Reckless Young Gay Barebackers

Forgive me, please, but I am pissed off to the point of despair.

Doug Pollard, the original ‘Rainbow Reporter’ and for a gay news addict, the voice of God, posted this Guardian article on Facebook.

Simon Papson, an amateur thespian and semi-pro writer of aggrieved letters to the editor, had the following little moment of “I told you so” for yours truly…

No argument from me. I tried to make this very same point right here last year, and was shouted down by a friend of yours as being wrong. “Young gay men only want monogamy and safe sex,” he said. Hmph.

And when I called him on putting words in my mouth…

You didn’t use THOSE EXACT WORDS, but you strongly argued with me when I said the opposite. Even pointed to studies which confirmed that young men were looking only for monogamy and safe sex, to make your point. Any time I mentioned a significant sub-culture of casual unsafe sex among young gay men, you disputed its existence.

The irony here is that I got my head kicked in MCV for weeks by VAC after I raised concerns about HIV infection rates among young men – in particular the fact VAC waited until infection rates began to rise before investing in a prevention campaign that targeted younger gay men specifically.

The problem with what Papson said, in both cases, is the word ‘only’.

As I wrote here, young men have different, age-specific concerns about HIV and sex, relevant to the challenges they’re facing at that point in their lives.  Such as finding partners, forming relationships, dealing with monogamy and infidelity, and figuring out how to have safe, unprotected sex in relationships.

“Not invariably, but generally” <– what I said.

And yes, I cited more than one paper to support that argument.  It’s quite bizarre that people like Papson want to dismiss as unreliable all the research I cite and rely entirely on articles in non-scientific outlets like the Guardian.

Sorry, what the fuck?  How is that more reliable?

Let’s look at that Guardian article.  The headline does all the damage:  “Young gay men fuelling HIV epidemic, study warns”.  Unfortunately, that headline is a close derivative of the headline on the press release issued by the journal that’s publishing the study. The study article itself is not an easy read, so I’m going to try and summarise it in plain English here.

The study analysed the similarity of genetic code taken from HIV in blood samples from 519 HIV-positive patients at a clinic in Belgium over seven years.  This technique is called phylogenetic analysis.  Phylo- means ‘tree’ in Greek, and scientists are basically computing a viral ‘family tree’ showing whose infections are related.

In this study, they found quite a large number of ‘clusters’, where people had viruses similar enough to say they were related. The study found that men in those clusters were younger than men outside of clusters.

Not “young”.  Younger. The median age of those “younger” gay men was 36 years old, compared to 38 years in the non-cluster group.  (PDF p25).

Now, let me get back to Papson.  Papson offers a version of the RYGB meme.  That stands for Reckless Young Gay Barebackers.

When HIV infection rates first started rising, a number of commentators, from Steve Dow to Adam Carr, leapt to the intuitive but wrong conclusion that the rises were being driven by barebacking among young men who never lived through the AIDS crisis and therefore suffered from complacency.

It took a long time for the AIDS Council to get the message across that infections were happening among men in their thirties and forties, and they got their heads kicked repeatedly in the gay press all the while.

As a result, they developed a defensive, kneejerk response to any mention of young gay men and HIV risk, even from their own staff members.

The RYGB meme actually made it harder to raise awareness of the issues facing young gay men.

Papson’s no doubt patting himself on the back for fighting the good fight against a “sub-culture of casual unsafe sex” amongst young gay men;  meanwhile I’m banging my head against a desk…

Author: Daniel Reeders

I study the cultural dimensions of the social governance of health.

11 thoughts on “Reckless Young Gay Barebackers”

  1. Bit of an oversimplification of what I said at the time, Dan; I didn’t “leap” to any conclusion, I reported on the area after looking into it extensively. The young were only part of it, as was the drug culture, as was safe sex fatigue among older gay men. Moreover, I called for a refresh of campaigns. Sounds like you’re facing some of the same issues I encountered 10 years ago. See page 100 of my ancient title Gay from 2001:

  2. Thanks for the comment, Steve. Given how long good social research takes, even methodical journalism looks like a “leap”. But to be fair, I think you and Adam did different (but equally unhelpful) things: Adam blamed young gay men, while you introduced the language of barebacking, bugchasing and gift-giving, in Australia, to (a) funders (b) critics and commentators and (c) a whole generation of gay men. In 2003, I was 22 years old, and I’d never even heard of barebacking until I read about it in your article, “Denial becomes the new language of casual sex” (SMH, 3703).

    In 2003, it was easy to point to bareback culture as the cause of the rises, because it was visible and sensational, and it confirmed all sorts of prejudices against gay men as being “naughty by nature” – recklessly perverse. What social research eventually showed was the relationship between rising infection rates in Victoria and the chronic underfunding you mentioned in the introduction to your article. (See the Bernard, Kippax and Baxter article here: But, true to form, the funding tap wasn’t turned on again until the Michael Neal case splashed across the news. So I’m not anti-journalism, believe me – it can do a whole world of good where patient argument over many years doesn’t work. I’m just tired of fighting against the simple story, the single-cause explanation and the magic bullet solutions.

    1. You’re still misquoting me, Dan. I could point to many articles I wrote for The Age and SMH in early 2000s which canvassed the complexity.
      Quite a leap to say I introduced the word bareback. Quiet silly, you must know that. But I did argue back then the campaigns should start addressing that sort of terminology. Should the campaigns have ignored the word?
      I certainly didn’t ever attribute these problems wholly to the young, your essay implied I did.
      As for the bug chasing thing, I wrote in the article to which you refer: “In January, the US edition of Rolling Stone ran a story justifiably condemned for exaggerating the incidence of bug chasing.”
      It also tackled the human condition: “Certainly, just being human – slipping up, poor choices, being depressed, consumption of drugs and alcohol – plays a big role in HIV seroconversions.”
      And come on you can have a debate about sex practices in the gay community without that tired old rant that it makes guys who engage male-to-male sex look bad. I did acknowledge: “It is true that Australia has had success in containing the virus. Most gay men do use condoms most of the time.”
      But, hey, if you want to keep representing me as reducing the story to a single-case explanation, go ahead. Thank for the chat!

