Guys Keep Ghosting Me for Wanting Responsible Sex. Has Everyone Gone Crazy?

How to Do It is Slate’s sex advice column. Have a question? Send it to Stoya and Rich here. It’s anonymous!

Dear How to Do It,

What is it with queer guys insisting on never wearing a condom anymore? My Grindr message log is full of guys who ghosted or blocked after learning I wouldn’t bareback. They’re on PrEP, they say. What I don’t say is the last time I was cavalier about condoms, I ended up with herpes. Do these guys not remember the HIV crisis (still very much a thing)? Other STIs? Is the Venn diagram of anti-maskers and anti-rubbers a circle?

— Wrap It Up

Dear Wrap It Up,

Though the opening of your letter reads like a setup of a joke, I’m taking it seriously. Queer men’s abandonment of condoms in the wake of the AIDS epidemic has long been a point of debate and, in some circles, consternation. In public, this conversation is more than 25 years old, stretching back to the so-called “plague years,” before the public availability of protease inhibitors in 1996 revised the trajectory of the epidemic, reducing death rates and turning HIV into a chronic condition instead of a death sentence for many living with the virus (who had access to the drugs, which remains an issue). Back then, this wasn’t a matter of remembering the crisis—the crisis was all around, defining queer life and death. And yet, according to “Beyond Condoms,” a February 1995 op-ed in the Advocate by the writer/activist/ documentarian Gabriel Rotello, “cohort studies indicate that up to half of all gay men don’t use condoms during anal sex, at least occasionally.” This is when the messaging was, “If you have sex without condoms, you will die,” and there were overwhelming statistics to back it.

In 1999, the Stranger printed that there had been an upswing in gay men self-reporting unprotected anal sex—from 30 percent in 1994 to 39 percent in 1997. Public health advocates’ “condom code,” was clearly failing, and yet openly violating it remained taboo. Writing on it such as writer and porn performer Scott O’Hara’s “Exit the Rubberman” essay in a 1995 issue of Steam and the February 1999 issue of Poz, which ran several features on barebacking and a provocative cover image of porn performer and condomless-sex enthusiast Tony Valenzuela, became instantly notorious.

Based on the results of studies and the public discourse, we know that there was a gulf between what was practiced and what was preached. And we also know that such preaching was impossible to avoid, and study after study (many cited here) illustrated that gay men were knowledgeable about HIV and transmission. So even in the “plague years,” going “raw” was not a matter of ignorance. Another way to think about the issue your question points to is: What is it with guys who publicly criticize guys who don’t use condoms? Same divide, different perspective. Writer/professor Tim Dean has an answer. In 2009’s Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking, he writes that “adjudicating the politics of bareback subculture can be a way of reassuring ourselves that we’re on the right side of it, uncontaminated by it.”

But before we get too heady and philosophical, Occam’s razor compels us to address the simple truth: Many people have condomless sex for sensation alone. I suspect for many this has as much to do with the psychological as the tactile, but regardless, condomless sex just feels better to some people—so much so that the sensation outweighs risk. However, Dean suggests that in addition to the physical sensation there is the desire for “certain emotional sensations, particularly the symbolic significance attached to experiences of vulnerability or risk.” As a result, argues Dean, “barebacking” (at this point, an outdated term that I’m using for historical purposes) isn’t mindlessly reckless, but “an activity deeply invested with meaning.” Elsewhere he suggests that, “Bareback subculture reclaims gay sex as sexuality by relegating epidemiological concerns to secondary status.” The queer men who lived during the “plague years” did so in the shadow of a disease that was synonymous with certain death. These were people who wanted to do what people have been doing from time immemorial: connect, sometimes literally by inserting a penis into an orifice.

I’ve written a lot on PrEP (which the FDA approved in 2012) and the sense of sexual empowerment it fosters. I’ve never forgotten something a public health advocate told me during my research: “Your grandmother was a barebacker.” People like having sex without condoms, and it is what they have done historically, hence the proliferation of our species. It’s not a gay thing. What is a gay thing is the disproportionate responsibility to modify behavior as the result of a disease to which that community is vulnerable. Unwanted pregnancy is fraught, but hardly as stigmatized as AIDS has been in this country, which means that as a result of a virus that was already devastating people’s friend networks and our larger culture (think about all the geniuses AIDS wiped from the earth!), populations at risk were given the additional burden of having to “behave” in bed, having to interrupt their flow state of sexual exchange with a barrier that also served as a reminder of the cataclysm afoot. I don’t blame them one bit for getting sick of worrying about getting sick.

So that, in a nutshell, is the deal. I could go on, but I’ll spare us.

