[Attention: This goes for most things that I post on my site, but is especially important here. There is so much adult content in this article, I don’t even know where to begin. If you aren’t 18, don’t even think about it. If you are offended by open discussions of sexuality and very progressive worldviews on things like fantasy and pornography, then this might not be the place for you. Go buy a Snapple and a Reader’s Digest. Those who continue on, have been warned.]
Do we have the right to be self-destructive?
Granted, we all have little self-destructive behaviors we take part in: we smoke, we drink, we eat too much sugar. Emotionally we can be even worse: we choose the wrong people to love, we refuse to let go when we should or we let go too soon. All of these little cuts can quickly add up to a bigger wound, but we hardly notice what we’re doing until it’s too late. That’s not what I’m talking about here.
I’m wondering if we have the right to be consciously, actively self-destructive.
Before we get to the cultural gem that inspired this post, let’s look at something a little more everyday: seatbelts. Seatbelts save lives. We know this. I’m sure there are still some people out there who believe the urban legend that it’s much safer to be thrown from a vehicle than to be belted inside, because I swear it happened to Bobbie Jo’s cousin’s neighbor’s sorority sister, and she wouldn’t be alive today if she’d been wearing that darn belt! But despite those people who choose to be willfully ignorant, I think it’s safe for us to assume that it is common knowledge that wearing a seatbelt greatly increases your chance to surviving an accident.
So, armed with that knowledge, shouldn’t we have the choice? Granted, we do, in a way. When you get in a car, you have the choice whether or not to put on that belt. But if you don’t, there are consequences beyond those to your personal safety. If you get pulled over, you can get a fine.
I understand the fines for speeding. You are driving in a way that is potentially dangerous to others around you, and if you are caught you deserve to have to pay that fine. I’ve been caught on more than one occasion, and I “take my lumps.” I never mutter about the cop under my breath or try to argue with the officer. I was aware of the limit and chose not to obey, possibly endangering someone else. If you are speeding, you should be getting fined because you are a danger to the public. But if you aren’t wearing a seatbelt, you aren’t endangering the public; you’re endangering yourself. I’ve never heard of a situation where someone else was killed because a person wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, and if it has happened I’m sure the probability is so extremely rare that it doesn’t need to be regulated. So why do we have fines for not wearing seatbelts? Given that people can be assumed to be generally aware of the safety benefits of seatbelts and given the virtual absence of any risk to anyone other than the person not wearing the belt, shouldn’t we all have the ability, once we’ve reached the age of adulthood, to choose whether or not we want to benefit from that safety feature?
Again, do we have the right to be self-destructive?
So here’s where things get racy.
I was surfing around the interwebs a while back, doing research for my long-suffering proposed podcast show Janessa After Dark (which I swear is coming to the site in 2015, come hell or high water!), and I found an article about a porn film released earlier in 2014 by Treasure Island Media, a company known for their bareback porn. If you don’t know what bareback porn is (Hi mom), it’s a type of gay porn that features sex without condoms. Bareback is a separate sub-genre from “pre-condom,” older gay porn films that were filmed before or in the earlier moments of the AIDS epidemic, before condom use became the ironclad standard. Pre-condom movies have a sort of “innocence is bliss” nostalgia to them, harkening back to earlier days of casual sex before HIV was a worry. Bareback films are different: they are a product of our current cultural moment, when virtually everyone knows what AIDS is, how HIV is transmitted, and the risks of unsafe sex. Discussion of bareback films on any forum always leads to fiery debate (and more than a little mean-spirited trolling) about whether or not it is socially responsible to show adults engaging in unsafe sex practices. I don’t get involved in those debates, because amid all the screaming and ranting I don’t feel than anything ever really gets accomplished. If I were to throw my two cents into the ring, I would say that porn’s job isn’t to be socially responsible in the first place. It’s a fantasy. Our fantasies are where we get to work out all of our dirty little secrets, process our complicated and often conflicting desires. Laura Kipnis has an amazing book, Bound & Gagged, that is all about the politics of fantasy and it should be required reading for anyone who A. ever plans to have sex and B. ever plans to talk about sex, especially on an online forum. Fantasies are not socially responsible, and they are not always reflective of real life. Many women and men have rape fantasies; this in no way means that they actually want to be raped. Some choose to roleplay rape scenarios with consenting partners, and some never move outside of the imagination. Regardless of whether or not they decide to take the fantasy into the “real world” in some way, the fantasy is separate from lived reality.
