Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking

A study of a homosexual subculture will provoke debate from all quarters, discovers Ken Plummer

July 9, 2009

Gay barebacking culture, where men have unprotected anal sex, developed in the mid-1990s amid a flurry of controversy. Some claimed it was "tantamount to murder": gay men were making "death camps for themselves". Scarcely a decade after gay men had invented "safer sex", now they were returning to latex-free risk. So, in an age massively immiserated by Aids, a new culture was deliberately organised around unsafe, no-holds-barred sex.

Tim Dean, a professor of literature at a New York University, is our expert guide. Although he is no anthropological ethnographer, he certainly gets under the skin of the culture; he is himself a practitioner of the art. Wanting his study to be ethical, dispassionate and against demonising, he claims neither defence nor critique. For him, there is no one best way for having consensual sex, and this subculture needs to be understood in its own terms.

Drenched with sexual meaning, barebacking brings a new erotic reality. The virus becomes a focus of the sex, the men become "bug chasers" who want the HIV in their bodies, and a "breeding culture" centred on viral exchange is created. In this world, gay men make HIV infection central to their meaning - they are driven by the bug, even want it, giving "no limits" to their range of multiple-pleasured ejaculations. Sex takes on the meanings of an abundance of hyper-masculinity. Gay men here are certainly not sissies: they are more men than men. This is real sex and real danger. It is also an overdetermined culture with so many varied reasons for existing, and Dean devotes a chapter to examining them.

His evidence comes from three main sources: online web cruising; the documentary realism of barebacking porn; and close observations. The focus is San Francisco: that home of one of the earliest scenes of Aids tragedies. It was here that I left my own heart in a joyfully sexual world in the mid-1970s only to return in 1985 to find the bars closed in a land of the dying. Here, Dean moves close up to create a sense of the sexual excitement of these worlds through the realist porn spawned by the culture - Pigs at the Troff (by Dick Wadd Productions), Fucking Crazy and Breed Me (which apparently starts with a three-minute scene of anal ejaculation from the sperm of multiple donors). Here the language and culture - of pigs, of no limits, of "breeding" - suggests a documentary realism that is reworking pornographic conventions. There is an intriguing account of how new forms of sexualities may be generated and how new fetishes develop (some men, it seems, now have a fetish for urine that specifically has the taste of an HIV medication).

This is a serious and intelligent study that aims to provoke, challenge, anger and stimulate debate. It certainly did all these things to me. Indeed, this book will infuriate many who work in the field of HIV prevention and who know the incidence of HIV infection among gay men has recently shot up in many cities. It is also a book to irritate and exasperate those multitudes of lesbian and gay men who will see this as yet another unnecessary exposure, even betrayal, of one sliver of their less savoury and minority side. And while the book will shock homophobes, they will nevertheless find here a wonderful source for their continuing, hateful attack on gay life.

There is much to fascinate and learn from this insider's account of an outsider's culture. But I longed to learn more about the men: what did they do when away from their sex scene, and do many die? I longed too for a sustained ethical debate of issues including rights, responsibilities, citizenships and care - all of which are widely debated in the broader lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender academic community, but are dismissed here. Dean's own ethical claims - puffed up in psychoanalytic language - suggest a viral exchange with the potential for a highly ethical culture built out of a new bond of kinship created through extreme sex. The virus becomes a symbolic bond, providing an "opportunity for opening to the other" and "reactivating the scene of primal seduction". The risks of such intimacy, apparently, are "more profound than the risks of disease". And in this, the author claims, lies its value. But for this reader at least, the dangerous but consensual sex in the book is less problematic than the curious ethical claims Dean makes for it.

Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking

By Tim Dean

University of Chicago Press 256pp, £38.00 and £13.00

ISBN 9780226139388 and 39395

Published 28 June 2009

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