features' section without editorial prudent editorial oversight to discern the articles factual basis (fact vs. opinion) and honestly if the information is just "sensational trite" used to get noticed & be "media worthy".

The article on in the increase in HIV rates in BBK (Spread of HIV in Bangkok has become an 'explosive epidemic':Health authorities) which included a story about 'Ball & Sonchai', a cautionary story about infidelity & HIV. The problem is that "story" is just that .. a made-up piece of fiction that has been around forever. Just insert 'Adam & Steve' and you can probably web search that story word-for-word. Its fiction & you should have caught it as such.
2) This article is just so much sensational garbage. Just take a look at the media presentation (http://www.asshhconference.org/presentations/wednesday/03_CS69.pdf) to the conference at the .. 2nd ANNUAL ... Association for the Social Sciences and Humanities in HIV. This is NOT a respected authority on HIV or the GLBT community .. Its a Symposium. Did you bother to find out that the ..
1) primary source of this article was a organization called "Porn Laid Bare"??!! That doesn't sound like a disinterested scientific organization.
2) That (this is from the study itself!!!) .. " we were only able to conduct 8 focus groups. These groups ranged in size and a total of 50 men were interviewed in focus groups over a three-month period".
OMG .. you ran a whole article on the negative effects of Bareback porn .. and its not even a scientific finding. Interviewing 50 guys IS NOT a scientific finding. Its Sensational Trite.

The other part of the article, Gabriel Girard of Concordia University, Montreal, presented an analysis of how his ... 30 French gay male interviewees ... understood ‘bareback’. His interviews did not focus on pornographic images, but on sexual practice. PLEASE ... asking 30 people options about anything is only worthy of a under-grad student term paper!

Please review this stuff with a critical eye. Many GLBT only have your information you provide on News & Features page. Your readers deserve better work from you.
10. 2013-07-21 01:14  
#9: I don't think you have a very good, if any, understanding of how social science is conducted and that you yourself have not done any of the research you ask others to do,

If you had you would have found that "Porn Laid Bare" is an initiative supported by THT (that's the Terence Higgins Trust, one of the largest if not the largest organisation doing HIV prevention in the UK) it is funded by public money and supported by the University of Sussex.

There is nothing wrong with scientific data being published in a "symposium", actually this is often where research is presented first. ASSHH is an international membership organization that promotes and supports critically informed and theoretically engaged social science and humanities research on HIV/AIDS. Many of its members are on the board of international publication in the field.

As for the article above, it was first published by AIDSmap which is one of the most reliable source of information, scientific and non-scientific in the UK.

Maybe you do not like the content or the methodology, but your ignorance in the matters above does not give credence to your views.
Comment edited on 2013-07-21 01:16:19
11. 2013-07-21 06:32  
There is an old saying in the world in any language or culture
that goes like this, "a picture is worth a thousand words". As
a former teacher turned airline agent who is 67 yrs. I can
assure you that it is true. I will try to keep on topic.."barebacking"
and the porn industry. The porn industry is like a sex education
class. Oh, but yes, they teach thousands of gay men new and
different things about sex. Young gay men learn about gay sex
right off a disk or computer. After watching barebacking enoug
times the young man mind is tricked into thinking (1) i wonder
what it feels like (2)its just one time to check it out or (3) i can
try it with my present lover. Unfortunaly, it only takes that one
good time feeling of barebacking to have a life of misery and pain.
You see to day they (gay historians) like to use the term PreAids.
I prefer to call it by it's real name "the gay plague" and had the
porno industry used its media as a teaching tool maybe i would
have twice the number of gay friends my age now. Use a condom
and not only will you omg save your life but the lives of many
others.
12. 2013-07-21 10:36  
ALways be safe
Comment #13 was deleted by its author on 2013-07-21 10:38
Comment #14 was deleted by its author on 2013-07-21 10:38
15. 2013-07-21 16:34  
Reply to #10 from #9
To Roger Tatoud

You made a statement about my lack of knowledge in how social science research works.

I wonder how people will feel about you acting like a just "Layman Fridae Reader" when you in fact have "Since 2002 I have developed my own programme and project management methodology based on existing templates and tools that I have tailored to the management and administration of scientific research projects". So your right .. I have NO IDEA how your methodology works.

However, I DO know that a sample size of 50 interviews DOES NOT create a creditable scientific sample.

You also stated that “that "Porn Laid Bare" is an initiative supported by THT (that's the Terence Higgins Trust, one of the largest if not the largest organization doing HIV prevention in the UK) it is funded by public money and supported by the University of Sussex” as an example of what ... Unbiased scientific research. Really??!! A publically funded group resorting to sensationalized data and issued to preserve its funding stream.. Never!! The article cited Michael Weinstein of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. If there was ever a reason to look at self-serving sensationalized data coming from a publically funded, HIV prevention group .. Michael Weinstein’s AIDS Healthcare Foundation is it.

You also wrote “there is nothing wrong with scientific data being published in a ‘symposium’; actually this is often where research is presented first”. True, since it doesn’t have to face any peer-review. Anyone can stand in front of a group of people and make a claim. Did you actually look at the ‘Porn Laid Bare’ power-point presentation? If that was up to your “own programme and project management methodology” .. I SO rest my case.

And as for you instance that because the “… article above, it was first published by AIDSmap which is one of the most reliable source of information, scientific and non-scientific in the UK “. AIDSmap IS NOT a scientific journal.. It’s a clearing house for HIV related articles. It has information resources ... but that doesn’t make it a anything more than it is.

I will be happy to debate this at ANY symposium you happen to be at in San Francisco. I live in the City at the heart of this so I do know a little about how social science research works.
Comment edited on 2013-07-21 17:45:05
Comment #16 was deleted by its author on 2013-07-21 17:31
17. 2013-07-21 23:38  
I really don't buy the 'monkey see monkey do' argument.

Watching bareback porn doesn't make me want to do it. I've only bareback fucked guys I've known well and trusted. It's a dangerous practise under certain conditions and situations.

For many it's just an arousing fantasy, harmless because many will never try it.

The core message is know your status, get tested regularly and use a condom if fucking around. Leave the acting to the porn stars.



Comment edited on 2013-07-21 23:55:00
18. 2013-07-22 00:13  
I am one that prefers watching porn sans condom. However, that does not transfer to my love life. My partner and I have been together for eight years. From the first time right up to the present we ALWAYS use condoms and still get tested regularly. It's senseless not to and in the end possibly deadly.
19. 2013-07-22 15:01  
always be safe don't meet a lot of guy for fun sex only cause HIV o AIDS is very quiet virus...
20. 2013-07-24 21:38  
just b safe with or without watching unprotected sex porn movie.
there are so many temptation. i prefer to jerking off.
remember, sex is one of biggest problems among gay but u can substitute it by doing many activities such as gardening, charity job or acts, ...try doing little things to make other creatures happy for example giving dog food..i did massage a wild dog yesterday and the dog felt happy, so did i
happiness is not come from sex only..so many choice
21. 2013-07-30 11:55  
Learn the lessons from here.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l1ji-2kTEEE

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E1mms6Lqnws
Comment edited on 2013-07-30 11:58:24

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