While studies have correlated PrEP use with the abandonment of condoms, many men who have sex with men weren’t using condoms before PrEP, at least some of the time. With infection rates stable in the U.S. in the five years leading up to and including 2012, clearly something else was needed to combat the virus. PrEP, it seems, was that thing. From 2015 to 2019, HIV incidence declined by eight percent. (It’s always important to note here that for many groups, like Black and Latinx men who have sex with men, the rates remain disproportionately high.)

You are right, at least, that there are other STIs. Luckily, many people on PrEP are tested for them every three months to keep their prescriptions in good standing. That at least takes care of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis. Hepatitis and HPV remain concerns (you can put herpes in this group, though I’m reluctant to wring my hands too much over a disease that has been made out to be a “sexual boogeyman”). I’d be interested in seeing the results of a survey that seeks to determine whether anti-maskers are anti-rubberers, but something tells me it wouldn’t be so illuminating.

Firstly, if people are abandoning condoms as a result of PrEP use—which they claim to be doing in your telling—then that places them ideologically left of those who refuse masks as a result of medical mistrust. Broadly speaking, an anti-mask stance is associated with conservatism (per this survey, anti-maskers were more likely to vote for Trump, shockingly enough). It is true that that the right has a history of condemning condoms, but so have more progressive types abandoned them. Just for the absurdism of the imagery alone, I love the idea of the Catholic Church and Paul Morris of Treasure Island Media notoriety rubbing elbows in that Venn diagram. However, they’d find themselves there for diametrically opposed reasons, as the right forbade condoms for the promiscuous sex they facilitated, while the brazen barebackers renounce them for the supposed pleasure they obstruct. I think the issue is much knottier than as you present, but it is a fun parallel to play with and think about.

Anyway, you use condoms and that’s great for you. The guys who don’t aren’t for you. Too many choices can be paralyzing, and what are hook-up apps but buffets of options? You can easily filter out the guys whose interests and practices don’t align with yours. And that, in the words of Martha Stewart (another at least part-time barebacker or so the existence of her daughter tells us), is a good thing.

Dear How to Do It,

The specific upward curvature of my boyfriend’s dick hits a spot in the top register of my throat that triggers my gag reflex in a way I’ve never experienced with any dick before it. I’m no Olympic deep throater, but when I’m giving him head, I can only get a few inches down his shaft before my body starts rebelling. I mentioned this problem to him recently, and if he has any great issue with me being unable to get even halfway down his dick, it wasn’t apparent. (I believe him, for what it’s worth.) The problem is that I really enjoy sucking cock. The combined geometry of our bodies just makes it much less enjoyable than with any other guy I’ve been with previously. Any suggestions on positions, techniques, etc. that we can try so that I can alleviate this issue and get back to doing something I love?

— Gagging

Dear Gagging,

Try attacking from above as opposed to below. Have him lay on the bed, face up. Lay next to him, facing the same way, and approach from that angle (you’ll be scooched down, so that your head is in his crotch, obviously). Since your heads will both be in the same direction, this eliminates the possibility of eye contact during oral, but since his dick will now be entering upside down, you may fare better. I find this position (which is really how you’d be taking him in during a 69) generally easier for depth.

But also, if he isn’t having an issue, you can probably keep what you’re doing. If you’re making him come with your halfway-down blowjobs, you’re doing a fine job. It is an awesome thing to meet a dick that wants to be sucked in exactly the way you want to suck, but this is actually more the exception than the rule, in my experience. It’s important to modify your technique so that you’re sucking the dick how the dick wants to be sucked. It’s an exchange, and yet some people seem inclined to make it one sided. I can always tell when someone is sucking my dick for his pleasure and not mine. I can tell because those kind of blowjobs tend to hurt. Please Hammer, don’t hurt ‘em.

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Dear How to Do It,

I am a 27-year-old gay man. Long story short, I have a history of familial abuse, survival sex work, drug addiction, and unstable housing—the past five years in particular have been rough. I broke up with my last boyfriend three months before COVID, and all the isolated time in lockdown forced me into a reckoning with the sexual trauma I’ve been avoiding since I quit sex work.

I did a lot of emotional work, shedding enough tears to put Florida off the map. I resolved that in order for me to heal past my trauma, I would need to have the sexual experiences that I want. I wanted deep and meaningful sex with a hypothetical partner where we connect on a holistic level—physical, visual, sexual, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual. For a while, I was scared that I had raised my standards far beyond any hope of finding a partner who could satisfy them.

