Many gay men enjoy bareback porn, but are concerned about its possible effects on sexual behaviour

Roger Pebody
Published: 17 July 2013

Many gay men who watch pornography enjoy and sometimes prefer material in which condoms are not used, but have some anxieties about the potential effects of bareback porn on their own sexual behaviour. However, they largely displace these concerns onto other gay men, seen to be more easily influenced, according to Sharif Mowlabocus of the University of Sussex, speaking at the 2nd International Conference for the Social Sciences and Humanities in HIV in Paris last week.

A second presentation to the conference explored gay men's differing understandings of 'bareback'. 

Whereas in the pre-AIDS era, sex without condoms was standard in gay pornographic images, the majority of producers started to ask performers to wear condoms during the 1980s. In the late 1990s, ‘bareback’ videos started to be issued; their producers and actors often outspoken and defiant in the face of public criticism. This started as a niche in the porn market (the imagery was often transgressive in one way or another), but since then, images of sex without condoms have become pervasive.

This move has not been without controversy. One concern is the health of the performers – the issue is framed in terms of safe working conditions. Another concern is that the imagery may normalise unprotected sex, with a consequent effect on viewers’ own sexual behaviour.

Michael Weinstein of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation has alleged that “Unsafe sex in porn is one of the largest contributors to our current culture of unsafe sex”. He has succeeded in bringing about legislation to require condoms to be used when porn scenes are filmed in Los Angeles County.

Attitudes to pornography

Sharif Mowlabocus’ research was done in two stages – firstly, an analysis of the content of 125 pornographic scenes, and secondly, seven focus group discussions with a total of 50 gay and other men who have sex with men (MSM) in Brighton, England. The discussions addressed men’s feelings about porn in general before focusing in on the question of bareback porn.

Most of the men who took part in the research enjoyed and regularly watched pornography. Also, for some, gay porn had provided an early validation of their sexual desires and interests.

Porn was more like…when you want to find out about it more, it’s kind of like a research tool because you want to find out the right positions to do, the right methods, you know, the right actions, to help … just to help pleasure someone properly, you know.

Some men also shared porn with friends or watched it with sexual partners. Mowlabocus commented that porn is therefore more than just a substitute for ‘real sex’ or a masturbation tool – it can play a role in forming and maintaining relationships for example.

Whereas ‘bareback porn’ is most obviously and clearly characterised as being pornography in which condoms are not used, the research found that not all scenes without condoms were labelled as ‘bareback’.

Not all scenes without condoms were labelled as ‘bareback’

There are different genres in pornography, and when the researchers described a scene involving two ‘twinks’ (boyish-looking, younger men), who are perhaps boyfriends, having unprotected anal intercourse, the focus group participants consistently refused to acknowledge it as ‘bareback’. Sometimes they ignored the lack of condoms or explained it away.

Scenes which were seen as ‘bareback’ tended to be transgressive in some way, an aspect often emphasised in marketing materials. Pornography involving a noticeable age difference between the performers, or of sex between men of different ethnic groups, or emphasising power imbalances (dominant ‘tops’ and a submissive ‘bottom’), was more likely to be labelled as ‘bareback’. Depictions of anonymous sex away from domestic settings were often considered ‘bareback’.

Pornography which drew attention to the exchange of semen between performers was also understood to be ‘bareback’.

Many of the interviewees said that they enjoyed watching bareback porn and that it was often ‘hotter’ than other forms of porn. As well as appearing to be more ‘authentic’ and ‘real’, several interviewees said that the ‘hotness’ of bareback porn often lay in the fact that it was representing something that was taboo. It was something that they thought they should not be doing, watching, talking about or enjoying.

This appeal of the transgressive is perhaps best illustrated by an interview quote given to Florian Voros, another researcher who spoke at the Paris conference:

“I discovered there were people against it, arguing it was degrading and dangerous. This fiendish side of it attracted me. And I started buying some.”

Men’s enjoyment of bareback porn could not be separated from its negative aspects

Sharif Mowlabocus found that his respondents had both positive investments in bareback porn and considerable anxieties about it. They raised the question of whether it might influence personal behaviour.

Men’s personal enjoyment of bareback porn could not be separated from its negative aspects, making it highly ambivalent, he suggested. “The erotic economy of bareback porn is built on a representation of risk and moral transgression,” he said.

