BAREBACK PORN: FANTASY OR RISK?

It’s a business strategy that dates back to as far as 1871. Let’s face it sex sells! Sexual or erotic imagery are very persuasive tools to sell products in an extremely competitive, money driven, world market. Music videos, TV programs, magazines and movies: popular culture thrives on boosting sales with sex. Porn on the other hand pretty much sells itself.

This year the New York Times Magazine ran a cover story titled Naked Capitalists: There’s No Business Like Porn Business. The author, Frank Rich, suggests that pornography is “no longer a sideshow to the mainstream…it is the mainstream… bigger than any of the major league sports and perhaps bigger than Hollywood,” he says.

Annual global sales are estimated at $10 billion to $14 billion. Men are the biggest supporters of this market and gay porno sales represent a disproportionately large segment, with one third and one-half, by some estimates. These days porn studios in South Africa are not unheard of – producing films with local is ‘lekker’ flair like Kwaai Naai.

A friend’s husband? In a group? In-front of the camera, behind the camera? Maybe at work or perhaps bareback? Porn operates on fantasy which allows us to “experience” the outer limits of our imaginations safely, with no risk. Repressed sexual desire is often lived out in fantasy and for a lot of men watching porn is a way of connecting to that part of the sexual self. That which is viewed as ‘taboo’ often plays a part in sexual fantasies and is often the subject matter for many a ‘loose’ (excuse the pun) and flimsy, porn film narrative. Different strokes for different folks, each with different reasons why certain themes or genres are a turn-on for them.

Bareback porn is one of the bestselling genres in gay porn today. In bathhouses and gay saunas, the showing of bareback sex films is a favourite too. The Rec Room in Randburg, Johannesburg has a strong policy against the showing of bareback porn as they feel bareback porn encourages and eroticises high-risk sex on the perceptions of men who have sex with men (MSM). As a society bombarded with HIV messaging and condom usage, watching bareback sex could be a way to escape those realities and tap into that primal sexual state. The question is: At what point does fantasy and behaviour in reality meet?

Treasure Island Studios has always been one of the more hardcore and controversial gay porn studios in the world. Barebacking and eroticising high risk behaviour is their forte with titles like Dawson’s 100 Load Weekend and Drunk on Cum. Last year, the studio caused quite a stir when they announced porn’s first sero-discordant barebacking couple.

Brad McGuire and James Roscoe is a “long-term, promiscuous, bareback couple,” according to a press release posted by The Sword. Roscoe is HIV-positive (the bottom) and McGuire is HIV-negative (the top). “As a community we have a moral and social imperative to demolish the HIV-positive closet,” studio owner Paul Morris said in a statement. “James and Brad are fitting role models for young gay men.”

“Some studios ditch condoms in favour of what sells and what’s profitable…”

An (on-going) online poll on a blog site, bradbare.com, reveals some interesting results. Granted, the poll is on a barebacking site and therefor the results could reflect one sided in its outcome but well worth looking at none the less. The one question is ‘How old were you when you f*cked bareback for the first time?’ At the time I took the poll, 16% answered 13-15 years old, 16% said 22-25 years and 27% said between 18-20 years old. To the question, ‘How long have you been f*cking bareback with other guys?’, 18% said 3 – 5 years, 18% said 20 years and 24% said 6 – 10 years.

To ‘What do you like most about barebacking?’ the three highest voted answers were ‘intimacy 16%, ‘sensation’ 22% and ‘breeding’ got a staggering 37% of the votes. Most interestingly, on the question ‘Do you think bareback porn encourages bareback f*cking?’ 33% answered ‘no’ and 67% answered ‘yes’.

Victor B. Cline, a professor in psychology at University of Utah and behavioural research scientist for George Washington University, has done extensive research on the effects of pornography and the media on behaviour. He suggests that repeated exposure to pornography over a long time has the potential to alter sexual behaviour. He draws parallels reminiscent of individuals afflicted with drug addiction and it occurs in four stages. The first change is an addiction-effect. Pornographic materials provide a very powerful sexual stimulant, followed by sexual release, most often through masturbation.

This imagery is frequently recalled to mind and then elaborated on in fantasies. The second phase is an escalation-effect. With the passage of time, rougher, more explicit, and “kinky” kinds of sexual material is required to get “highs” and “sexual turn-ons.” Over time there is nearly always an increasing need for more of the stimulant to get the same initial effect. The third phase is that of desensitization. Material which was originally perceived as shocking, taboo, or repulsive, though still sexually arousing, in time comes to be seen as acceptable and commonplace. The fourth phase is an increased tendency to act out sexually the behaviours viewed in the pornography that the porn-consumers had been repeatedly exposed to.

This raises a lot of questions, such as should it be a porn studio’s responsibility to educate people about the risk of HIV, or are they simply an entertainment source selling their product to an audience? Are gay venues that show bareback porn perpetuating high risk behaviour?

The issue of condom use in the porn industry has been a subject of heated debate for a long time. Some studios ditch condoms in favour of what sells and what’s profitable. Some camps are of the opinion that barebacking is about freedom of expression. Others believe that HIV is no longer a life-threatening disease, due to the success of drug regimens in keeping the virus in check. What message is communicated in these instances with the consumer?

If you are going to present an audience with an image that could potentiality normalise what is presented and harmful to someone’s health, isn’t there a social responsibility for presenting some sort of disclaimer? Whose responsibility is it to inform and be informed about risks of engaging in unprotected sex? At the end of the day choice still lies with the individual.

Health4Men, an initiative of the Anova Health Institute, funded by PEPFAR through USAID, is an innovative project addressing gay and bisexual men’s diverse sexual health needs through free medical and psychosocial services specifically designed for men. For more info call: Ivan Toms Centre for Men’s Health (Cape Town) Woodstock Hospital Tel: 021 447 2844; Health4Men Green Point (Cape Town), 24 Napier Street, De Waterkant, Green Point, Tel 021 421 6127; Khayelitsha Male Clinic, Tel: 021 387 0309; or the Simon Nkoli Centre for Men’s Health (Soweto), Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, Tel: 011 989 9756/9865.

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