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 industrys 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 doesnt 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 theres 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 toand eroticizewhat 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 exporn 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, dont want to think about the problems they may be causing. Everyones 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, were not really advocating this.
The comparison is disingenuous. While most people dont 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. Theyre 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.
Thats 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 talkporn 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 shotless risky than raw anal penetrationhas become fairly common. So has bare-boned prodding without full insertionat 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 roadsome called it a power playby barring actors whove 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 wanefar 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.
For some, seroconversion can feel liberatingin the short term, anyway. Though himself negative, Morningwoodthe assumed name of a San Franciscobased 24-year-old member of the Radical Faerieshas seen the reward claimed by so many who contract HIV, including one of his past lovers. A surrender of fear happens, he says, and the sense that now youre free to have whatever kind of piggy bareback sex you want.
I watch bareback sometimes, even though I feel its politically wrong and potentially harmful. Danger is hothotter, often, than glossy commercial porn, much of which features escorts robotically going through the moves. By contrast, bareback films make me think Im missing the party. And I wonder whether they have influenced my handful of slips from safety.
Michael Brandon, a partner in the studio Raging Stallion, might say yes. He dotes on fans who worship his porn persona: a lanky, bearded, horse-hung embodiment of his companys name. At home hes in a long-term condomless relationship. Weve been tested, and were comfortable with each others health issues, he explains, but on-screen is another matter. I feel I have a huge responsibility. If one of my fans or a teenager sees Michael Brandon fucking without a condom, they may think, Michael Brandon does it, so why cant I?
Thats not Sam Dixons concern. Dixon runs 1 Distribution, a Los Angelesbased DVD distributor, along with Tipo Sesso Productions, which produces cut-rate bareback video. Doesnt he feel that porn filmmakers have some obligation to promote safe sex? Were an adult industry, he states with nonnegotiable firmness. Were not an educational industry. I think the best you can do is try to put a little PSA at the beginning of your films. Beyond that, I truly believe that ones sexual practices are cemented by the time theyre watching porn. As for his actors, he says, If they dont do it for me, theyll do it for somebody else. Its not my position to chastise them. Thats censorship. Blame the rise in barebacking not on porn but on crystal, he says, and on neglectful parents. Way before someones watching adult films, the education has to start: Here are the facts. Be responsible. And save bareback sex for your life partner. Whos communicating those messages today? No one.
Certainly not the Bush administration, which preaches abstinence and insists that condoms are unreliable. We have this government thats so sex-phobic its destroying safe-sex education all over the world, says Howard Grossman, an eminent HIV specialist. Ignorance also pervades the bareback porn world, as Tim Valenti knows. As cofounder of NakedSword.com, a Shangri-la of gay video on demandnone of it barebackValenti has met lots of the subgenres young models. I found them to be extremely naive about what they were doing. Young people were being pushed into participating in something without having a clear understanding of the ramifications. I didnt want to be part of it.
In the Czech Republic, where bareback rules the industry, both gay and straight actors undergo regulated HIV screening. In the United States testing of gay actors is sketchy. Some producers do only quick screenings for antibodies, which may not appear until six weeks after infection. But if gay porn were to shut out HIV-positive performers, as straight porn does, the business would crash. Youre looking at an industry where easily 50% of the actors are HIV-positive, says Michael Stabile, NakedSword.coms marketing director. Ive talked to some of them, and they say, The only time I ever have sex with a condom is on-screen. So bareback isnt any huge fall from grace for them.
Sometimes its a merit badge. On the sprawling third floor of a building off Folsom Street in San Francisco, a dozen or so workers go about their duties as busily as Santas helpers. Welcome to Treasure Island Media, whose notorious films exploit some of the darkest gay sex taboosand create a few new ones. Dawsons 20-Load Weekend and Dawsons 50-Load Weekend star a soft-spoken, attractive young employee of a scientific firm in his on-screen guise as world-class cum dump. He enjoys cattle-call gang-banging, piss enemas, and penetration with a devils dicka condom filled with the frozen loads of multiple anonymous men.
To Treasure Islands reclusive middle-aged owner Paul Morris, sex and homosexuality are meaningful only if theyre transgressive, unreined, risky. (He calls HIV-negativity the new virginity.) To me, sex is a religion, he says, and Morrisan ex-hustler with the rugged air of a 70s truckerwields the eerie charisma of a cult leader. He has laser-beam eyes and a voice that keeps one off balance; its drawling cadences can convey fatherly concern or sarcasm, seduction or intimidation. Dawson waxes as rhapsodic of him as did Susan Atkins of Charles Manson. Paul is a wonderful, wonderful man, a brilliant man. Hes this idol figure that I always looked up to and wanted to please, he says. He even dreams of having impetuous sex with him: Thats not played out, unfortunately.
