The Health Protection Agency has announced a 26% increase in the number of men who have sex with men (MSM) having sexual intercourse without using condoms. This latest report follows news released last November that record numbers of people in the UK are living with HIV and another report released earlier this year concluded the numbers of MSM living with HIV has remained steady in England and Wales for the past ten years.
So what’s the reason? Why are MSM taking more risks and why are more of them having unprotected sex? Is this an education issue? Do we need to raise more awareness? There are various studies and theories but I’ll just put across my own perspective, as a HIV positive gay man, why I believe these trends are continuing. I won’t spend much time talking about condoms themselves. Any sexually active adult knows they can be a romance killer, a faff to put on and don’t particularly smell, taste or look good. But put that aside and plenty of men out there manage to wrap up. So why is it that a proportion of gay men don’t? Or to turn that around, why do they prefer to have sex without them/ find them unnecessary?
Many of the articles today include experts stating that gay men aren’t complacent, the proof? That in studies MSM show awareness that HIV is a dangerous disease and using a condom can prevent transmission of the virus, they believe that the levels of MSM diagnosed with HIV would have increased much more rapidly if this wasn’t the case. I disagree. Those gay men using condoms aren’t complacent, but a substantial proportion of those men who chose not to are.
I get the impression from many gay men that sexual illness is perceived in the same way Victorians viewed disease and sickness, that it’s associated with the poor working classes. We’re only human and we easily make judgements on each other, checking out guys online looking at where they live, what kind of job they have or even the spelling and grammar of an online profile on a hook-up site or app. I think gay men base sexual risk on these sorts of details. I had a date with a nurse and he ended up coming back to my place, we slept together but didn’t use protection, we had both been drinking… and it ‘just happened’. A week or so later he sent me a text stating that I’d given him gonorrhoea: I was mortified! At this point I’d been to the GUM but always had negative results on all the tests. Got tested, negative result? I got in touch with him again just to let him know it wasn’t me, “Oh, sorry! I had bareback sex with another guy but he was posh so I thought it would be you!” This coming from a nurse! HIV and STIs don’t care if you were born on a council estate or in a palace, they’re only interested in spreading through a host, anyone will do. Too many gay men take a risk on ‘nice’ guys because they’re middle class or have a good job, why would HIV infect guys like them…
I believe a bigger issue is peer pressure. It’s easy to think of this concept in a school, children being impressionable, wanting to fit in with others so doing things that they know they shouldn’t or that could be a bad idea. We rarely talk about the idea in adult context but I think it has a big role in why more MSM are deciding to have ‘risky’ sex rather using protection.
Again gay dating sites and applications have a big role to play here. When guys are in the mood to hook up casually with someone it can turn into a complicated chore just to find someone and arrange it. Constant competition in an environment where there is instant access to many men mean that guys are constantly competing with one another, some guys like vanilla and others want something more hard-core, and for some reason MSM seem to have associated risky sexual behaviour with the later and that bareback sex is more enjoyable, ‘you could sleep with that guy… but if you sleep with me I’ll let you do it raw ’. There’s almost a feeling that to some people you’re not into, for example S&M, watersports or bondage as much as you say you are unless you want to participate in unprotected sex, as if to prove you really enjoy these activities you have to take part without condoms. Some, young men especially, aren’t confident enough to rise above this pressure; I believe that’s why they make hasty decisions.
Men of all ages are using apps and gay hook-up sites, hormones racing; it’s easy to get in a trance like state and make ill-advised decisions. You want to meet someone but it’s been half an hour and you’ve not found anyone close by, then a guy start’s speaking to you but he’ll only meet you if it’s bareback… you know it’s wrong but hey, it’s just once? He looks ok? Guys like him don’t get STIs… do they? So you meet up and maybe you were ok, you got tested and everything was fine, or maybe you picked up something, but after a visit to the GUM they tested you and treated you now you’re ok, so where was the harm in it… so maybe it happens again a few weeks later. It’s never really spoken about but at the end of the day the reason why I live with HIV is because I was just incredibly eager to meet someone and didn’t have any patience to see who else might come along. So I slept with someone who only wanted to come over if we had unprotected sex, and it turned out to be a stupid decision.
So fewer men are using condoms and I’m blaming modern day advances. Not all of you will agree but we can’t deny the recent reports are analysing data set up against a back drop of increased internet access, smartphone ownership and an increase of different companies chasing the ‘pink pound’ enticing guys to use their websites or apps… These places themselves aren’t to blame but they’ve created a very easy platform on which gay men can be classist, succumb to peer pressure or make hormonal, ill-considered decisions.
Safe sex is a choice and whether you chose to use condoms or not please chose to get tested and if you’re going to increase the risk of becoming infected with HIV then go for tests more regularly.