[Edit 4-Dec-2012: I would like to make clear that while the acts described here are much more visible in the gay male community, they are certainly not confined to the gay male community. I've used nonspecific pronouns in a lot of the original post because of this aspect, even though I'm specifically calling out an informal organization of gay men. Further, this behavior can lead to transmission of more than just HIV, even though that was the original focus of this post.]
[Edit 5-Dec-2012: There is a discussion of this post with good, related insight on FetLife right now.]
World AIDS Day, a time to raise awareness of the continuing risk of HIV infection, and awareness of the lifelong problems experienced by those who live with HIV/AIDS. This year, I wish to introduce you to one of today's most powerful threats to the successes of HIV prevention and research over more than three decades. Right now, as I type this, there is an interconnected, growing network of thousands of people who glorify unsafe sex, and on top of that, support tricking unsuspecting partners into barebacking.
Now, I must include a critical caveat: I am not judgmental of people who privately choose to engage in mutually consensual, less safe sexual practices, regardless of the reason. (My partner and I do this some of the time with each other, but never with anyone else.) I fully support personal free will, that one's body is his/her own to use as desired. I have quite a few friends who are HIV-positive, some who contracted it in the early years of AIDS itself, but it is not my place to judge them — rather, it is my duty as their friend to support them, in their lifelong battles to cope with the disease. It's continuing to live and fight for another day.
Like most of my posts, an emotional event triggered this outpouring. Last month, a good friend of mine, whom I'll call "Paul" to protect his identity (as this is a very personal story), seroconverted. He tested positive for HIV for the first time. Like most of us who have had multiple sexual partners over shorter time spans, Paul got tested regularly. He always used condoms for penetrative sex over the last ten years, and never engaged in oral sex with untrustworthy partners, or when blatant risk factors (e.g., open sores on mucosal membranes) were present. He was, for all purposes, a truly intentioned safer-sex practitioner. Being infected was one of those things that really should not have happened... but it did, and here's how:
A little over four months ago, Paul was tricked by a sex partner who slipped off a condom just before anal penetration. He was exposed to the full brunt of bodily fluids, without consent. While condoms can break if they are mishandled — statistics vary wildly, though tend to be in the low single-digit percents — in this case the evidence was quite clear. Paul saw the condom on the floor by the bed, with no appearance of semen in it. Further evidence of this deception was discovered in the bathroom, when seminal fluid (not just lubricant) was very obviously visible in the toilet bowl. What's more, the roughness of the encounter was also reflected via some blood in the stool, indicating that internal blood vessels were breached during sex.
This was, without question, a non-consensual act. A good friend of mine, while reading the rough draft of this post, pointed out that this HIV transmission wasn't from the innocence of naïveté, but from a deliberate act of rape. The top accepted and put on the condom, then removed it surreptitiously after the fact. The top provided a positive affirmation of trust, then broke that trust immediately.
To say that Paul was terrified by the discovery in the toilet would be a gross understatement. In the intervening time, he had sex with nobody else, and sank into a deep depression. At his friends' behest, he got tested about once a month three times afterwards, and it was the third test which broke the news: yes, he had contracted HIV. It took several friends and a psychiatrist talking him down from suicide to keep him with us in this world. One exposure is all it took to change Paul's life, permanently.
What's so heartbreaking about this story is that it was not an isolated incident. There's a movement afoot, hell-bent on making unsafe sex the norm in today's world of more dangerous STDs. It's this movement, and the people who associate themselves with it, called to account for their actions in this post.
The act of compromising or removing a condom without the consent of one's sexual partner is colloquially known as "stealthing". This term was coined by one Mark Bentson, aka "IBlastInside", a militant advocate of bareback sex, who devotes much time to spreading the notion that barebacking is something to celebrate, something to be proud of. Bentson, a resident of the Atlanta, Georgia area, another man in Georgia, and one in the United Kingdom created an informal community for bareback sex and deceptive sexual practices called the Bareback Brotherhood (commonly abbreviated BBBH). It has its own website, but is also highly active via the Twitter hashtag #BBBH.
Bentson created a list of ten techniques to make it easier to trick one's sexual partner into falsely believing that a condom is being used properly. Unprotected sex when one's partner demands that a condom be used is in fact illegal in some countries; Julian Assange was famously accused of doing something similar with a woman in Sweden. However, this is legally ambiguous in most of the United States. (Of course, the culture in the U.S. is such that many non-consensual acts are never prosecuted, if a consensual sexual act had begun beforehand. We don't yet live in a society enlightened enough to accept that No means No.)
While Bentson is absolutely correct that barebacking is a personal choice, as I stated at top of this post, he takes that concept to a sociopathic conclusion. He uses ham-handed rationalization such as statistics about the major causes of death in the U.S. to justify bareback advocacy, conveniently ignoring that people are living longer with HIV but still experiencing the effects of the disease. Further, he says over and over that "I never say that I agree to use a condom", as if accepting a wrapped condom, opening it, and putting it on doesn't imply that the intent is for it to stay on through the sexual act. Not saying it explicitly, in his mind, means he never agreed to anything.
At the same time, Bentson expounds upon stealthing a 19-year-old man with his usual bravado, outright endorsing the deceitful exposure of young men to lifelong health issues without their consent. This is where BBBH changes from an already questionable platform of personal choice, to a mouthpiece for rolling back progress in fighting HIV/AIDS. As I've written before, there are a couple very specific things that I don't tolerate regarding HIV: concerted efforts to spread apathy about its risks, and pretense that the disease is not a problem.
While BBBH is not the only such community for barebacking advocacy — another one called BarebackRT is on the rise — BBBH is well-known in some gay male social circles. The informal organization, and Bentson, were profiled on The Healthy Bear blog in "Can Evil Like This Really Exist?" (which also calls this practice rape). That post includes very useful tips on how to avoid being manipulated into being a victim of stealthing; see also the followup post to it, which discusses Bentson's alleged "choice" argument.
