Don’t judge me. I’m HIV-negative and I love barebacking. It is so intense that it is almost a spiritual experience for me. I have to admit I feel kind of guilty afterwards. But then the next time I have an opportunity to go bare, I do it again. I’ve heard the safe-sex lectures, okay?
So, no safe sex lectures allowed? That’s like asking me to respond with one hand tied behind my back. While I will do what I can to avoid the lecture, I am going to bring in a couple of different perspectives to answer your question. I'm going to assume that you don't know your sexual partners' HIV status of if they are HIV-positive that they are not undetectable (that is on treatment, with undetectable viral loads to the point where you cannot contract HIV from them). You wouldn't ask this question if you knew the sex you were having was safe.
I am going to start by asking you to imagine we are sitting across from each other in my office. I’ll be wearing my unfashionable cardigan sweater, the therapist uniform. I will start with a story.
When I was about 14, my Sunday school teacher took it upon herself to discuss the sins of the flesh with a class of teenage boys. Brave, right? Or maybe just naïve. What I remember the most was when she told us that “nothing feels better than skin on skin.” And while at that age I hadn’t actually experienced anything close to what she was referring to, I recognized the power of these words and have continued to over time.
Of course, “skin on skin” has special meaning in the age of HIV, particularly around the role of condoms. I don’t think anyone would dispute that having sex without a condom feels pretty good. I certainly don’t judge you for not loving having to suit up for sex.
However, as a therapist, I have a couple of questions I ask my clients when I am talking to them about barebacking. The first question is: How much do you love yourself? Admittedly, that is not such an easy question to answer. The question that follows is probably pretty obvious: Do you love yourself enough to take the best possible care of yourself?
If we were talking together and I asked you these questions, how would you answer?
My goal is not to back you into a corner. But I do want to encourage you to consider what it means to have risky sex. Sure, it feels really great at the time. Maybe even so mind-blowing it feels like a spiritual experience. And in the heat of the moment, it’s hard to deny yourself something that you enjoy so much.
But it also sounds like you’re having some second thoughts about the choices you are making, otherwise you wouldn't have written to me. And I’m wondering if the enjoyment in the moment isn’t being overshadowed by the concerns about the potential risk to your health that are also coming up for you. Risks that include not only HIV, but other sexually-transmitted infections which are on the rise right now.
I encourage you to listen to that inner voice that is questioning the wisdom of bareback sex. Maybe that’s your voice of self-love talking to you. Don’t use it as a way to criticize yourself or scold yourself, or to make yourself feel guilty. That’s not helpful at all.
But instead, I encourage you to focus on my first question. How much do you love yourself? And then think about what you can do to manifest your self-love. Create a vision of you acting on your self-love by taking the best possible care of yourself, physically and emotionally and spiritually. Get specific with yourself on what that would look like in your life.
With that vision in mind, it is both my belief and my experience that doing right by yourself becomes second nature. Sure, the choice is still there. But the answer is also clearer.
Next, I am going to ask you to imagine that you are speaking with my alter ego, an individual wearing a tee shirt, with a trendy haircut and very cool glasses. My alter ego just happens to be an HIV educator (who also promises not to lecture you).
I'm going to discuss PrEP with you, just in case you’re not educated on PrEP. At the risk of lecturing you, or of stealing the HIV educator’s thunder, let me just say that while PrEP (the HIV prevention treatment) won’t completely take away the risk of becoming HIV-positive, it lowers your risk by 99 percent. There've only been two verified cases where a person has become HIV-positive while using PrEP properly. Both cases involved rare mutated strains of HIV. (A third case, thus far, appears to be lack of adherence, which is a reminder that like condoms, if not used properly PrEP cannot ensure your safety.)
You can learn more about PrEP from these short videos here and here.
But before I go, please indulge me one last time. I just need to add that unsafe sex can be a form of self-destructive behavior. If you had trouble answering the question about loving yourself, or if you find yourself getting involved in unsafe sexual situations as a way of coping with feelings like fear or anger, or with loneliness, then it may be time to do some shrink shopping. What you are experiencing is treatable through working with a mental health professional. Don't go through this alone.