      1. I’ve read the articles. You can build all kinds of subtlety into the construction of an article, but it won’t be read with anywhere near the same kind of care. News, by name and nature, focuses on what’s new and sensational, not the careful disclaimers about what we already know. Lastly, a Lexis-Nexis search confirms you were the first journalist to use the term “barebacking” or “bugchasing” in a mainstream newspaper in Victoria.

      2. Re your Sep 24 comment – I can’t leave a reply under it for some reason.
        Are you referring to the same SMH article, published in NSW?
        Reporting on something is not the same thing as introducing a term.
        It’s pretty clear I shot down the ‘bug chasing’ term in an Australian context.
        As for barebacking, I was reporting on a term used quite widely on the internet at the time. There was even a ‘bareback’ chat room on, from memory,, widely used in Australia at the time – didn’t seem at the time to be a sophisticated system that involved people checking out one a potential partner’s status, but who knows.
        Reporting on something is not the same thing as inventing or introducing a term.
        Again, are you saying I should have ignored the term?
        Again, your article, which remains on the net, misrepresents me as blaming it all on young men.

      3. Yep, sorry, I think the template has a limit on the number of threads it can accommodate in comments. I’m referring to articles of yours published in The Age, which contained the first mention of barebacking in a mainstream newspaper in Victoria. (But you knew that. It wouldn’t have been a scoop otherwise.) I’m amused by the implication that ‘it was on the Internet so every gay man already knew about it’, as though the Internet is a magical diffusion machine. Reading about barebacking in a newspaper – regardless of the spin put on it by the author – is a whole different order of legitimation.

  3. Way to win an argument, Daniel. Take it outside where your opponent can’t see you, and can’t fight back.

    Let’s start with the ethics of you publishing my full name in your blog – where you don’t even publish your own full name. If you MUST argue with someone who isn’t even there, at least have the decency to use a pseudonym, or describe them as “someone” – or, at the very least, use just their first name only. You’ve gone to the trouble of not only identifying me by publishing my full name, but made sure any casual readers know all about my hobbies (did you Google me to find that out?).

    And, I repeat – you’ve done this on your own blog WHERE YOUR OWN FULL NAME IS NOT REVEALED. Unethical, to say the least. Don’t you think so, Mr Daniel Reeders?

    I stumbled across this attack only by accident, when something prompted me today to check what comes up when people Google my name. And, they’ll see this straw-man argument of yours, besmirching my name behind my back.

    Secondly, I never relied on that Guardian article this month. I merely commented when Doug posted it. Your own quotation of my comment shows that I referred to a previous debate we’d had last year – which occurred BEFORE this article was published. Rely on it? Not unless I had a time machine!

    As for the content of that argument…

    You’ve said here that “young men have different, age-specific concerns about HIV and sex … Such as finding partners, forming relationships, dealing with monogamy and infidelity, and figuring out how to have safe, unprotected sex in relationships.”

    You do NOT mention that young men might have unprotected sex outside of relationships. And, herein lay our debate. I mentioned that I know of a significant minority of young men who ARE having unprotected sex outside of relationships. You categorically denied even the possibility of such a group of young men. I cited PERSONAL EXPERIENCE – you said that my personal experience could not compare with studies. Which is an interesting point of view, considering that my personal experience covers a large enough group of men to form a study in and of itself (more than in this Belgian study, for example), and stretches well over two decades.

    I will accept that I exaggerated your views when I said that you stated that young men ONLY want monogamous relationships. However, this is only a slight exaggeration, considering that most of our argument consisted of you telling me that my personal experience contradicts studies which show that young men are generally not having unsafe sex with casual partners. You refused to even acknowledge that there might be merit in directing ANY advertising to this group of men, and insisted that ALL advertising directed at young men should be directed only to relationship-oriented young men – effectively denying the existence of those young men who are having unprotected sex with casual partners. And, they are. They most certainly are.

    As regards statistics which show that sero-conversion is generally happening in men in their 30s and 40s… have you ever considered that fewer young men might get tested, and those less frequently? If this was the case, they might be sero-converting in greater numbers than their older peers but, we wouldn’t know. The statistics can only show the results of tests. Men who don’t get tested won’t show up.

    Finally… you are welcome to debate me at any time, Mr Daniel Reeders, in any forum, private or public.

    However, it is unethical of you to use my name in full public view on the internet without giving me the option to defend myself. And, it is flat-out unfair to use my full name when you don’t use your own, Mr Daniel Reeders. Finally, to refer to me as “Papson” is just rude… Reeders.

  4. Just a clarification for readers: this post isn’t a reply to Papson. It’s about young gay men, barebacking, research and journalism, all topics I care about.

  5. Nothing to say about the ethics of posting someone else’s name on the net while you attempt to remain anonymous, Reeders?

    Nothing to say about misrepresenting someone else’s position? This seems to be a common trait of yours, considering Steve Dow’s posts.

    Nothing to say about taking an overly simplistic view and disregarding anything which doesn’t coincide with your pre-conceived ideas?

    Reeders, I hope your readers see you for the shallow, misguided soul that you are.

  6. And… if this blog isn’t a reply to me – why are my full name and personal hobbies included on your blog? This is unnecessary and unethical, Reeders.

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