Respondents displaced their anxieties onto other groups of gay men. For example, older men were worried that younger men (who hadn’t lived through the HIV/AIDS epidemic) might be more affected by bareback porn. On the other hand, younger interviewees thought older men were more at risk. HIV-negative men were worried that HIV-positive men might feel this was the way they were supposed to have sex now, whereas HIV-positive men were worried that negative men might be tempted to veer from the path of safer sex.

For themselves, the respondents insisted that porn was just fantasy and that they could handle it. Interestingly, this idea of porn as fantasy had not come up in men’s earlier discussions of their use and appreciation of porn – it was only mentioned once the issue of bareback porn had been introduced.

Mowlabocus noted that his respondents remained concerned about HIV prevention and condom use; HIV-negative respondents expressed a strong desire to avoid HIV infection. But while men see condoms as important, they do not necessarily find them erotic or interesting, he suggested. 

“Bareback porn might be most usefully conceptualised as a phantasmatic process through which the constraints that HIV/AIDS have imposed upon gay male culture have now become eroticised,” he suggested.

Less theoretically, he and colleagues at the Terrence Higgins Trust have developed an intervention toolkit with suggestions as to how health promoters who are working with gay men can engage with issues around bareback pornography and unprotected sex, and work the topic into sexual health promotion interventions.

The suggested interventions include:

  • Ways of raising the subject of bareback porn as an opportunity for men to discuss in a more general way their concerns and questions about unprotected sex.

  • Ways of incorporating the subject into motivational interviewing, as a means of encouraging reflection on unprotected sex.

  • Ways of using the subject during group work in order to overcome the mechanisms of displacement of responsibility or 'policing' during discussions on sexual behaviour.

Bareback and the gay community

At the same conference session, Gabriel Girard of Concordia University, Montreal, presented an analysis of how his 30 French gay male interviewees understood ‘bareback’. His interviews did not focus on pornographic images, but on sexual practice.

In France, ‘bareback’ (the English word is used) has been the subject of intense and divisive debate among writers, activists and HIV prevention organisations. Those arguments have often been organised around an opposition between ‘individualistic’ behaviour and attachment to the ‘gay community’, which is often seen as capable of establishing behavioural norms. The researcher wanted to see if this frame of reference helped make sense of his interviewees’ perceptions of bareback.

Some of his participants felt part of the ‘gay community’, believed that barebackers threatened it, and that they should be excluded from it – one man said that men who bareback “are doomed”. Deliberately not using condoms suggested a lack of respect for gay men who had died of AIDS in the early years of the epidemic.

Other respondents had a more understanding view of barebacking, and could find explanations in terms of psychology, contextual factors or the history of the epidemic (e.g. the arrival of effective HIV treatments). Moreover, many of these respondents were critical of the way in which different sexual practices, with divergent motivations, were sometimes all publicly described as ‘barebacking’. Mainstream media discussions of the issue were seen as stigmatising, a threat to the gay community.

‘Bareback’ has been the subject of intense and divisive debate

And while some of these respondents did practise unprotected anal intercourse with casual partners, none would call themselves a ‘barebacker’. The public moral condemnation was too strong.

Other respondents distanced themselves from the ‘gay community’, something which would threaten their individual autonomy. “These are people who are doing whatever they want; for me, it is really far from me, I am not at all in it,” said one man.

For these respondents, it was up to the individual to protect himself, regardless of external norms. One HIV-positive respondent defended his choice not to tell casual partners about his HIV status and to let them decide whether to use a condom or not.

A final group of respondents did not see themselves as part of the gay community either, but did take advantage of the gay scene and of gay social networks to meet sexual partners, for example. In their discussions of bareback, such men described a shared responsibility between sexual partners, who can both make rational, informed decisions.

Girard said that debates about barebacking need to go beyond an opposition between individualism and the community, but that his respondents’ different understandings of the term do suggest different perceptions of responsibility and social order.

References

Mowlabocus M & Harbottle J Bareback Pornography And The Ambivalent Gift. 2nd International HIV Social Science and Humanities Conference, Paris, session CS69, 2013. (The presentation slides can be viewed on the conference website; for further information, see the Porn Laid Bare website).

Girard G What’s In A Word? French Gay Male Discourses On Bareback And Conception Of Risk. 2nd International HIV Social Science and Humanities Conference, Paris, session CS69, 2013. (The text of the conference presentation is available here; free registration required).

Abstracts are available on the conference website.

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