Until I met (we’ll call him) Trent. Until recently, Trent was a lesbian woman married for several years. Now divorced, transitioning, and attracted to men, Trent is seeking a more fulfilling sex life in his new identity, similar to how I am. We’ve been on two dates thus far where we’ve talked deeply and honestly about our sexual pasts. I’ve never been so attracted to anyone else in my life. I want to have sex with Trent because I feel a genuine connection with him, the kind that I want to have with my partners according to my new standards. But I am confronted with the knee-jerk reaction to run away from placing myself in such an emotionally vulnerable position with him, especially because I have learned to dispassionately distance myself from a partner during sex as a matter of survival. I’ve never had sex with a trans man either, for what it’s worth. I can feel that he’s interested in having sex with me too, but we both acknowledged something like this can’t be rushed.

I’d like some help on how to move forward. The situation’s novelty has me floored with confusion and fear. I’m OK with the possibility that it may never happen between us; our friendship is already way more important. But my question is how do I not screw this opportunity up when the rule book has gone out the window?

— Nervous About Next Steps

Dear Nervous,

Try to relax. You have resolved to take things slow with Trent, so do that. You’ve been on two dates. Trent could be exactly what you need, or you could be overexcited. It’s very easy to get swept up so early. New relationship energy is a hell of a drug. But when it expires, you don’t want your engine to cut off in midair. Until you can exercise some impulse control, you’re putting yourself at risk for chaos similar to that which became your norm five years ago.

Your state of confusion may be the result of a wrestling match between two internal forces that you mention: the need to plunge yourself into something with Trent and the need to run away from it. Moderation is key to maintenance. Throwing yourself into something that turns out to be not what you thought it was will bring nothing but drama. Running away from what you suspect is exactly what you’ve been looking for will bring you nothing but regret. Try to envision your future when you make these decisions. Try to think about what you’ll think of yourself in six months, a year, five years. Humble yourself to the situation. Keep seeing Trent, keep up the open communication, and see where this takes you. Unless you encounter a major roadblock or red flag, stick things out. The slower you go, the more accurate your turns will be.

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Dear How to Do It,

I am a female, 20-something-year-old and have never kissed, held hands with a guy, let alone gotten past first base. I am enjoying my adventurous singledom, but I am also as you say it “hot and bothered.” I want to get it on, but I am afraid to lose my V-card with any old random guy.
All of the guys that I have been emotionally attracted to have been busts in the past. I am not looking for anything serious, but I would like to have a good time with someone who can put some effort into making sure I am enjoying it. Whats the best way to find a guy like that?

— On the Hunt

Dear On the Hunt,

I’m so glad to get a virginity question because I’ve been dying to print what comedian Jacqueline Novak has to say on the matter in her acclaimed one-woman show about sexuality (blowjobs, mostly), Get On Your Knees. “I never valued my virginity. I got it just for showing up on earth, right?,” she said during the July performance that I caught. She compared her virginity to a voucher in a gift bag in a hotel room, remarking to her hypothetical travel companion, “People make a big deal about this. I mean, I don’t really give a shit but for a goof we should really use this before we leave the resort.”

Instead of saving herself, which she found ridiculous in concept (“What part of myself would I be saving?”), she said she was more concerned in saving for and presenting to her true love “a collection of sexual skills and an attitude of confidence with which I could express my feelings.” Accruing those, of course, required lesser experiences.

Is this useful? I don’t know, but I love Novak’s irreverence and her virtuosic metaphors (when she revealed mid-show that she studied poetry in college, I was hardly surprised). I think her overarching point, though, is salient. Virginity is a construct that has traditionally been used to ascribe arbitrary value in people, particularly those perceived as female. It seems to me that enlightenment means disabusing oneself of the notion that such a thing matters—at least to the degree that “society” says it does.

The other side of the same coin is ridding yourself of your virginity in a concentrated effort. Though the effect is diametrically opposed to the chaste virgin who saves herself for marriage, to take great pains to rid oneself of it is to place similar stock in its importance. You’re twentysomething. You’ve waited this long. You can wait a bit longer. Don’t rush it. Put yourself out there. Go to parties, cruise apps, have your friend bring along to dinner that single guy who might be a prospect. Find someone that you can have a conversation with, who will listen to you, who won’t judge you for being a virgin, and will consider your inexperience. In the absence of a spontaneous need to get in a dude’s pants, use your time to screen and select. Being deliberate will serve you well here.

— Rich

I’m a guy who is single after nearly a decade in a mostly monogamous relationship. I’ve been dating and hooking up a fair bit, “making up for lost time,” etc. Recently, one man who I had dated/slept with a few times reappeared and began pursuing me again. I responded positively at first but found myself not replying to his texts, and eventually he took the hint, but then asked me: “Just curious, why aren’t you interested? I thought we really hit it off.” The truth is, we did. But I have not replied, because I’m embarrassed to have realized the reason is that his dick is smaller than I’m used to. I’ve never thought this would matter that much to me, and I’ve seen so many advice forums reassure smaller guys that anyone who would reject someone for his penis size “is an asshole anyway.” Am I one?