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I was cruising for sex online and made a date to meet up with two guys for anonymous play. When we arrived at the one guy’s apartment, he asked us if we would fuck him bareback. I said no, but the other guy said he would. The bottom then asked us if we were both negative, and we both answered yes. Here’s the problem: The other guy (not the bottom) had the appearance of someone taking HIV meds. He looked very positive. I asked the bottom if he was negative. “Definitely,” he said. “I just got tested.” I told him I would only fuck him with a condom, but he then asked the other guy to do him bareback and come in his ass. I again interjected: “I always play safe,” I said. I was hoping the bottom might give it some more thought, but he kept on asking the other guy for his load. At that point, I told them both I couldn’t stay and got dressed. On my way out, I tossed a condom on the couch and said, “Just in case you change your mind.”
I knew I had to remove myself from the situation, because I don’t believe in taking part in unsafe play, but I was reluctant to be assertive. They were both adults and could make their own decisions. And yet I wondered whether I should have been more forceful. Did I do right, should I have done more, or should I have just butted out and left them alone without a word?—My Brother’s Keeper?
You could have done more, MBK—much, much more—and we’ll get to exactly what in a moment. But first I’d like to address some of the other issues raised by your letter:
First, that bottom boy—that stupid, stupid faggot—can’t “definitely” know that he’s negative. He could have been infected too recently for his last HIV test to come back positive. And, to judge from his behavior—inviting multiple strangers over to fuck him and then begging them to come in his ass—odds are good that he’s carrying around a number of other sexually transmitted diseases even if he isn’t HIV-positive.
Second, you say the other top “looked very positive.” I don’t want to give my readers the impression that HIV-positive guys all look a certain way. There are already too many gay guys out there eyeballing guys, deciding they look “clean,” and then engaging in unprotected sex. Listen up, you stupid, stupid faggots: Not all positive guys “look” positive. If that were the case, only batshit-crazy “bugchasers” would ever get infected. However: Some poz guys on meds suffer from physical side effects that are instantly recognizable—primarily “facial wasting,” or lipoatrophy. Guys with facial wasting—deep grooves where their cheekbones used to be—do indeed “look very positive.”
Third, hooking up with strangers for anonymous sex qualifies as “taking part in unsafe play,” condoms or no condoms. For some guys the thrills of anonymous sex are worth the occasional STD or the small chance of being a victim of a violent crime. But let’s not be naive, my fellow homos. Anonymous sex is risky sex.
Okay, MBK, let’s get to your specific question: Could you have done more? Let’s take a quick look at what you did do: You used a lot of “I” statements—“I told him I would only fuck him with a condom…” “‘I always play safe,’ I said…” “I told them both I couldn’t stay…”—then you tossed a condom on the couch and left.
Ah, “I” statements. Therapists and counselors love ’em because they come in awfully handy in couples counseling, for instance, or family therapy. “I” statements are useful whenever people are discussing explosive subjects with people they hope to maintain a relationship with. “I” statements are so sensitive! And so nonjudgmental! But in the situation in which you found yourself, MBK, “I” statements are so fucking useless.
When total strangers are about to do something dangerous and self-destructive, MBK, feel free to liberally use “you” statements. Who would care if you had pissed off that stupid, stupid bottom by saying, “You shouldn’t let guys fuck you in the ass without using condoms, you stupid motherfucker!” It’s not as if you were going to see him again, right? If that didn’t work, you could have said, “You would be an idiot to let someone come in your ass just because he tells you he’s negative” or “You are going to get HIV doing shit like this.” And there’s always this ol’ conversation starter: “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
The above “you” statements are all for the stupid, stupid bottom, of course. Here’s one you should have used on the other top: “You look like you’re positive. Are you lying about your HIV status?”
When I wrote a couple of months ago that positive guys didn’t have an absolute right to expose other people to HIV, guys—positive and negative—wrote in to say that it was solely the bottom’s responsibility to protect himself. We should all assume that each new sex partner is positive, these apologists wrote, and if one guy lets another guy fuck him in the ass without a condom, he has no one but himself to blame if he gets infected. It’s in the spirit of “assume everyone is positive” that I believe you had the responsibility to share your assumption about the other top’s HIV status. After all, you would have only been assuming the guy is positive (something we should all do), and by example encouraging the stupid, stupid bottom to make the same assumption.
Had you said, “You look like you’re positive,” MBK, your anonymous play would most likely have degenerated into a shouting match about HIV meds and their side effects, the morality of barebacking, and sexual autonomy. And so what? You were already on your way out the door, right? You were never going to see either of these guys again, right? So what did you have to lose? If you had risked being judgmental and assertive and dropped the wimpy “I” statements in favor of some confrontational “you” statements, the ensuing shouting match could have been just the wake-up call the stupid, stupid bottom needed.
Or not. Some gay guys are Web-surfin’, crystal-abusin’, load-takin’, slow-motion suicides, completely beyond help. Even so, gay guys who aren’t suicides and/or sociopaths have to open their mouths and confront stupidity when and where we encounter it. At the very least, MBK, ethical gay guys have to be every bit as vocal as the gay sociopaths and their apologists who masquerade as HIV-prevention educators. By doing so, we can help to create a healthier community. Conversely, if every gay guy who’s confronted by stupidity (that bottom boy) and criminal indifference (the top who was willing to come in him) makes a bunch of cringing “I” statements as he backs out of the room, things are going to continue to get worse.
Finally, MBK, your concern that being assertive and judgmental would somehow deny these guys the right to make their own decisions is ball-less bullshit. Even if you had confronted them both and screamed your head off, they could still have made up their own minds once you left.
Speaking of ethical gay guys: The producers of the International Mr. Leather Contest (IML), which is being held in Chicago this weekend, are going after crystal-meth dealers. “As Chicago prepares to welcome the world,” the notice on their Web site reads, “the producers of International Mr. Leather want to tell some people to stay home. We have no use for crystal meth at any of our functions. Dealers: If you show up anyway, we will not kick you out. We will call the police.” That’s so judgmental, so intolerant—and so fucking right on. Mad props, as the kids say, to IML’s producers.—Dan Savage
Dan Savage’s Skipping Towards Gomorrah: The Seven Deadly Sins and the Pursuit of Happiness in America (Dutton) is available at bookstores nationwide. Send your Savage Love questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.