As I browsed through profiles of self-described BBBH members, I couldn't help but tear up at those who claimed to be 20, 19, even 18 years old. Some of these even consider themselves bugchasers: they are currently HIV-negative, but actively looking to seroconvert through unprotected sex. Again, personal choice must be defended here, but this does lead to the question of how such young men came to have the attitudes they now express towards unsafe sex.
Have we learned nothing from the last thirty-plus years of AIDS research? Are we really at the point where a sizable chunk of the gay male community simply doesn't care? What sort of role models are these irresponsible people providing for the next generation, who are growing up with no hard-learned knowledge of the early years of HIV/AIDS?
In observance of World AIDS Day, I made the tough decision to call out BBBH's members, and close associates, explicitly. I'm taking a personal risk by doing so (and I'll probably be on high alert for my physical safety for some time), as I suspect this action is going to get many people irate. However, I can no longer point at this crazy movement as if it were some fuzzy, distant concept. It's time to name the names — and encourage those people, who are actually concerned about the health of their fellow humans, to distance themselves from Bentson and his associates.
Since Twitter is the most common place that BBBH members congregate, I compiled a list of accounts there which I consider, in my opinion only, to be either directly part of, or closely associated to, the Bareback Brotherhood. The latter category is likely to be controversial, but I didn't take to naming people as "closely associated" lightly. I spent many hours vetting thousands of accounts, their profile texts, and their following/follower interconnections before considering them candidates for inclusion on the list. (I go into detail about these criteria below.)
As of this writing, the list has 3275 entries, but it will probably continue to grow over time. It is available as a Google spreadsheet, and exportable to a plain CSV list (see File, Download as). I planned on making a Twitter API app that could scan a list of follows/followers for matches with this list, or offer bulk-blocking, but I was not able to get that done in time for this post. (I welcome any readers who would like to create such a web-app.) This endeavor may expand to encompass other social networks or media in the future.
Compiling the list was a heart-wrenching process, because eight people with whom I had been communicating for some time were also on it. Just to be sure, I went back and re-vetted all of those people in great detail, and yes, they were definitely appropriate for inclusion based on multiple factors. So along with the rest of the list, I blocked all eight of those users. I want to be more tolerant to everyone, but after my friend's encounter with life-threatening illness, I have had enough of the bareback advocacy culture.
It Must Stop Now.
How did I compile this list?
As I said above, this list was created based on my opinion only that the listed people advocate for unsafe sex. By "advocate for", I obviously include all self-avowed BBBH members — but I also consider people who are associated with a large number of BBBH members as tacitly approving of their stance on sexual practices. To make this more clear, here's some (but not all) of the detail on how this list came to be.
I took a raw set of candidate accounts from several sources:
- Global searches of profile text for #bbbh and other specific keywords (a size-limited set of results).
- Direct followers of BBBH's founders and a few other notable accounts.
- Direct followers of a few accounts used to announce bareback "parties".
- The "official" lists of BBBH's members maintained by its founders.
- Some lists of users maintained by other notable accounts.
I then filtered the list of accounts through quite a few heuristics to pare the remaining not-explicitly-BBBH accounts down to only the most egregious of the bunch, including but not limited to:
- Whether the account, if its number of follows was over 50, had a very significant number of its follows being to public BBBH members.
- Whether the account was following three or more of the BBBH founders and official BBBH account, and a significant (but less so than the first criterion) number of other BBBH members. (Users filtered here because they were only following the official accounts are likely people keeping tabs on their activity.)
- Whether the profile text or user ID contained obvious text intended to imply unsafe sex: examples include "cumdump", "teambb", "bbrt", "bareback", "raw sex", "hole breed"... among others.
- Whether the account appeared in more than one user-maintained Twitter lists of bareback sex advocates.
- Whether the account posted a notable number of tweets with the #bbbh hashtag in them.
Even after all the filtering, the results totaled over three thousand. The fight against safer sex has apparently gained a bit of traction. This is alarming, to put it gently.
By revealing these criteria for my list's construction, I'm probably going to make it easier for BBBH members to fly under the radar. However, as the same friend who read the draft of this post noted, that's a double-edged sword. The reduced visibility for BBBH caused by members going into hiding also means reduced visibility to younger, and admittedly more impressionable, men. I'm shining light on something very dark, that is creeping in towards some of the most vulnerable in the community.
Now, it's certainly possible that I made a mistake, even after going to these great lengths to filter the list to the bare bones. I'll accept that risk, and offer to remove accounts from it (by contacting me at firstname.lastname@example.org). It is not my intent to list anyone who is not a public advocate of unsafe sex — but remember, if you're directly connected to a large number of self-described BBBH members, you are a part of the problem. It's time to distance yourself from people who openly associate with BBBH, starting with your own connections.
here's a list for those of you in the U.S.) which are battling the spread of HIV/AIDS. This fight, to me, also means calling out those people who would undermine this progress. Chances are, a STD-awareness organization exists near you. Take the time to learn about it, and get involved if you can.
To those of you out there trying to recruit more people into barebacking, while the next generation of gay men are growing up amid the noise of your fallacious pride, consider yourself on notice. You will, eventually, be found and taught the error of your ways — or if that fails, hopefully ostracized.
...Postscript: So that I don't leave you completely on a downer/angry note, here's a message from Lady Miss Kier (Kirby) singing the praises of safer sex:
Great thanks go to "Paul", who agreed to let me describe his story in detail; an anonymous friend who gave a very good critique of an early draft of this post; and Dr. George Forgan-Smith, whose blog posts are linked here.