The guy turned over and said to me, "I have HIV."
I froze, wrapped in this mans embrace. I was completely naked, with no sheets, no blankets, nowhere to hide. We had just had sex, and now we were basking in the afterglow. I had no idea what to do. My first instinct was to leap out of the bed and race out of the room. However, I knew that I did not and could not catch anything. What we had done was completely and 100% safe. We kissed, hugged, sucked and rimmed (him performing on me) with absolutely no anal penetration. There was nothing we had done that would put me at risk. But at the same time I was mad. Why did he not tell me? I should have at least known, before I made the decision to sleep with him.
After ten years at the baths, I am pretty educated on the boundaries of safe sex. Keep in mind that every man you sleep with, you are also sleeping with every man he has slept with. But many men with HIV do not disclose this information to a respective pick-up, especially in a bathhouse. If nothing 'unsafe' happens, why mention it. By mentioning ones status, sex will not happen, 99% of the time. It is interesting about disclosing ones status. It is almost like coming out all over again. But this time, you are coming out to gay men about your status. It is not as if I am not educated about HIV and AIDS. I have two close friends who have HIV, both of them living with the disease for at least ten years now.
In fact, it would not surprise me if 75% of the guys walking the halls of a bathhouse had HIV. Some of these men know they are HIV Positive and are on disability insurance. Because a disability check barely covers the essentials in life, going to any place to mix and mingle with other gay men is expensive. So many positive men on LTD (long-term disability) go to the baths during the noon hour, when most baths have a reduced rate. The rates vary from sauna to sauna, but at my bathhouse, $4.00 is the special price during lunch. At that rate men who are on disability can escape from their problems, albeit temporarily, for 6 hours. They can cruise, enjoy some eye candy, and get laid like everyone else. Being on disability might sound like a great permanent vacation, but trust me, it gets boring after awhile. For your whole life, you had either school or a career as the center of your universe. Then you qualify for disability and that huge weight lifts off your shoulders. Soon you realize that the world is passing you by. With friends at work, men on disability really have to find things to occupy their time during the day. As a result, the baths become part of their daily life, to have some structure. The beginning or end of every month is when you find most men on LTD at the baths. That is when their check comes in the mail.
However, the rest of the men going to the baths might not even know their status. Everyone knows that HIV infections are going up at an alarming rate, especially among young people. These days many gay men get HIV by accident (condom breaking), or by slipping up (not thinking in the heat of the moment). But so many young gay men are being lax in their safe sex practices. When I was in junior high school fifteen years ago, we were bombarded with safe sex and AIDS literature. But once my generation reached our twenties and became aware of our sexuality, coming-out as a gay man can be a period of great upheaval. Already suffering from low self-esteem, we want to fit in and find a companion. On that search, it may reduce motivation for safe sex as a gay man might do anything to satisfy a potential lover ('I just want you to show me how much you love me.'). Age is another factor. Many young gay men perceive AIDS as a disease of older men. As a result, men age twenty or thirty have not had many dealing with end stage AIDS patients, or even people living with HIV.
To their credit, North American bathhouses have continued to promote and educate their clientele about safe sex, HIV and AIDS. Go to any bathhouse in America and this is what you will see: AIDS and safe sex posters on the walls; Condoms and lube readily available at the front desk and in the lounge area, free of charge; Porn films where condoms are being used all of the time; There is even an area in the baths that has AIDS education pamphlets and materials. As well, volunteer health care workers visits the baths every month or so to educate the community at large. This is a great way to directly reach out and educate gay men about their sexual practices. From anonymous AIDS and STD testing (right there at the baths!) to discussions about safe sex, the health care workers are there not to preach, or be judgmental, but to educate. This is all in an attempt to continue to promote safe sex to the younger generation at the baths.
But unfortunately many of the younger gay men still do not get it. I cannot tell you how much bare backing goes on at the baths (especially in the dark room). Hence the continued outreach program at the baths. And even outside the baths, there is a blasé attitude about safe sex. For instance, in my city we have an AIDS memorial that is just down the street from one of the most popular gay bars. Every year on World AIDS Day, there is a candle light vigil. During the ceremony the new names of our brothers and sisters who have passed on are added to the memorial. Other than that day, the AIDS memorial is better known in gay circles as the best place to have park sex. If two guys meet at the bar, and want to have a 'quickie', they just trot down to the memorial. There are trees, shrubbery, and other camouflage that surround the memorial. As well the way the memorial is designed, there are benches, nooks and corners, perfect for that discreet quickie encounter. It is not unusual to pass by the AIDS memorial at 2AM and see scores of young guys going at it. Most of the time you will see guys leaning against the AIDS memorial getting blown, while others are sprawled on top of a nearby picnic table getting f**cked. That is how unaffected and complacent younger gay men are about HIV and AIDS.
Many older gay men are disgusted and sickened by the thought of younger gay men having sex at the AIDS memorial. They consider it in poor taste and an insult to the memory of those who have died of AIDS. The younger generation counter all of the outrage by saying what they are doing is actually honoring the men who have their names on the memorial. These men died from AIDS by having unsafe sex. By having sex at an AIDS memorial what they are doing is a re-generation of their lives, almost like a re-birth. These men died of AIDS, and now the younger generation is having sex there, in their memory. It is completing a circle, the circle of life, thus bringing closure.
Along those lines health issues are not at the top of our agenda. So many of us do not even go for a yearly check-up. With all of the new drugs on the market, many men feel it is now safe to have unprotected sex with other young men. The drugs are viewed (WRONGLY) as a way to control HIV/AIDS; the same way diabetes is controlled. And there is this feeling of being tired. Tired of being safe, tired of using protection, tired of constantly thinking about safe sex. Young gay men want one thing - SEX: the true feeling of being inside someone, pure skin-to-skin contact. (Read Quickies for the live bare backing sessions I have witnessed at the baths)
See below to go to page two of this story