The New Gay Sexual Revolution

NEW GAY SEXUAL REVOLUTION

Updated: May 15, 2017.

The sexual revolution of the 1960s and ’70s came to an abrupt and brutal end for many gay and bi men the moment AIDS was traced to sexual contact. In the early days of the epidemic, sex between men was equated with AIDS, not just in the mainstream media, but also in prevention efforts by other gay men. Since AIDS in those days was seen as a death sentence, for men who had sex with men, every sexual interaction carried the risk of death. Indeed, tens of thousands died of AIDS-related conditions. 

“I was alive when homosexuality was [still] considered to be a psychological illness,” David Russell, pop star Sia’s manager, recently told Plus magazine. “The two generations ahead of mine, and a good portion of my generation, were completely decimated by AIDS. They’re gone.”

While some men with HIV outlasted all predictions and became long-term survivors, the widespread adoption of condoms is credited with dramatically reducing HIV transmissions among gay and bi men in subsequent years. Yet reliance on nothing but that layer of silicone — a barrier some complain prevents true intimacy and pleasure — couldn’t erase the gnawing dread gay men felt that every sexual encounter could be the one where HIV caught up to them. 

There have been, of course, moments when nearly every gay or bi man has allowed their passions to override their fears and enjoyed the skin-on-skin contact that opposite-sex couples often take for granted. Thinking back on those unbridled and unprotected moments of passion filled many of these men with terror, regret, and guilt. 

“Shame and gay sex have a very long history,” acknowledges Alex Garner, senior health and innovation strategist with the gay dating app Hornet. “And it takes much self-reflection — and often therapy — to feel proud and unashamed of our sex when everything around us tells us that it’s dirty, immoral, or illegitimate.”

Since the late 1990s and the advent of lifesaving antiretroviral drugs, some of the angst around sex between men faded — and with that came changes in behavior. Condom use, once reliably high among gay and bisexual men, has dropped off in the past two decades. According to a recent study published in the journal AIDS, over 40 percent of HIV-negative and 45 percent of HIV-positive gay and bi men admitted to having condomless sex in 2014. Researchers found the decrease in condom use wasn't explained by serosorting (choosing only partners believed to have the same HIV status) or antiretroviral drug use. And despite what alarmists say, condom use had been declining long before the introduction of PrEP.

Garner, who has been HIV-positive for over two decades, says he’s almost relieved he acquired the virus at 23, because “My entire adult life I have never had to worry about getting HIV.” 

The Rise of PrEP

Now there’s hope the younger generation may also experience worry-free sex lives — without the side effects of living with HIV.

The use of the antiretroviral drug Truvada as pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP (it's the only medication approved for HIV prevention), has been shown to reduce the chance of HIV transmission to near zero. Since the medication was first approved as PrEP in 2012, only two verified cases of transmission have been documented among those who adhere to the daily schedule (a third, according to HIV expert Howard Grossman, could not be confirmed). New, longer-lasting PrEP injectables should reach market in the next few years. Studies suggest that on-demand PrEP (such as taking it before and after sexual activity) may also be effective.  

“This is a revolution!” Gary Cohan, MD, who prescribes PrEP, told us in 2016. “This should be above the fold in The New York Times and on the cover of Time magazine. A pill to prevent HIV?”

Undetectable Equals Untransmittable

Those who are already HIV-positive also have a sure-fire option for preventing the transmission of HIV that doesn’t rely on condoms. It's called treatment as prevention, or TasP. Those who are poz, take antiretroviral medication, and get their viral load down to an undetectable level, can’t transmit HIV to sexual partners. Last year, The New England Journal of Medicine published the final results of HPTN 052, a study that proved antiretroviral medication alone is enough to prevent HIV transmission among serodiscordant couples. In a Facebook Live interview for AIDS.gov, Dr. Carl Dieffenbach, director of the Division of AIDS at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, noted, “The chance of transmitting [HIV] if you are virally durably suppressed is zero.”  

Since Dieffenbach’s statement, a number of HIV organizations and medical groups have joined the “Undetectable Equals Untransmittable” bandwagon, including GMHC, APLA Health, and the Latino Commission on AIDS.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the use of condoms in addition to PrEP or TasP, primarily because neither biomedical approach prevents other sexually transmitted infections like gonorrhea or syphilis. Still, PrEP and TasP make it safer to have condomless sex — and that could jump-start the new sexual revolution. “When the threat of HIV is removed from sex there is a profound sense of liberation,” Garner says. “Sex can just be about sex.”

One hurdle is PrEP stigma, furthered by the myth of “Truvada whores,” and AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s Michael Weinstein’s deliberate efforts to portray the HIV prevention pill as “a party drug.”

“Fear and shame have been ingrained in gay sex for decades," Garner admits. "And it will take time and a great deal of work to extricate those elements.” But he remains optimistic that "together negative and poz men can shift the culture away from fear and toward liberation.” 

He argues that what’s at stake is far more than just a better orgasm.

“Our sexuality is at the core of our humanity,” Garner says. “Our sexuality is as integral to us as our appetite. We can’t advance social justice without including sex. As queer people and as people of color, our bodies have been criminalized, our sexuality has been pathologized, and structures continue to dehumanize us. It’s a radical act of resistance when, as gay men, we choose to find pleasure and intimacy in our sex. Our sex has been, and will continue to be, intensely political. It can change our culture and our politics if we embrace it and run to it instead of away from it.” 

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