Am I the only gay who still finds condoms sexy?
The beginning of a new historical age is usually marked by an invention that initiates progress. The industrial age had the steam engine, the Great Space Race was powered by rocket fuel and today, ten years after PrEP was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), we we are experiencing a renaissance of barebacking.
Unlike the current Renaissance, we are not blind to the significance of this era. We have the historical clarity to know that this period will be seen as a time when barebacking became safer – and therefore cooler, hotter, more fun, and, in fact, almost commonplace in its ubiquity.
PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis, deserves its reputation as an innovation that changed the course of history, like the Gutenberg printing press and tiny beverage umbrellas. When taken correctly as a daily pill, PrEP reduces the risk of HIV by 99%. It has improved the sex lives of HIV-positive men, reduced infection rates, and shattered HIV-related fears and the stigma surrounding gay sex. The understanding that U=U (undetectable equals untransmittable for HIV-positive people managing their HIV with medication) has also contributed to greater bareback freedom for all. If you’re a gay man, the innovation of PrEP and the discovery of U=U have probably improved your life more than the Canadian Space Agency’s Canadarm.
As a gay man in an open, long-term relationship who uses condoms with all my extra-curricular playmates, I’ve noticed a shift in how cis men view condom use as PrEP has become most popular. Condoms were the default. Now, when I mention one to a hookup, either on Grindr or with my back to their bed, a notable cohort of playmates react as if I’m asking them to strap an iron lung to their dick (or my dick, depending on my mood).
This usually results in mutual rejection based on our sexual preferences or, in some cases, a deeply unsatisfying in-person compromise. Once when I met a hot guy, an actor from a certain gay TV franchise, he wouldn’t wrap it up; so he fingered me for five minutes then i went home.
My preference sometimes sparks heated debate, like when a guy on PrEP I met while staying at a bear resort in Florida scolded me for being too cautious about STIs and using condom—after we had sex with a condom before.
Many times I’ve had amazing sexual chemistry with a guy before doing the deed, only to have it stop when I say I’m just “playing it safe”. It can be a daunting and frustrating experience. Nothing kills the mood quite like finding out that your sex drive is conditioned by something that, in my opinion, doesn’t seem like a huge hurdle to overcome. For me, condoms are a wonderful tool to achieve pleasure, just like a sex toy. I’m sexy, young and in my prime: isn’t it really worth wrapping up?
Bareback is raw and intensely intimate; more sought after by some due to its perceived closer physical connection and ubiquity in porn as the ideal type of uninhibited sex. Ultimately, using hookup apps can feel like sitting on a treadmill of endless options. If I don’t go for it, someone else will. At times like these, it’s hard not to feel like a teenager on prom night, not wanting to die. Can’t they say I’m not that kind of girl?
I’m not the only one noticing the decline in condom use: it’s a trend researchers have documented over the past two decades, among gbMSM (gay and bisexual men who have sex with men) and among all Canadians. For some, the decline in condom use is linked to PrEP. A 2017 study in Seattle, for example, asked gbMSM on PrEP to find out if they used condoms. The proportion of respondents who reported never using a condom in the past 30 days increased from 10% at the start of their PrEP use to 24% at the nine-month follow-up visit.
As condom use rates have fallen, the prevalence of new STIs has increased. A 2018 meta-analysis of eight studies investigating the link between PrEP use and STI diagnoses found that when gbMSM first started taking PrEP, they were 1.24 times more likely to get a IST than before you started taking PrEP.
These statistics might be less scary than they seem. Researchers are quick to point out that a PrEP prescription requires you to get tested for STIs every three months, so more people get tested regularly, a factor that may lead to higher recorded rates. We are more likely to catch and treat STIs before they spread.
Still, doctors unfamiliar with PrEP may not be following the regular STI check-up protocol to the letter. For example, some may skip taking a throat or anal swab when that’s where an infection might be. If they miss these infections, the rate of STIs might actually be higher among gbMSM on PrEP than previous studies have shown.
So, sure, PrEP prevents HIV transmission, but have we forgotten, I don’t know, all the other STIs out there? Am I the only one who finds getting an STI a huge inconvenience? Because I’ve had gonorrhea twice—and I assure you I have.
