Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking
by Tim Dean
Published by University of Chicago Press
Reviewed by Stephen O. Murray
January 8, 2015.
Ethnographers suspend moral judgments to try to understand cultures (or subcultures) as those being researched understand themselves and/or what they do (their life ways). Describing rather than prescribing or condemning sometimes gets criticized as advocating for a culture (or subculture): the depathologizing recognized in “to understand all is to forgive all” is common.
Tim Dean, who is a professor of English, not an anthropologist, is from the part of culture studies that substitutes their own—often idiosyncratic—interpretations for “native models.” When analyzing a particular text, humanities scholars show off their ingenuity, often without any evidence that anyone else has ever interpreted whatever (prototypically a text) in the same way as they do.
In Unlimited Intimacy (2009) Dean pretends to be describing rather than rationalizing unprotected anal intercourse His disclaimer, “This book advocates barebacking less as a sexual practice than as a figure for an ethical disposition” (p. 30), is to me more insidious even than advocating the sexual practice conducive of HIV-infection. Dean’s data for a subculture of a sacred brotherhood with feelings of kinship between an infected man and his infector (whose identity is often unknown to the one now “sharing” a virus, because one of many inserters) seems to me mostly his own fantasy with practically no explanatory power. For one thing, Dean is antibody-negative so not drawing even on the feelings (and rationalizations) of one person.
It actually does not require so elaborate a model/rationale to explain not wanting to use a condom. Like most straight men, most gay men do not want to put on a condom both because it is effort that interrupts progress to penetration and because the one wearing the condom has less sensation in his penis, thus less pleasure.
Rather than wanting to join the “brotherhood” of the infected, those being penetrated (male or female) without a condom are often just going along with what the penetrator wants. To some extent risking their health can be an expression of trust and intimacy, though it is clear that many of those being “barebacked” think that their penetrator is HIV-negative (including those who believe they can recognize who is healthy/safe and those who believe that the man wanting to penetrate them would tell them if he were positive and/or be honest about their HIV-positive-status if asked about it.
I have been analyzing sex ads from four U.S. cities and have read several thousand recently. There are ads (from both those seeking inserters and those seeking insertees) specifying wanting “bareback” sex. I did not see a single one seeking infection (I did searches for “gift”) or mentioning “brotherhood,” or kinship of the infected. Most of those from bottoms wanting to be penetrated without a condom specified they wanted the penetrator to be “disease free” or “bug free.” This was even the case for those who said they were on PrEP i(Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis), as no one was in 2009 when Dean’s book was published, or earlier.
HIV infection concerns are central for protected (with a condom) anal intercourse and less central to what Dean valorizes as “unlimited intimacy” (bareback anal sex). Some, including those already infected, don’t care about whether they are receiving HIV+ sperm, while many tops do not feel an obligation to protect someone who does not seek to protect himself (and is, therefore, generally presumed to be already HIV+). (BTW, I am pretty certain from the context of ads that most gay men who speak of “breeding” in regard to sex with men mean implanting semen rather than implanting virus.)
In my view, there is little evidence in Dean’s book for a “subculture” with the developed set of beliefs about intimacy, fraternity, etc. that Dean provides. Bareback sex was the norm in gay as in straight sexual encounters before AIDS, i.e., in most instances is part of the dominant culture rather than the basis of a “subculture.” It is true that parties with one designated bottom and multiple barebacking tops occur and are documented (filmed), but Dean provides no evidence of the gang-banged bottom feeling kinship for the multiple tops in even one instance (let alone later, after being infected, interpreting carrying HIV as consanguineous relationship to that set of “brothers” of the virus who are not around to see what has happened to such myth-believing “brothers” as might exist or provide support, psychic or other).
Dean is on similar weak ground in writing about racialized porn, providing interpretations that I doubt have any generality (as in most queer media studies, he ignores audience reception and substituting one viewer’s (his own) performance of analytical cleverness). He seems very naïve about the economics of porn and disingenuous in interpreting racist imagery (and conduct) as subverting rather than participating in and perpetuating racism.
Dean’s faith in the reality of Freudian reifications (such as the id/ego/superego trichotomy) and assertions such as that the unconscious does not recognize gender or interpretations of “reactivating the scene of primal seduction” seem similarly specious and as detached from empirical reality as Dean’s elaborate fantasies about brotherhood and intimacy. Especially in my fieldwork with Latino men who have sex with men, anal penetration is not “unlimited intimacy” but is widely seen as less intimate than fellatio. I’d bet that many of those having unprotected anal intercourse refuse to kiss their partner/”brother” as Latino activos traditionally have, however masculine the insertor “taking it” believes he is. Even ignoring the strict role dichotomization (top/bottom) of the organized multiparty performances, how “unlimited” is intimacy that rejects (often with horror) kissing? Also consider the facelessness of the cover photo: very limited intimacy (even if representing the anonymity often on offer…)
Although I think that most of Dean’s construction of a subculture is delusional, he does raise questions about the “outlaws” and “in-laws,” the former rejecting heteronormative same-sex couples and in pointing out that health (and its conservation) is not the only value even in a dominant culture where risks are constantly trumpeted (exaggerated) and those failing to exercise, eat healthily, and forge and maintain monogamous relationships are judged negatively as being morally weak and “self-destructive.” One part of the Freudian heritage, conspicuous by its absence in Dean’s text (and very common in what others have written about “bug chasing”) is the “death instinct.” Also conspicuous by its absence is any consideration of the social costs of providing life-saving drugs (and various social services limiting the risks) to those who have deliberately been infected with HIV.
Pros: readable (if one can overcome distaste for the subject matter)
Cons: inventing and implicitly defending what is dubiously a subculture
© 8 January 2015, Stephen O. Murray