The Institute of Many's Nic Holas (Photo: Adrian Tuazon)

The Institute of Many’s Nic Holas (Photo: Adrian Tuazon)

“Fucking stupid” was the term that Simon Copland used in his December 2 Soapbox opinion piece to describe condom-free sex in its many guises, including an apparently “new” trend for bareback parties.

Upon being shared on the Star Observer Facebook page, it quickly attracted a large, varied, and passionate response.

The speed and veracity of the online debate shows that the condom remains a powerful symbol that divides “good” and “bad” gays. Unfortunately for Mr Copland’s narrow argument, it is not and has never been as simple as that.

Condoms work to help prevent the instances of HIV infections and other STIs. If you’re reading this right now, then it’s safe to assume you’ve heard of how effective condoms are at enabling sex to become safer than were it condom-free.

My response to Mr Copland’s article is not to advocate for less condom use, or less condom education. Once you trudge through his stigmatising language and sex-negative ideology, at the core was an important message: condoms are important.

What I think Simon Copland was referring to was the so-called “relaxed attitude” to condom-free sex that has increased visibility in recent years.

His piece gave little to no consideration to the variety of sexual practices adopted by the community. What does he know about serodiscordant couples who rely on anti-rerotrvirals to maintain safer sexual practices with or without condom use (their choice)?

What about a sexually adventurous man (technically defined as someone who has more than 10 partners in six months, but in some circles I run in, that’s almost re-virginised) who enjoys polyamorous sex and makes decisions around the significance of UVL (undetectable viral load) and is in the appropriate testing pattern?

In the above example, I have deliberately not mentioned this person’s sero-status. Positive or negative, the better informed we are about sexual health, with the most recent information, the better off we all are. That requires a nuanced campaign, with ongoing strategic information and community leadership, not calling us – or them – “fucking stupid.”

This is what’s fundamentally wrong with the finger-wagging condom argument, and Mr Copland’s assertion that anyone who doesn’t use a condom is “fucking stupid”.

In the heat of the moment, when biology takes precedence over logic and common sense, the shrill message of “USE CONDOMS, STUPID” doesn’t carry over.

Here’s the rub: it’s going to happen to a lot of us. If someone, positive or negative, finds themselves in a situation where condoms have not been used, do we want them to panic and shame-spiral their way into inactivity? Or would we prefer they were fully aware of the risks and necessary course of action (PEP, knowing about viral load, testing patterns, etc)?

If we tell people they are “fucking stupid” for failing to do something, they’re less likely to speak up. Shame creates silence, whereas empowered and ennobled gay men recognise that mistakes happen, and if they do then something has to be done about it.

Sex is an intimate exchange, one that we’re hard-wired to seek.  Gay men have been fucking bareback for 50,000 years (hardly a “new and exciting trend”). In the last 30 years though (0.06% of the entire history of human sex), AIDS and HIV has dramatically altered the perception of “good” and “bad” gays and created a conservative, sex-negative voting block in the community.

It’s that force I oppose, and I feel that Mr Copland is a victim of this same conservative agenda that’s dismissing the positive community as “reckless barebackers” while campaigns for symbols of equality steal resources and oxygen from the HIV debate.

I posted the offending article (and I was offended by it) on the private Facebook page of The Institute of Many, where it prompted another lengthy debate. One member asked if by knowingly rejecting condoms we were putting our own pleasure ahead of the health of the community, which is a valid question. My counter to that is the two things are not mutually exclusive.

From a sex-positive perspective, acknowledging the pursuit of  ”pleasure” – aka intimacy, connection, sexual exploration, etc – is key to the health of this community. We’re a community that takes definition and identity via sexually activity (monogamous or polyamorous). This doesn’t mean to be part of this community you have to spend your weekend copping anonymous loads in a crystal haze. How you define your sexual boundaries is your own lifelong journey: vanilla, kink, raw, sheathed, only with the love of your life, or a life filled with many lovers.

The point I’m making is that sex has been used as a weapon against gay men by those who oppose our very existence. In response, we use our sex as a weapon against them: we own it, we celebrate it and we refuse to hide it away for fear of offending people.

Or at least, we used to. The AIDS epidemic was devastating, not just because we lost a generation of (what would now be) wise elders to help us lead the way. AIDS was used to make us ashamed of the kind of sex we wish to have, but we’re now slowly reclaiming the territory lost to that dark time. What gave me pause about Mr Copland’s article is that he was using sex as a weapon against his own people.

What we need is holistic lateral debate on condoms but all Mr Copland did was preach to the converted and risk driving others into darker corners where they make mistakes. Some of us spend a lot of time being there for guys when that happens.

Mr Copland may wish to spend some time with the newly-diagnosed community and see if he is brave enough to call them “fucking stupid.”

You can find Nic on Twitter @nicheholas, or in his role as co-founder of HIV social umbrella The Institute of Many.

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