Baring the Truth
By James Gavin
The sticker on the video box was as chilling as a skull and crossbones: bareback. It was 1998, and an HIV-positive couple from Palm Springs, Calif., had just begun videotaping bareback orgies and releasing the tapes under the company name Hot Desert Knights. After a decade of scrupulous condom use in gay porn, after all the deaths from AIDS complications and the struggle to curb HIV, these films seemed to betray everyone who had fought the fight. Chi Chi LaRue, the hefty cross-dressing porn director, who entered the industry in 1987, recalls his response to those first bareback videos: 'Shock. Anger. Sadness. I thought, Why?'
Today, by various estimates, the bareback genre accounts for up to 30% of the gay porn industry's output. On MaleDVD.net, the Netflix of that field, about half of the top 20 rentals at any given time are condomless. 'The consumer has spoken,' declares Sam Dixon, a '90s porn star now directing bareback films. 'This is what people want to see.'
Shot like home movies, most of these videos are cheap to make and easy to profit from. Their casts include 'real people' along with a growing wave of aging HIV-positive porn actors. Bareback porn is also a playground where boys barely out of high school frolic without condoms as though AIDS doesn't exist. Many of these films fetishize semen so graphically that the message is unmistakable: a loud 'fuck you' to the plague that once terrified us all.
Why has bareback sex proliferated, on- and off-camera? Many reasons are given: safer-sex burnout; medications that have made HIV seem like 'the new diabetes,' as an HIV-positive character on Nip/Tuck called it; the scourge of crystal meth, a destroyer of inhibitions. Then there's the allure of sexual taboos, which bareback video exploits. To former porn actor Will Clark, the trend 'reflects our need to be edgy and defiant in a world where being gay used to be edgy and defiant and every day has become more and more commonplace.' Clark, whose AIDS fund-raising and safer-sex advocacy have earned him broad respect in the industry, feels that a key effect of these films is to give permission to'and eroticize'what guys are already doing, or long to do.
The occasional protests in the gay media have lost ground to blas' acceptance. 'This population is deep in denial,' says Sharon Mitchell, the ex'porn actress who founded the Adult Industry Medical Health Care Foundation, through which the straight porn industry enforces monthly HIV and STD testing of its performers. But while HIV-positive actors are barred from straight porn, no such rule exists in gay bareback films, and the gay porn industry as a whole has no regulated health care. The participants, says Mitchell, 'don't want to think about the problems they may be causing. Everyone's just in it for the money.'
Many performers, like '90s porn regular Dino Phillips, a newcomer to bareback, insist these films are harmless fantasies. 'Otherwise,' he says, 'every movie that shows gunslinging and murder would have to use a disclaimer saying, 'Duh, this is just for entertainment, we're not really advocating this.' '
The comparison is disingenuous. While most people don't aspire to mimic murderers, they do want to have hot sex. And on-screen depictions of violence are fake; bareback porn is not. 'These films may stage a fantasy, but these are real people having unsafe sex,' says veteran filmmaker Gino Colbert. 'They're not using special effects here.' Will Clark calls the fantasy explanation 'a cop-out given by these people so they can sleep at night and not think their actions have any consequences to their gay brothers. Porn is tremendously influential.'
That's hard to deny. From the hairy-chested blue-collar style to the pumped-up gym bod, porn has helped promote every dominant look in gay culture. Positions, leather, sexual swagger, dirty talk'porn teaches them all. And to Chi Chi LaRue, that brings a responsibility. 'People have called me a condom Nazi,' he says. 'Fine! I think sex is fantastic. You can still do it the right way.'
Nearly all the top-tier studios maintain a strict condom-use policy. But many are feeling outmoded as well as outsold, and the strain shows. The once-forbidden oral come shot'less risky than raw anal penetration'has become fairly common. So has bare-boned prodding without full insertion'at least in the finished edits. Bel Ami, the twink-glorifying Czech company, offers bareback video on demand as a Web site exclusive rife with familiar 'do as we say, not as we do' disclaimers: 'We fervently hope that in your private life you act responsibly and take every precaution to keep yourself healthy.' Previously, the majors took a supposed moral high road'some called it a power play'by barring actors who've done bareback films. That rule has faded; some of their names mean money, with or without rubbers.
Undisputed by all who were interviewed for this article is the fact that safer-sex practices are on the wane'far beyond the scope of porn. 'A lot of people, stupidly, think the AIDS epidemic is over,' says LaRue. HIV and AIDS statistics, imperfect (and dated) as they are, bear out the rise in unsafe sex among men who have sex with men (MSM). Recently the American Journal of Public Health announced that between 2001 and 2004, HIV diagnosis rates among men who have sex with men from the ages of 13 to 24 had grown by approximately 14%. Other studies have found jumps in new HIV diagnoses among some groups of MSM over the age of 25.