A month before our relationship came to its rather abrupt end, my boyfriend Ben and I spent four days snorting gram upon gram of the drone: from a Friday through to the following Monday night. Now that’s almost as much time as it took James Franco to saw off his arm in the movie 127 Hours. And that ended up being a clean break in comparison. We didn’t just consume copious amounts of miaow miaow, as it was affectionately known then, we also played Resident Evil 4 on the Xbox non stop. With one pause to call the dealer for second helpings. Who home delivered. It was, by all accounts, a simpler time. A month later Ben walked out of our home and never came back. Which suggested to me that either our relationship was on the rocks or I needed to upgrade my video gaming skills.
In the six months that followed amidst the obligatory back and forth of post break up letters apportioning blame, attempts to take responsibility, and a desire to make sense out of loss after three years, it became clear two major factors led to our demise. One, growing internal fear of passing on my HIV as my viral load increased had begun to erode away at physical intimacy – at that time I wasn’t undetectable and Ben was negative, but also and more importantly, we had lost our ability to see and hear one another. The signs of impending doom were illuminated bright and clear for all to see yet we were awash in a sea of displacement activity: namely snorting lines of drone on repeat and shooting satanic zombies with heavy artillery fire. This tactic, I can assure you, has never ever been recommended to anyone in couples counselling as a means to rescue your relationship.
All the gay men I know want intimacy. I have yet to hear one gay man tell me he doesn’t want intimacy in his life. There are voices in the ongoing debate on PrEP who have talked about the space it permits for the fostering of sexual intimacy. Living with fear does not make for good sex for anyone. And we all deserve good sex. And it is clear fear doesn’t make for good decision-making: we shouldn’t put scared people in charge of nuclear bombs (America, take note). The toolbox we have to combat HIV already runneth over, yet we continue to underestimate and undervalue the power of talking. What I am referring to is our ability to speak to one another about our pleasure, our wants, and our desires; a dialogue that moves beyond the standard health promotion slogans and pamphleteering that has come to make up much of gay men’s health work. What is it that draws us over and over again to condomless sex in the midst of a continuing epidemic? Might we be able to negate risk by starting to talk to one another more openly? What might that look like in the digital age as we wander the streets of London, faces glued to our phones.
Condoms work, there is no doubt, but condoms, much like London I’m afraid to say, are not the world. As much as I might try, I can freely admit I have never found a condom sexy. Or fun. No matter how many ads and promotions tell me otherwise, no matter how many sculpted male torsos adorn the packaging, there is something fundamentally unsexy about trying to maintain sexual momentum, deep kissing and an erection whilst one hand valiantly wrestles with the top drawer of the bedside cabinet to find a condom. Let alone then grappling with one of those damn 5ml sachets of lube.
Gay men are told ad nauseum to use condoms to be safe. We are also told, ad nauseum, of the ever-increasing numbers of new HIV+ men amongst us. The numbers keep rising. I wonder at what point do these two narratives find themselves in conflict with each other? How long do we spend running around in circles between a desire to be safe and the seeming inescapability of an HIV diagnosis? And at what point do we start tuning out and stop listening? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating for a state of condomless-ness, not just yet, but I do think it’s worthwhile giving conversation around authentic intimacy and pleasure centre stage for a while. To ask ourselves how we talk to one another about what our pleasure means, how we want to give and receive it, what it means to be truthfully intimate with another man, and how we connect to one another with genuine honesty.
I met Ben after my first year of living in Manchester on a training run for the Great Manchester Run. One of those rare born and bred Londoners, he had left the big city to take an opportunity up north. We met ‘officially’ on race day, a mutual friend having already completed the groundwork to establish if there was reciprocal interest. We slept together that first night, somewhat drunkenly, so the interest appeared mutual. In the morning he took me out and bought me breakfast and, well, I’m a sucker for those little touches. Our second date came fast on its heels, and with that my long held fear raised up its ugly head certain that as soon as I disclosed I would be rejected. My emotional life had been on hold for years before we met; sex had become chiefly confined to married men with baby seats in the backs of their cars. It was, by all accounts, a simpler time. I remember all too clearly sitting on Ben’s sofa as he attempted to manoeuvre us past second base that I had to take hold of the moment and fess up. So I straightened my back, collected my resolve and told him and he looked at me square in the eye and told me to get my pants off. Which was his way of letting me know it wasn’t a problem. And that he wanted to get to third base. Years of fear about speaking disappeared in a moment. It really was good to talk.
