PrEP hasn’t just made condomless anal sex less risky – it’s also made it a more accepted proposition on dating apps like Grindr
Illustrated By Lily Blakely
Anal sex without condom is going mainstream! Well, it has gone mainstream some time ago. What are consequence of that?
Cameron moved to the UK from the Philippines in 2016. He couldn’t believe how openly gay men spoke about barebacking. When he opened Grindr, he saw profiles with the bio “bb only”. Common shorthand for solely wanting “bareback”, or condom-less anal sex. Other profiles specified a preference for “raw” fucking – another synonym for anal sex without condom. Or used the word “breeding” as a euphemism for “taking a load.”
In his homeland, the idea of enjoying anal sex without condom with multiple partners is “very taboo”. But when he was asked on Grindr to join a private WhatsApp group for around 250 MSM who enjoy regular unprotected anal sex, he was intrigued enough to say yes. “Being in this WhatsApp group has made me realise how fun this kind of sex can be. As long as you recognise both the risks and the pleasures involved,” he says.
When gay men’s health organisation GMFA surveyed 1,500 gay and bi men in 2016, 46 percent said that at least half of their anal sex experiences were without condoms. Of this 46 percent, nearly a quarter said they weren’t in a long-term monogamous relationship. Suggesting they might be having anal sex without condoms with multiple partners. Since HIV prevention drug PrEP became available on the NHS in 2017 – first in Scotland, then in other UK regions – this figure has almost certainly grown.
PrEP as a game-changer
“I think it’s true to say that PrEP has been a game-changer for gay and bisexual men. It’s the tool we’ve been crying out for in the HIV sector,” says Ian Howley, CEO of GMFA’s parent organisation LGBT HERO. “When taken correctly, PrEP is 99.9 percent effective in preventing the transmission of HIV. It makes it slightly more effective than condoms which can rip or slide off.”
Howley says PrEP has even changed the way we should talk about anal intercourse between gay men. “What PrEP has done for many is lift the guilt and shame associated with sex. I would imagine that means that more men are choosing to have anal sex without condoms,”. “But let’s not think they’re having ‘unprotected sex’. PrEP is a prevention method and those who are using PrEP correctly are protecting themselves and their partners against HIV.” Howley also points out that PrEP doesn’t offer complete protection because it doesn’t prevent other STIs such as chlamydia, syphilis and gonorrhoea.
Howley says PrEP hasn’t just made anal sex without condom less risky. It’s also made it a more “mainstream” proposition on dating apps. Especially since the pandemic has reduced the gay men community’s options. “A lot of men who enjoy group sex have had safe spaces like saunas and sex clubs taken away from them and have no outlet for this anymore,” he says. “So I’d imagine that apps like Grindr are being used more often as a way to gather people who have the same interests together. This might be another reason why people are seeing it more on apps
More intimate connection
Sam, a 30-year-old single gay man, says he prefers barebacking because it “offers a more intimate connection with someone than using a condom and just feels way hotter. If I’m going to get fucked, I kind of want the evidence that it happened still inside me after the guy leaves”.
Sam also says that for him, a sex without condoms encounter still feels like a subversive or risky act. “Barebacking still feels more taboo. Obviously for years there was no way to protect yourself against HIV without using a condom or being fully monogamous,” he says. “We’re conditioned by society to think that all gay sex is taboo anyway. It’s hard to shake off those feelings sometimes, so fucking bareback is kind of like giving society the middle finger. Like: ‘Yeah, you think it’s gross that I’m sticking my dick in another guy’s ass? Well you know what, I’m gonna do it without a condom too.’
In recent years, the “U=U” campaign has helped to spread awareness that someone living with HIV who has an undetectable viral load – cannot pass on the virus. The message is simple: “Undetectable equals untransmittable.”
Anal sex without condoms is not universally accepted
Though barebacking has become more mainstream, it’s by no means universally accepted by gay and bi men. Even on a sex-oriented app like Grindr. Cameron now acts as an admin for his barebacking WhatsApp group and says he’s “careful” about asking new people to join it.
“I try to limit my invites to guys who put ‘negative on PrEP’ in their Grindr profile. That’s normally a good indication that they’re open to it,” he says. Cameron says his Grindr account has been suspended three times in the past. “And I think that’s because guys have reported me as spam for mentioning a bareback group”. He says others have responded negatively to the offer. “I’ve been called a ‘spreader of STIs’ and “ugh too sleazy”; or sometimes they just reply with a puke emoji.”
Rob, a 27-year-old gay man in an open relationship, says he “doesn’t fully understand” the popularity of “bb only”. “When you open Grindr in Elephant and Castle, raw is law,” he says. “I always use a condom for hook-ups because otherwise it still feels like a risk to me. But most guys want to do bareback and sometimes they retract their invite when I insist on using a condom. Part of what I find weird about it is that for some guys, having bareback sex is a higher priority than the person they’re fucking. They’d rather settle for someone they’re less attracted to if it means the sex is raw.”
Need to fight against stigma and shame
For GMFA’s Ian Howley, the priority is making sure that gay and bi men “make an educated decision”. He adds: “For HIV-negative men, the ultimate protection against HIV and STIs is a combination of PrEP, condoms and regular testing. For HIV-positive men, remaining undetectable, using condoms and regular screening for STIs is recommended. But it’s up to everyone to find the best method that works for themselves. And how wonderful it is that we now have these options available.”
Howley also says the LGBTQ community needs to tackle the deep-rooted stigma that affects our sexual choices. “The way HIV and AIDS were talked about in the late 80s and 90s has scared our community and it’s going to take generations to get over it,” he says. “You have a group of men who grew up in this era who were told that they can’t have sex without condoms. And if they do, they are ‘dirty’ or ‘bad gays’. That shame has passed on to younger generations – not to the same extent, but it’s still there.”
Howley says the consequences can be catastrophic. “When people feel ashamed about the sex they’re having, they’re far more likely to hide it,” he says. “That can affect their mental health and self-esteem, and create a ‘good gays’ versus ‘bad gays’ divide. These men are far less likely to engage with sexual health services in a truthful way.” Encouraging more men to use sexual health services is vital, Howley says, because “STIs have been on the rise within our community over the last few years” and “most have no long term side-effects when caught early and treated”.
Anal sex without condom is not going to go underground
In the meantime, anal sex isn’t about to go underground again. Cameron says his WhatsApp group is now “at full capacity” but is keen to point out that “bb only” isn’t a prerequisite for membership. “When we organise group meet-ups, we always assure guys that they can have sex bareback or with condoms,” he says. “And at every meet-up, not everyone chooses to do anal without condom, and that’s absolutely fine. At the end of the day, it’s always about respecting someone’s personal choice.”