As reports roll in from the AIDS Conference in Barcelona, and rates of new HIV infections in Victoria are released, there is a growing chorus of condemnation around gay men’s complacency. No longer the virtuous heroes of the crisis, gay men appear to have fallen from grace, and are out there rooting again in all sorts of ways, it is feared.

The concern about new infections isn’t exactly ungrounded. There’s more unprotected anal sex happening, and more HIV positive men in Sydney than ever before. There are higher rates of gonorrhoea, and fewer people on HIV-treatment. All this may be leading to higher general levels of infectivity.

But there’s a lot left out of these apocalyptic equations, gay men’s practical efforts to look after themselves and others, for example.

We know that sex can be a really problematic concept for people diagnosed with HIV. But HIV positive gay men have come up with some pretty clever solutions, which navigate a whole host of concerns.

Among them: how not to pass on HIV; how to make your HIV status known in a way that is safe for you; how to prevent the wrong people finding out about your HIV status; how to feel good about the way your body feels or looks, when you’re feeling a little less than fabulous; how to avoid infections that impact wellbeing; how to be intimate or even experience pleasure when you’re constituted as infectious.

The techniques that HIV positive gay men have adopted to address such concerns are variable, and some are more foolproof than others. But the fact that they exist at all shows how short-sighted the charge of complacency is. It’s not just that it’s inaccurate. It fails to open up ways of working together, or enhancing gay men’s already existing efforts to look after ourselves.

Such efforts can be understood as practical techniques for the achievement of certain aims and goals. In fact, this is exactly how French philosopher Michel Foucault characterised ethics. In his historical work, Foucault conceived the ethic as a sort of historically variable how-to manual for achieving certain aims or ideals. Understood in this way, it is possible to claim that a multitude of minor practical ethics saturate our public culture today -“ ranging from popular forms of infotainment showing you how to redesign your house, to tips on shopping for bargains, cooking shows, or Agony Aunt columns that give advice on how to handle everyday dilemmas. Ethics render values as technical advice.

One of Foucault’s more acute interests, writing as he was at the onset of the AIDS crisis, was to find conceptual tools capable of illustrating how different social groups adapt medical and moral authority to their own ends. The useful thing about ethics on this understanding is that it allows you to get specific and see the variations in the ways people carry out their adherence to generalised aims or moral codes.

Preventing HIV transmission is one example of an aim mediated by changing practical ethics. The condom ethic is only one of the historically varied means through which gay men have prevented HIV transmission during the epidemic.

Because ethics are always embedded within specific ways of living, the form they take is shaped by how one is situated in the social field, and the lived concerns that arise from a given social position. One’s HIV status can make a world of difference to the sorts of cares one has around sex. Though usually pressing for HIV positive guys, these concerns are rarely apparent to negative or untested individuals. (This can work both ways.)

Some of the solutions that positive gay men have devised in this regard were published recently in a newly updated booklet called HIV+ Gay Sex. It’s thought-provoking reading -“ not only for positive guys, who will appreciate the care taken to address their concerns, but also for HIV-negative and untested men who want to find out more about the sexual scene in which they’re participating (which is made up of a large number of HIV-positive men).

The booklet’s format is not unlike that of other HIV resources. When I read it, I thought about the particular sort of work it performs. It does a number of things. It provides reassurance -“ I’m not the only one confronted with these things. It provides a range of different perspectives on the problem in the words of positive gay men, giving access to a few different ways of being. And it provides some really practical techniques and advice for working out desires and navigating a bunch of tangible, worrying concerns.

HIV+ Gay Sex is a fine example of educational work at the level of ethics. By being familiar with and appreciating HIV-positive men’s pleasures and concerns -“ the way they’re worked out, their challenges, and their legitimacy -“ it helps to foster a culture in which HIV-positive gay men are encouraged to think carefully and affirmatively about the ways they have sex. There are few other approved cultural opportunities to do so.

This intervention also provides a suggestive model for ways of working with gay men at this point in the epidemic. Not by reproaching us as complacent, but by apprehending and appreciating our fucking ethics. Perhaps then the prescribed tone of fatigued and resentful obligation, which would have us exclaiming (wearily, begrudgingly) fucking ethics!, will dwindle just enough to uncover fresh efforts that encourage us to contextualise today’s pleasures and risks for ourselves.

HIV-Positive Gay Sex is published by AFAO, NAPWA, ANCAHRD and the AIDS Trust, and is distributed by ACON (9206 2000). Kane Race conducts cultural research into sexuality, gender, medicine and politics at the University of New South Wales.

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