Steve Dow forged courageously into the barebacking and bug-chasing backroom in his recent Riding Bareback piece and showed just how difficult it can be to obtain clarity -“ or even a bit of back-lighting -“ at the point where gay men, risk and desire collide.

The start-point for his exploration -“ the widely discredited Rolling Stone magazine beat-up about the reported 25 percent of American gay men who are bug-chasers -“ could perhaps be seen as but the latest in a number of moral panics which litter the gay HIV historical landscape like last year’s Red Ribbons. Bug-chasing -“ the purported HIV-negative online pursuit of pozzies willing to gift them with the bug -“ is just the latest in a long line of dubious shock/ horror claims, running back through reports of a culture of heedless and wilful condom abandonment encompassed in the barebacking scenario, to the confident assertion, way back when, that bathhouses cause AIDS. The modern and equally unconvincing update of which is that the internet apparently causes AIDS.

A number of familiar generic profiles appear in Steve’s feature including AIDS Council leaders down-playing -“ rightly in my view -“ the bug-chasing phenomenon in their particular constituencies. Cut to the essential anonymous bug-chaser airhead, observing that HIV is now just a matter of taking a few pills. He’s paired with the equally essential wagging community-member finger -“ this time in drag -“ assuring us that it isn’t. It’s become as predictable a set piece as an 18th century minuet. Enough to drive you to the nearest chat-room for a spot of the old life-affirming.

Clearly it frustrated Steve. Not convinced -“ understandably -“ of anything much in this pea soup of supposition and opinion, he sensibly looked for a bit of evidence-based proof around what’s really going on here. And what’s not.

I understand Steve’s concern about the quantum of myth versus reality here, but I’m maybe more confident than he is about where respective weightings lie and the degree of confidence we can take from that.

Back in 1999, the Star ran a piece on barebacking that suggested that Aussie pragmatism -“ not to mention our well-developed capacity for ironic humour -“ meant that barebacking, while it was certainly happening, was more generally read here as a basic shorthand for the condomless fuck rather than some sort of heartfelt gay commitment to being irredeemably wicked. The discussion the SSO article generated contributed to the HIV sector tackling the thorny question of what HIV prevention needed to do to address the growing reality of a wider range of self-selected gay sexual risk practice.

At the same time, surveillance data pointed to a growing number of gay men -“ particularly HIV-positive gay men -“ choosing not to use condoms. Subsequent research by the National Centre in HIV Social Research and the Australian Research Centre for Sex Health and Society has offered very useful context as to how and why this happens. Far from being some mass disengagement from reality on the part of jaded, over-it queens, it shapes into a complex picture of often quite sophisticated harm minimisation-aware risk-taking by guys who report a whole range of motivations, strategies and specific circumstances for so doing. The success of HIV treatments has clearly contributed to a change in attitude in this respect but few research study respondents seem to agree with the proposition that treatments advance has taken all the HIV worry out of being close. The bottom line is that the number of guys who just don’t care would seem to be incredibly low.

As for bug-chasers, if there’s anything much more to it other than cyberspace fantasy, I’ve yet to see the evidence. And ask yourself, if you’re a positive guy, what your reaction might be to some wanky infection request.

Last October, in response to her own rhetorical question, Is HIV prevention working?, Professor Susan Kippax, who heads the National Centre in HIV Social Research, answered, Yes -“ but it’s finely balanced.

It is. For the HIV sector, it can be about finding itself in between funder expectation rock and gay men’s reality hard place. The former aims for the public health outcome flush that only zero new infections can ultimately bring. The latter, after 20 years of tackling, absorbing and ultimately normalising life with disease, is about desire fulfilment against a much wider range of risk management options and life potentiality generally, than was once the case. Gay men and condoms were originally envisaged as a very temporary crisis response arrangement. But it’s a long time since crisis adequately defined where gay men are with HIV.

There’s no magic campaign to deal to this scenario. In fact there are no magic campaigns, full stop. HIV prevention campaigns don’t optimally change behaviour en masse, so much as they aim to provide information that enables people to make sensible choices about their own behaviour, against an ever-changing challenge backdrop.

I think we’re managing bloody well on the whole. A toast to the Boys in the Backroom is overdue.

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