Getting an STI can be unpleasant, but it should be noted, of course, that many of them are easily treatable, and getting treatment for an STI is worth the price of admission for many gbMSM on PrEP bareback. It should also be noted that penetrative sex without a condom is a risk that my straight girlfriends take all the time with their partners without even batting an eyelid despite the fact that they might have a baby by accident.
Although I’m all for the destigmatization of STIs, I hope we don’t lose sight of the importance of prevention. GbMSM continue to be the highest demographic of new HIV diagnoses in Canada, and any prevention tool is needed. And let’s not forget the increase in drug-resistant strains of infections, like the dreaded super gonorrhea. (Hello, Marvel Studios? Do I have a pitch for you)
If my request to use a condom doesn’t stop a connection in its tracks, the request usually prompts my sexual partners to react in one of three ways. The first is as if I had just asked them if they had a VCR to borrow: “Really? That old thing? They scratch their heads, trying to remember a long-forgotten past when they had condoms handy. “Yeah, I’m sure I have one around here somewhere.”
This usually results in them scouring storage bins, cupboards, the bottoms of drawers, until they blow dust off a single misplaced condom as if unearthing an ancient talisman. A talisman with an expiration date that we both hope hasn’t long passed.
The second type of reaction is the most annoying: men adopt a look that says, “Oh, a condom, of course! Yes!! I was just going to ask!!!” But I can tell by their too late forced complacency that they were more than willing to bareback me before confirming that I was ok with it. They must be the same guys asking for directions to a restaurant when Google Maps has been around for over a decade, do I have to do it all?
The third reaction is that we use a condom and that’s great. We have a warm, mutual respect for boundaries. As a somewhat anxious person, condoms neutralize some of the “what ifs?” sex, which can lead me to deeper pleasure and satisfaction. Personally, condoms allow me to meet strangers and friends with the same benefits with reckless abandon. I can go from what’s his name arms to my lover’s arms with much less twisting. I’m not saying bareback sex can’t be intimate and loving – I’m personally saying that I ride my bike more happily when I’m wearing my helmet. I’m a Virgin Moon: Consent is sexy, and safety is even sexier.
Looking back, my love for condoms started early. Pausing to find and put on a condom is something I still remember from the very first time I had gay sex, back when it was unfathomable that a boy wanted to have sex with me. Even passing them around in high school health class was exciting. Since then, I have always associated the condom with juvenile and naughty promiscuity; condoms have a confident energy that says, “I’m a sexual being, damn it.” “Using a condom tells me that my sex partner is caring and caring, even when he throws me against a wall. They create a boundary for intimacy to flourish.
I realize that I am part of a fairly rare and annoying group of people who have a long term partner but also connect with other people outside of my relationship. Luckily, I consider being boring an important part of my personality. Much of my condom use is because I have a responsibility to my partner’s safety, not just my own. I’m not (yet) on PrEP, but even if I was, I would still feel compelled to take a condom every time I go out with someone outside of my relationship.
In recent decades, condoms have been culturally hotter, cooler, as a sexy form of prop work. Riding on a condom is romantic, just on the precipice between foreplay and penetration, an intermission filled with sexual anticipation. A little burlesque performance where you put something sexy on rather than taking it off. When did it become a sexual impediment?
I think things only get better for everyone if we prioritize bringing back the cultural coolness of the condom. During the AIDS crisis, homosexuals had popularize condom use. Keith Haring painted condoms in his wild, linear murals. Condom bowls have become ubiquitous in nightclubs, bars and burger joints in every gay village; now I see them less, if at all. In the office of the sexual health clinic where I get tested, there’s an ’80s pro-condom poster with a black-and-white photo of a man pulling off his lover’s silk boxers. This soft, focused photo is sensual, loving and erotic – everything I want condoms to be again. Let’s eroticize that moment of pause where your partner grabs a condom while you wait patiently, your ankles close to your ears. Lying there, flared, know that I salute you. In this revival of the Neo-Condom, I am your Medici, sponsoring and encouraging promiscuity, sensuality and the power of a thin layer of latex.