There is a frightening and alarming rise in HIV infections in gay Australian men. After all that we’ve learned, after all that we’ve been through, after all of the lives that have been lost to this disease, how can it be on the rise now? What has happened to our number one protection against HIV infection – the simple condom?
The virus wants to live
HIV is a virus wanting a human host to live in. The average Western person survives more than 100 other such human host viruses in a typical lifetime. Surely it’s better never to let this destructive HIV virus into our bodies in the first place – but that’s what gay men are willingly doing today.
And all we have to do is wear a condom – a thin piece of protective latex. It seems absolute madness for us gay men visiting sex-on-premises venues, using Internet sites for casual encounters or enjoying a pick up fuck at a bar not to use a condom.
So why are gay men throwing them away now? To answer this question, I’ve reflected on the differences I see now compared to the early 1990s when I started my gay life in Sydney.
The younger generation
Back in the early ’90s, a young man taking his first steps in the scene was confronted with loud and frightening messages about HIV/AIDS. For example, in this newspaper, there was at least one full page devoted to the smiling faces of beautiful men who had lost their lives to the disease. Their faces changed every week, as did the names of their friends and family left sadly missing them. It seemed unthinkable to practise unsafe sex in an environment where death was so personal, so real.
But there is now a new generation of gay men out there who have never felt the emotional pain of seeing multiple friends and associates die of AIDS. Us older gays, who attended countless funerals and cared for our very sick brothers, still hold painful emotional scars of that time. Our younger gay brothers are free of that pain and enter the gay scene with unknowing confidence.
New drug therapies
Back in the ’90s, drug therapies were being developed and trialled to combat the virus’s spread. Many of the drugs produced horrible side-effects requiring more rounds of treatments to counter them. Ask a gay man who experienced the drug treatments back then; it wasn’t an easy or nice road to tread.
But now some gay men think that if you contract HIV then medical intervention is easily available with the use of triple therapies. The drugs may be better, but again, ask any gay man on a lifetime of medications if his body or his mind ever feels the same after a HIV+ diagnosis. He is now faced with constantly trying to stop the virus progressing to AIDS.
In the early ’90s I received unsolicited porn material in my post office box. I was horrified when looking at it to discover the material advocating not using condoms or lube. “Spit on it and stick it in” – was one line burned into my consciousness. This advertising material showed men bare backing without lube and the use of extreme racism in multi-racial scenes. Incensed on receiving this unsolicited material I wrote to the distributors threatening them with government intervention.
You must remember this was in the midst of countless of our brothers dying and others very sick. I was summoned personally to a Sydney solicitor’s office and my immediate thought was I would be sued for defamation remarks contained in my letter. I took with me a journalist from Campaign Magazine to witness what was to be said and for some moral support.
To my complete surprise the distributors agreed to never send this material out again, to write letters of apology to those to whom it was sent, to retract the messages of condoning the non use of condoms and lube and to place in gay newspapers the same message. I was overjoyed.
The late 1980s and 1990s was the time when we, as a community, galvanised together to save ourselves. There were countless community fundraising events, the formation of health caring organisations such as Ankali and CSN, a huge fight to keep Mardi Gras on the streets to show bigots this was not our human virus and very successful ACON publicity campaigns. Slap on the condom was the message. Be responsible for your health and other brothers in our community. Tell the young ones, “Are you mad? Of course we’re going to use a condom.”
These days the same enthusiastic gay community response is not there. HIV seems a distant problem and it is not. It is here in our community looking for new targets. Our gay brothers who are long-term HIV+ survivors now feel abandoned by the very community that previously supported them emotionally and physically. (I know this because I ran a HIV+ men’s group for long-term survivors on self-esteem.)
Let us now look at the role of modern gay porn and the increase in HIV infections. Where have the condoms gone in porn? They are showing us how to fuck and that means taking extreme risks. They are encouraging plain madness –
Drugs seem to have been a part of the gay scene as long as I can remember. The early ’90s were no different. House music anthems could be heard belting out of Oxford Street clubs and pubs, people madly dancing and partying all through the night on a line of speed or an Ecky (or both). Sure, people did silly shit on these drugs, but it seemed like the drugs were largely about the going out experience.
Now we have more different and more powerful drugs in the gay scene that have stepped off the dance floor and more firmly moved into our bedrooms. Drugs such as Ice and G seem to convince gay men to seek and accept greater sexual experiences and risks. This includes a lessened concern for the safety of condoms.
Maybe I am wrong but if your normal behaviour is a habit of wearing a condom for anal then drugs or not, you are more likely to use one. Always at the back of the trained brain is the use of a condom for anal no matter how drug fucked.
So what can you and I do to stop the advance of the latest shocking increase in HIV infections? Duh – bring back the condom. Tell anyone, younger or older – “Are you mad? Of course we’re going to use a condom.”
Gerry North is a gay counsellor and has run HIV+ men’s groups. Gerry also treats, addictions, depression, anxiety and completes couples counselling. Email [email protected] or www.gaycounselling.vpweb.com.au