In his office Morris recalls a plea from queer theorist David Halperin that he start his videos with the pledge No gay men were harmed in the making of this film. Morriss response? To a certain extent my job is setting up a zone in which those questions dont appeara sexual cloud of unknowing.
He explains his philosophy further. I want to make porn that comes from a place even I dont understand. Porn from a place thats wild, forbidden, thats absolutely secret. That to me is gay. Not filtered through what the government says you should be. Not according to what the industry says you should or should not do.
Intellectually tantalizing as his battle cry may seem, what about practical concerns, like infection? Dont such Treasure Island productions as Breeding Season and Plantin Seed fetishize HIV? The filmmakers eyes harden. I see them as fetishizing unalloyed and pure sex among men, he says bluntly.
Perhaps its true for some viewers, as Morris claims, that watching extreme behavior can purge us of similar urges. But Morningwood experienced no catharsis from Dawsons 50-Load Weekend. It totally overwhelmed me, he says, and he went on his own mini barebacking spree. Playing safe has been a challenge ever since: Now that I know what Im missing, I have to find that inner strength to make the right decision every time.
The bareback fields former poster boy has made a life-changing decision of his own. Hi, Im Sean Lockhart, says the slender, sweet-faced lad of 20 who greets me, hand extended, near the Amtrak station in downtown San Diego. As Brent Corrigan (as Lockhart now prefers to be called), he starred in such twink classics as Take It Like a Bitch Boy. Hes the twink-lovers dream: a deliciously piggy boy-next-door type wholl submit to the kinkiest fantasies, then nestle in your arms like a little lamb. The fact that he was under 18 when he entered the industry had some nasty consequences. So did his involvement with a producer who was killed early this year in one of the most notorious murders in porn history.
He talks about it all at an outdoor caf. By his side is Grant Roy, his older Texan boyfriend, father figure, and protector, as Corrigan calls him. Roy is his partner in BrentCorriganInc.com, an Internet candy store of pay-per-view sex scenes along with the actors revealing blog.
His is the story of a sexually precocious but naive boy with a dysfunctional mother, an absentee father, and painfully low self-esteem. Strapped for funds, he let his then-boyfriend falsify his proof of age (Corrigan was 17) and sell his services to Bryan Kocis, owner of Cobra Video. Kociswhod been nabbed for videotaping himself having sex with a minorbecame Corrigans substitute father and lover; Corrigan became Kociss cash cow. But when the actor fled and publicly revealed the age violation, a livid Kocis sued him for fraud and threatened anyone who employed him. Along the way, he made enemies. On January 24, someone entered Kociss small-town Pennsylvania home, slashed his throat, stabbed him 28 times, and set the house afire. (On May 15, porn stars and video-on-demand Webmasters Harlow Cuadra and Joseph Kerekes were arrested in Virginia and charged with the crime. Investigators believe the two allegedly committed it in part because the duo wanted to clear the way to work with Brent Corrigan.)
This excruciating tale has at least one bright spot. Thankfully, at this time, Im HIV-negative, he says. And he has since become a safe-sex champion. I strongly believe that condoms in porn are important. Its not necessarily the end of the world if you get HIV, but its still gonna affect who you can and cannot date, who you can and cannot have sex with. Last year he appeared in his first mainstream gay porn film, Falcon Studios The Velvet Mafia. (Due to pressure from Kocis, who claimed ownership of the name Brent Corrigan, the actor was billed as Fox Ryder.)
All the scenes on Corrigans site employ condoms; he plans a series of PSAs in which hell demonstrate fun ways of using them. I think its time for some of us youthful types to come out and say, This is what you should be doing and this is the way I do it. Bareback, he feels, is the crutch of the unimaginative pornographer.
Condomless porn, of course, isnt going away. I want to shout from the mountaintops, Its just sex! says Dino Phillips. Then I think, Should it be just sex? The decision to play safe, he adds, is ultimately going to have to rest on peoples sense of self.
But to Grant Roy, thats a lonely way to live. Any community should be taking care of its own, he says. I think that as gay men, weve developed this strange complex of, I have it hard, so Im gonna bulldoze the fuck over you too. There arent very many of us out there. If we take care of each other, well be much better off.