Getting it Both Ways: Gay Porn and the Bareback Debate(s)

If you follow the goings-on in the face-paced. contentious, and often-troubling world of online gay porn, you’ve no doubt noticed that a number of high-profile studios, including Corbin Fisher, Sean Cody, and even Bel Ami have, for the last couple of years, been producing condomless/bareback scenes.  Now, this move has been met with a divided response, to say the least.  On one side are the vehement (and often quite vitriolic) scolds, reminding all and sundry that such practices are hideously unsafe and that the studios should be ashamed of putting their models and risk and asking us as viewers and consumers to take pleasure in those risks.  On the other side are those who have unabashedly and enthusiastically embraced this development within the porn industry.  Indeed, there are many on the message boards who are not satisfied, and are often harshly critical, of those sites that persist in utilizing condoms in the making of their films.  And there are the true die-hards, who are not truly happy until they see an internal cumshot (and they are in turn chastised by those who see these desires as socially irresponsible, always pushing the models to engage in ever-more-dangerous behavior).

Both sides, I would argue, have some excellent points, but for the moment I want to focus on the ways in which the studios themselves have sought to address this question.  After all, they are no doubt aware of the blizzard of comments that, at least in the beginning, often accompanied the release of these types of videos.  Even a casual perusal of the message boards of, for example, WayBig (an aggregator that pulls together new releases from many studios), reveals the ways in which this particular issue has split this particular segment of the (presumably queer) community.  As a result, most of the bareback videos currently in circulation begin with a disclaimer that states at least two of the following things:  1) the models in the video were all rigorously tested using the most accurate tests available; 2) the studio does not advocate nor is it in favor of engaging in this type of sexual behavior, even if you happen to be a committed relationship; 3) “unsafe” sex is, indeed, unsafe, and therefore should most likely be avoided.

This rhetoric, laudatory and socially responsible as it might seem on the surface, instead serves as an ornate–and not entirely convincing–way of allowing us as viewers to have our cake and eat it, too.  We can indulge in something that we have been taught over and over again since the 1980s is the utmost in irresponsible sexual practice (remember that it is called “unsafe” sex for a reason), while also patting ourselves on the back, comforting ourselves that OF COURSE we wouldn’t do such an unsafe thing in our own life.  Nor, presumably, would the studios, who clearly want to maintain at least an aura of social respectability and responsibility.  However, their rush to assure us, the viewers, that they don’t really advocate “unsafe” sex practices rings more than a little hollow, especially since, if they were really so invested in being socially responsible, they wouldn’t produce bareback scenes in the first place.

What is most striking about these disclaimers is the way in which they simultaneously invoke and disavow the very pleasures that, presumably, the viewer has sought out the pornography for in the first place.  Contained in those few simple, boilerplate sentences that so often accompany these videos, it seems to me, is a world of anxiety and ambivalence within the gay community about the status of bareback sex in an age when HIV/AIDS is no longer a death sentence and when the 1980s (the height of the pandemic) is largely a shadowy memory.  Should we do it or shouldn’t we?  And if we decide not to, should we indulge in pornography that does and still retain our social justice and ethical credentials?  Are we contributing to a still-extant health issue by showing the studios that they can indeed make money from us watching their bareback productions?  While the disclaimers strenuously attempt to wipe away those pesky and troubling questions, even the slightest bit of pressure on the flimsy rhetoric reveals how truly empty and double-sided it truly is.

As more and more studios, both “amateur” and “big time” begin to exclusively film bareback scenes, it becomes increasingly obvious that both kinds of studios will have to fall in line with this new bareback orthodoxy in order to maintain their competitiveness in the market.  What began (in the U.S. at least) as a fairly marginal practice has become increasingly mainstream, as studio after studio has fallen in line.  Even giants in the industry such as Bel Ami (the very famous European studio that, in my view at least, came to define the 1990s era of gay porn), have gone the bareback route, as have most of the more prominent amateur studios (such as Sean Cody and Corbin Fisher).  They know there’s a market out there, and they are determined to do everything in their power to make sure that they tap into those desires and keep their paying customers satisfied.

This debate has far-ranging consequences beyond just the world of pornography.  With the advancements made in HIV prevention (including the recent PReP announcements), we are having to rethink how we conceive of sexual health and how the goals of queerness fit into those parameters, both new and old.  It goes without saying (even as I proceed to say it), that there are no easy answers to these questions, and we shouldn’t rush to judge.  What is needed instead is an open, frank, and nuanced discussion about what is at stake in these kinds of films, and just how complicit we become by indulging in them.  Just as importantly, we can also use this is a much-needed opportunity to reflect about the advances made in HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention.  These questions remain as vital as they did in the 1980s, for all that we seem to have forgotten them.

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