Pros and Condoms: S.F. Emphasizes HIV Treatment, but a New Generation Advocates Bareback Sex

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Illustration by Edel Rodriguez.

Everything had to come off when Claude Wynne arrived at the Frisky SF party in the loft above the Mr. S Leather sex shop. This was a naked dance party — sex was a given.

Sex parties appeal to Wynne. Here, it doesn't matter that he's 55, on the pudgy side, or in an open relationship with his husband. The men here aren't really looking for a love connection.

Claude Wynne has no problem with people going to sex clubs. He just wants them to wear condoms.
J.P. Dobrin
Claude Wynne has no problem with people going to sex clubs. He just wants them to wear condoms.
Gehno Sanchez doesn’t think 
monitoring for condom use will fly at his Cockpit parties.
J.P. Dobrin
Gehno Sanchez doesn’t think monitoring for condom use will fly at his Cockpit parties.

Wynne paid $25 at the door and checked in his clothes. Signs and a presentation by the San Francisco Stop AIDS Project reminded participants to have safe sex. Founded in 1984, the Stop AIDS Project was a response to the toll that the human immunodeficiency virus and its often fatal counterpart, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, had taken on San Francisco.

Wynne recalls his shock at seeing how many partygoers were forgoing the free condoms from Stop AIDS. He spotted the DJ barebacking — a term coined by the gay community as a sexy alternative to "unprotected sex." Now they see it as a word outsiders use to stigmatize them.

But barebacking and unprotected sex are not the same, according to experts who see barebacking as a separate "phenomenon" of the late 1990s. More men began consciously rejecting condoms, while simultaneously, medical breakthroughs were allowing people with HIV to live longer without getting AIDS. But left unchecked, AIDS weakens the immune system, inviting other deadly diseases that may not develop for years later. Moreover, treatments may have side effects, and they don't work for everyone. "It may not be a death sentence, but it's still a life sentence," Wynne says.

Hence, one definition of barebacking: intentional, unprotected anal sex, while accepting or seeking the risks.

In recent years, the risky business of barebacking has found a home in sex clubs that rent out their spaces to private parties for the night. Often, these third-party organizers, including bareback porn companies, screen attendees through RSVPs and membership fees.

The club-goers like this selectivity. They have a good idea of whom they will be able to hook up with, especially if the party was organized by a dating site they belong to.

The parties share some features: consistently bad techno music; furniture such as beds, couches, and slings; low lighting; so-called glory holes; and wall-to-wall sex. Whereas the San Francisco Department of Public Health asks that sex club operators monitor for safe sex at their events, anything goes at the private parties.

Until that night in May 2010, Wynne had not seen so much unprotected sex in a venue since the 1980s, when the city's bathhouses were considered a breeding zone for HIV. Wynne had campaigned for the bathhouses to require patrons to wear condoms, so when he caught wind of an upcoming party specifically for bareback enthusiasts, he began writing impassioned e-mails to the Health Department. He wanted to know: Were officials aware that bareback porn companies were inviting people at the Folsom Street Fair — San Francisco's annual leather and BDSM extravaganza — to attend their parties afterward? If so, why wasn't anything being done about events that condone, even sanction, unprotected sex? To Wynne, public sex was a privilege, not a right, and its safety should be regulated by the city as such. He wasn't asking to end the parties. Just for safe sex.

Wynne wondered how Folsom's beneficiaries, HIV/AIDS organizations, could feel comfortable sharing the event with bareback porn companies selling products and promoting barebacking parties?

Finally, this September, he received a promising if vague reply from Dr. Grant Colfax, the director of SFDPH's HIV Prevention Section. "The balance between the duty to inform and protect and the rights of informed individuals to take risks is particularly dynamic. You raise a number of specific issues we are in the process of clarifying and will share with you soon," Colfax wrote.

Historically, SFDPH has hesitated to take a firm stance against unprotected sex as it relates to the spread of HIV/AIDS, despite its being a main driver of the disease. At the same time, the department is overhauling its approach to HIV/AIDS, hoping to cut new HIV infection rates by half within five years.

If the city government were to get tough on public barebacking — abetted as it is by bareback porn, the Internet, and passive HIV/AIDS organizations — it would not be the first time the city played Father Knows Best. Here in San Francisco, toys with McDonald's Happy Meals, sweetened beverages on city property, and cigarettes at pharmacies have all been banned in the name of health. But sex is sticky, and regulating how people have it, even more so.


At the Folsom Street Fair during the last Sunday of September, debauchery is celebrated and on full display. Despite the gloomy weather, thousands have turned up wearing nothing but leather harnesses across their chests or lower extremities.

Mario Mastrosimone and Scott Morris have set up shop at adjoining tables in a prime spot near the entrance. Mastrosimone founded BarebackRT.com (RT for Real Time Sex), a website for men to facilitate hookups with each other. He is lanky and reserved compared to Morris, the president of San Francisco porn studio Factory Video Productions, whose imposing build and crew cut are offset by a gregarious personality. Young men with barely a hint of peach fuzz, called "twinks" in the porn industry, run up and embrace Morris. "I just did a video," one gushes. Later in the evening, BarebackRT and Factory Video subsidiary CumHunt.com will host CumUnion, the party that riled Wynne up enough to contact the Health Department.

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