Why blaming the rise of HIV on ‘gay sex parties’ is irresponsible and dangerous

Sometimes it’s wonderful to wake up gay and some days, well, not so much. My perfectly Instagrammed breakfast of eggs benedict was seriously spoiled on reading the Guardian and the Independent’s latest overwrought articles about ‘gay sex parties’ being linked to a rise in HIV diagnoses.

This story is trotted out in some form or another every few months or so, usually illustrated with a microscopic selfie of HIV itself or a blurry picture of a heaving Vauxhall club. For the uninitiated, here’s how these pieces usually roll: a ‘study’ is done on HIV rates, a journalist will trawl the sexual health clinics or ask charities for statements until something is said that will make a good headline. Usually a finger points firmly at a supposed increase in gay sex parties, a Roman orgy remixed for the Vauxhall generation.

The piece is printed, society safely compartmentalises HIV as a nasty disease restricted to gay men getting off their heads in sex dungeons, and gay and HIV charities call for more investment so they can research this ‘phenomenon’. And everybody’s happy. Except, I would hope, a lot of gay men, who must surely be scratching their heads and wondering why there’s such a prurient interest in their sex lives – and, worst of all, why they haven’t been invited to these hedonistic fuckfests.

This makes a good story in the press because it puts gay men right where they want them: sweating, wide-eyed in dark, cavernous clubs, on the hunt for so-called ‘chemsex’, their hands all over each other’s bodies – super-toned, because we all live in the gym, remember. It’s easier to be frightened and place the blame on a part of society when you imagine their activities to be on the fringes of the law and decency. We can have children and equal marriage is now law, but it’s like we’re almost too normalised for the press. They look for another way to make that all-important distinction and surprise, surprise it all comes down to where we put our peckers.

Even gay writers themselves peddle this nihilistic fairytale, wondering what can be done about the devastating effect of drugs on the gay community. While there are valid concerns about the long-term implications of drug use, from mental health issues to emotional and financial instability, they’re not exclusive to gay men. Ecstasy is just as happy sliding down a heterosexual throat as a gay one. Coke and meth are also equal opportunities drugs; any hooter or vein will do.

The Independent quotes the manager of the CODE sexual health clinic as saying 99 per cent of his clients only used the drugs for sex and that “emotionally vulnerable men – often HIV positive – found that they could only enjoy sex while on drugs”. Strong stuff indeed, but CODE is a clinic which specialises in treating and advising gay men or MSM (men who have sex with men) who are into the “harder sex scene” and “may use drugs during sex”. It’s by no means representative of the gay scene as a whole.

While the hysterical term ‘gay sex parties’ makes for a good headline, it irresponsibly diverts attention from what’s really going on. HIV isn’t on the increase just because a handful of gay men are going at it like knives in some group session in a dark corner of Vauxhall.

For a start, there is a general increase in testing – a trip to the sexual health clinic doesn’t hold as much fear for many gay men as it did 10 or 20 years ago. Also, work on prevention could be improved dramatically. Budgets are being slashed in local health authorities and the HIV/AIDS campaigns are nowhere near as prominent as they were in the 1980s; a whole generation exists who can’t remember the general fear that accompanied pretty much any sexual liaison during that ultra-serious decade. Maybe progress in treatment has been HIV’s worst enemy – the disease can now be ‘managed’ and many people with HIV go on to live pretty normal lives. This is great, of course, but the fact that HIV is no longer seen – or, indeed, promoted – as a death sentence has perhaps led to indifference in the guys practising unsafe sex.

Barebacking – shorthand for having sex without a condom – isn’t restricted to men whacked out on crystal meth being pummelled by strangers. It could be that after years of safe sex it is seen as an exciting, liberating alternative. Anyone who has had sex will tell you that it ‘feels better’ when flesh touches flesh, and barebacking will surely appeal, along with a perception that ‘naughtiness’ is sexy. Forbidden fruit tastes even sweeter, after all. Consensual barebacking between two HIV negative men still isn’t ideal, as there could be other health risks, but it happens. The bigger problems arise when one or more of those taking part is dishonest or simply unaware of their status. And you don’t need a load of blow up your nose to be a liar.

A lot of gay men just don’t understand the implications of barebacking, because HIV isn’t being treated with the seriousness it deserves by society as a whole. It’s a thing that only guys who go to ‘sex parties’ need to worry about, right? Not the rest of us, right? Double-wrong. Until we start speaking like HIV is everybody’s problem, and not an issue restricted to men brutalising each other in saunas while coked out of their domes, we’re never going to get the message across. It’s a real problem that can happen to almost anyone, promiscuous or not. It does, after all, only take once.

