At a recent forum to discuss HIV/AIDS and young, gay men -- or men who have sex with men, to be perfectly accurate -- the discussion turned to ''barebacking'' and pricked up my ears.
While I'm no longer one of those young men at the center of the discussion, not so much has changed on the HIV front since I was. I started having sex about 20 years ago, when unprotected sex was highly unadvisable. Despite medical advances in managing HIV infections, it remains highly unadvisable. Men's slight appetite for wearing condoms does not seem to have changed, either.
My father, years ago, told my mother that wearing a condom was like taking a shower while wearing a raincoat. I recall a similar simile, which I read in an article about HIV being spread by truckers in central Africa hiring sex workers along their routes: Sex with a condom is like eating a piece of candy without removing its wrapper.
For the most part, I agree. I've never liked condoms. Rather, I've never enjoyed the way they feel. They have, however, been very dependable friends. It was a lesson I learned quickly.
My first boyfriend -- I was 17 and he 16 -- ''topped'' me. My nod to safe sex at the time, considering we were novices, was that he not ejaculate inside me. Immediately after, I thought I was being a little silly. Really, at our ages? Just how dangerous did I think sex between us could be? Then he told me about his dalliance with an older gentleman he met in the bathroom of our local Wal-Mart. Then I found out about the girlfriend. They were parents before they graduated.
By the time I was in college, I was buying condoms in bulk. I was never able to achieve an orgasm while wearing one, but that was the price of protection. Not that there haven't been slips.
One boyfriend in the late 1990s was not only HIV-positive, but had T-cell counts when I was dating him that equated to an AIDS diagnosis. Sometimes he had insurance, while other times not. And on Valentine's Day, I topped him bareback. Laying in bed, watching Wilde, getting closer, somewhat intoxicated.... I include that slip because it was the most romantic. Some others would not seem nearly so tempting and excusable.
Regardless, It's bound to happen sometimes. It is, after all, one of the things we were designed for. Even if two guys aren't going to be making any babies by fornicating, a gay man's sex drive is as equally insistent as his hetero counterpart's. And while we are rational creatures, our primal needs won't be ignored. We can control ourselves, but everyone understands why the phrase, ''I'm only human,'' means we do not have total dominion over ourselves. We do what we can.
Now, with my partner of eight years, we don't use any protection. It's negotiated safety. Some clinicians have told me that I must, must, must always use condoms, that I'm just setting myself up to be infected by a cheating partner. That's not a degree of paranoia I can live with. Certainly, it's not a plea to which straight America would be too receptive, despite the presumably common instances of infidelity. It would seem unreasonable -- and unfeasible -- to tell all married, straight couples to use condoms, all the time, every time. Except to procreate, but only after a blood test. Same goes for gay dudes.
If I could go back to my 20-year-younger self and impart some advice, though, it would not be as simple as, ''You're not being paranoid, really. Don't plan on a cure anytime soon.'' The advice that I would've given that young me is that not all condoms are created equally. No one ever explained that to me, and it's huge consideration. Massive, even.
I've known some guys who never had any problem getting off while wrapped up. Generally, these were guys who were not circumcised, all sensations intact. (Then again, my condom-hating father was in the uncut camp, and he still hated them.) For me, they were just a drag. I generally preferred to be receptive rather than wear one, to improve my chances of a satisfactory outcome, versus half an hour of pelvic thrusting that would lead nowhere.
More than a decade after I'd begun having sex, I found the Durex Ultra Sensitive, my condom of choice. When my sex life began, I'm doubtful that condoms this thin existed. I vaguely recall some discussion in the mid 1990s being cautious of these condoms for fear that HIV could pass through their membrane. That no longer seems to be a concern, though I hear lambskin should not be used.
I recall quite clearly the first instance of discovering the new world, safely, with the Ultra Sensitive. I only wish there'd been a mirror nearby so I could've seen the look of surprise on my face. I'm sure it was priceless.
Unfortunately, I cannot go back. Instead, all I can do is tell some other guy who is a young man now and who dislikes condoms as much as I once did: You've got to shop around. With luck, you'll find one that might dull the sensation somewhat, but that will at least allow you to get where you're going. And I do hope you'll use condoms. Try a variety. Keep your nightstand stocked with a variety for guests. Go nuts. But do try to avoid HIV if you're not infected, or allowing it to spread if you are.
Will O'Bryan, Metro Weekly's managing editor, was born as the Stonewall Riots ended, making him a Stonewall Baby, he insists. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.