Now recently I started dating again. Which meant, in the first instance, venturing back to using apps. Which I haven’t used in years. Because I find them a total ball ache. And not in a fun cock and ball torturey way. They waste time I could be using to do other things, the never ending cycle of torso and cock shots, waiting for that one guy I’m sure is well suited to respond to a message, who never does because he’s too busy nursing a comedown verging on the psychotic. Grindr’s ad campaign should really be ‘Fuck You Intimacy’. Apps serve a purpose, there’s no doubt, but I wonder if reducing one another down to a menu of transactional do’s and don’ts, an inventory of facts and figures really draws us any closer to that famed intimacy we all yearn for. Hung, vers, bottom, top, no fats, no femmes, no Asians, no blacks, chems, no chems, DDF, poz only, bear chaser, twink lover: the inventory is endless. And relentless. We’ve managed to condense ourselves into a walking directory of physical features, shallow demands and unrealistic expectations. Is this the best way, the most effective approach to uncover intimacy? I’m pretty sure that to talk openly and candidly about pleasure is the opposite of app culture – to talk straightforwardly about real pleasure is a doorway to intimacy, the first steps to seeing each other more clearly. Now I am in no way preaching from the pulpit here, advocating a return to a more chaste time when sex consummated a relationship, far from it. I’ve had enough casual sex to last me a few lifetimes, but I question how often I ever really got what I wanted? It was a rarity. Well, other than orgasm. Which to be fair isn’t a wholly unpleasant conclusion. But when I don’t see you for who you really are, when I don’t take the time to connect with your humanness, when I don’t let you connect to my humanness, then I believe we’re trapped in a repetitious cycle in which I end up fucking myself. And in that process, you quite literally and metaphorically get fucked too. No one wins. So trust me on this one: if you crave intimacy, sending a stranger a shot of your arsehole is probably not going to get you what you want. That’s like turning up at a meth party on a Saturday night and thinking you’ll make work on Monday morning: you’re only fooling yourself.
I remember the first time I had sex with Ben without a condom. One lazy Saturday morning, on the same sofa I’d disclosed upon, we found ourselves in new terrain. Up until that moment we had studiously used condoms; we were good gays. I was two years away from my first meds regimen and my viral load remained steady. That morning we transgressed all the safer sex literature we’d been on the receiving end of for all our adult lives. We became bad gays. High risk with its value laden judgment. And it felt good. I think it may well have been my first hands-free orgasm. Which if you haven’t had one, you should try. It’s well worth the effort. Was it wrong of us? Or was it part of our innate need for sex to be truly connective, and by connective I mean with the visceral inclusion of semen, an ejaculation inside an arse, the complete exposure to another person, total integration. We knew the risks yet it made not an iota of difference – the erotic and emotional reward that came with condomless sex was primal and trusting and right. Does the advent of PrEP offer us a new opportunity to talk about sex and desire and pleasure and intimacy without fear hovering in the background? To return to a time in which gay men and the pleasure of anal sex can be discussed and explored for its erotic potential and not as a harbinger of disease and illness. To talk about the meaning of sex for us as individuals and not solely as a source of gossip, or exclusively in terms of disease prevention. To see sex as a worthy, valuable and rejuvenating affirmation of life and lust and love and connection between two men.
Would PrEP have helped Ben and me find a way through our predicament? Perhaps, in part. But we would never have made it unless we had relearned how to see and hear one another too. If we’d given as many hours to talking and listening, as many hours as we did to tuning out on drugs and zombies, perhaps, just perhaps things might have turned out differently. In the weeks and months that followed, a friend of mine attended to me in my grief. Most days she’d stop by at my office for a chat or to bring lunch to make sure I was eating well or to sit with me as I cried myself silly. She had been through this acute loss following the end of her own relationship some years before and told me “it is for those of us that have gone before to look after those of us that come after”. What she meant by that was that it was her job to help guide me through my grief because she knew it and knew her experience could serve me. And it did. And I can’t help but think that this advice applies to us all: it is the duty of those gay men who have come before to look after those who come after. Which means opening dialogue between us as a community, between individuals, being open to sharing between the ages. There will always be someone older and younger than you, someone who is willing to share and someone who needs to be heard. Have you ever noticed how we, gay men, behave when we see one another in the street? The drill’s familiar: you see another gay man in the distance and as you approach you check him out with a little side eye, and then more often than not there’s a standoff in which neither person truly acknowledges the other. We pretend we don’t really see one another. A real life swipe left if you like. Which strikes me as strange. But then if we don’t really see each other, it’s far easier for that other person to end up being just another dick or arsehole to play with. It can’t be that this far into our supposed liberation, we have stopped practicing the art of seeing one another. Through genuine human connection we can find ways to take care of one another, to negotiate condom use if and when required, to own our pleasure well and the pleasure of others, and to find a way back to a place in which our collective erotic liberation takes precedent over the presence of a virus. Perhaps PrEP will go someway to moving us towards this.
So in the end I deleted the apps, they just weren’t for me and instead I went old school and asked a man I’d had my eye on out for dinner. No dick shots, no drop down menu of sexual preferences, no swiping right, just good, old-fashioned conversation and connection. And guess what?
He said yes.
James Johnson is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. He has been involved in HIV community based services for gay men and social activism for the past decade. James has been living with HIV for 17 years.
This article was first read/performed at “Let’s Talk About Gay Sex and Drugs” (the PrEP-themed September edition.)