We all have a responsibility to protect ourselves and each other from HIV – frantic scaremongering and finger-pointing in the press doesn’t help at all.

Other reading
Fellow eye-roller Fagburn has also covered this and is always worth a read.
The report – and my blog – also got a mention in Gay Star News.

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10 thoughts on “Why blaming the rise of HIV on ‘gay sex parties’ is irresponsible and dangerous”

  1. Hi Guyliner; great article, and I agree with you that this type of story only serves to marginalise the gay community. But, I suppose given that HIV cases are increasing, and with limited funding available, campaigns tend to concentrate on the highest risk areas. There is no doubt that there is a percentage of the population (gay and straight) who spend most weekends high on some substance. I know people personally who literally party from Friday evening through to Monday morning without sleeping, fuelled by drugs. While under this influence, there is no doubt that the decision-making process can become skewed and safety can go out of the window. The press merely pick up on research published by charities and academic institutions that highlight a correlation between drug use, irresponsibility and HIV. Unfortunately, the vast majority of gay people, living responsible lives, just aren’t news; that’s a sad fact of life!

    1. Hello! Thanks. I’m not too concerned with ‘gays who live normal, responsible lives’ being under-represented, more the hysterical reaction and fascination with people whose sex lives are a bit out of the norm. My point is that the evidence is fairly flimsy and lots of people seem to have their own agendas when it comes to making this a story.

      Thanks a lot for reading and commenting.

  2. To be fair, if you read the actual Lancet article the researchers make the point about drugs there and the media have lifted it while leaving out the caveat that it needs much more research done. Certainly the media sensationalise but 5 minutes spent on PubMed will throw up loads of research papers telling us that a) gay men (in particular) are more likely to use drugs (and use them problematically) than straight men and b) that problematic drug use is linked to higher HIV rates. I think a balance is to be found between making sensational links that simply aren’t supported by evidence (yet, at least) and going down the road of dismissing it out of hand because most gay people don’t do drugs. The latter also tends to have this unpleasant air of ‘we’re all nice normal folk, it’s only an awful minority who do things like this’ which sounds like they almost ‘deserve’ to have HIV.

    1. The Lancet article is actually just a news feature and not written by researchers, but journalists who aren’t health professionals, but I take your point re all the other research available. I don’t think I dismiss the issue of sex parties at all – my concern is that the concentration on this angle will result in the thing you mention yourself: many gay men won’t feel they need to be part of the HIV conversation because the rise is all down to ‘that lot who go to sex parties’, when it’s something we should all be talking about. And I don’t give a toss if someone wants to go to a sex party – nobody deserves HIV.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  3. Thanks for another brilliant, thought provoking piece. As you say, it’s such a shame that valuable resources – including everyone’s attention – are being diverted away by sensationist stories, which firmly put gay men back on the naughty step.
    I’m waiting for more publicity about how the chances of a PWHIV passing the virus on are virtually nil if he/she is doing well on anti-HIV treatment, has an undetectable viral load and isn’t infected by any other STIs (which tend to push up viral load rates). Indeed, HIV infections aren’t caused by gay sex orgies, but invariably by someone with a high viral load having unprotected penetrative sex.
    I guess the reason why we don’t more of this exceptionally unreported fact is that our ‘moral leaders’ would view this as an open season for us gay men to ramp up our sex orgies. Sex after all is bad and we’re stupid/irresponsible/perverted/insane/immature (delete as appropriate).
    Until the subject of human sexuality is consistently dealt with in a more mature, dispassionate way, such sensationalism is likely to re-emerge – zombie-like – every now and again. This is especially true as news desks everywhere approach the dead zone of late July and August, aka the “silly season”.
    Anyway, as I write it’s around 9am … time to a lump of crystal as I stir my morning coffee with my favourite dildo.

  4. Terrific piece. You’re right that the media always look for the anomalous and outre. They overlook the fact that Ron Stall, at the U of Pittsburgh, has found that 77-89% of gay men with known mental health challenges (depression, substance abuse, childhood sexual abuse, partner violence, etc.) did NOT engage in high-risk sex (specifically unprotected receptive anal intercourse). Stall credits gay men’s resilience–a subject I am about to write a book on–with protecting most gay men’s health and well-being. It’s the 11-23% who have a harder time with accepting their sexual orientation, or being bullied, or any of the other many challenges we gay men must face and work through. Finally HIV prevention educators and researchers are talking about needing to build on gay men’s resilience–inspire us to feel good about ourselves and community, and to feel hopeful about our future–as the best preventive measure there is.

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