Many people access pornography as part of their fantasy life. They use it to inspire new practices in the bedroom or to give themselves mental material for masturbation. How people use pornography is, I believe, much more nuanced and complicated than we give it credit for. And sometimes it isn’t; sometimes people just want something hot to watch when they’re touching themselves down there. Regardless of why or how they are using it, it is speaking to their fantasies. Any decisions about moving those fantasies into the real world are made by the individuals themselves, and as with any behavior (sexual or otherwise) it is the individual who is responsible for knowing the risks of that behavior, deciding their own boundaries, and choosing how to incorporate the behavior into their own lives. If people are just mimicking any behavior they see in a porn movie (or in any movie for that matter) without thinking about the risks or consequences, then it’s tough love time and we need to assume that person doesn’t have the capacity to make informed, adult decisions and probably should stop swimming in our gene pool before they cause any significant damage by breeding. Sound harsh? Read Darwin – it’s a harsh world. Sorry ’bout it.
Anyway, enough queer theorizing; back to the smut. So I’m not particularly for or against bareback porn, because there is enough accessible information out there about HIV transmission for people to decide whether or not that particular activity fits within their sexual boundaries, and for porn actors to decide whether or not they want to partake in that activity as part of their professional lives. Bareback porn clearly plays with the dangers of unsafe sex, but I think people are overreaching when they say that it fetishizes HIV transmission. Or at least I did, before I found “Viral Loads.”
“Viral Loads” is the film by Treasure Island Media that I was reading about, and that inspired this post. It features actor Blue Bailey in a 20-person gangbang scene; not all that uncommon in today’s world of indie studios producing some pretty extreme porn. The press release describes the scene this way:
The willing, hungry lad gets gang-fucked by a roomful of studs. Most are poz, some are neg. Who the fuck cares? Not Blue, that’s for fuckin’ sure.
Clearly, claims of the fetishization of HIV transmission are not completely unwarranted. But Treasure Island isn’t done. In the middle of the scene, a couple of gents produce a jar eloquently labeled “POZ CUM” and inject the murky liquid into Bailey using a glorified turkey baster. Very classy. According to the film’s press release, the jar contains 200+ loads, all from HIV positive men. The murky question about whether or not bareback porn fetishizes HIV transmission is, for this video, made crystal clear. There is no question that the purpose of this video is to create a fantasy of a man who wants to be infected with HIV. As you can imagine, the discussion of the film is divisive, almost never intelligently argued (from either side), and for the most part misses the point…misses several important points, actually. So let’s break it down.
1. Is it socially responsible to fetishize HIV transmission? Again, fantasy is not about social responsibility; in fact, I think the reason so many people have some of the dark fantasies they have is because of how much we fence in our sexual desires, always telling people that what they want is dirty, perverse, aberrant, terrible, shameful. There is an audience who, for whatever reason, wants to see a fantasy of HIV transmission, and Treasure Island Media is providing it. The people who want to see this may be positive or negative, or may not even know their status, and the fantasy may have very little to do with their actual status anyway. It’s a fantasy. According to Paul Morris, the founder of Treasure Island Media, the fantasy may in fact be about processing the fear and panic that has surrounded AIDS since the early days and that many gay men are paralyzed by – at least, that seems to be what he’s saying in THIS INTERVIEW for Vice.com.
2. What about the performers? Isn’t their safety important? That’s an interesting question. The only argument against this film that I find at all worth considering is actually a pretty boring one: since I believe that porn is a legitimate career for those who choose it, shouldn’t it fall under all of the same workplace safety regulations that any other business must adhere to? But putting OSHA aside for a moment, the performers in this video are all aware of what they are doing. I’m sure Blue Bailey didn’t show up to work in the morning expecting to film a softcore makeout video and just had a 20-person gangbang with semen injection sprung on him. Be serious. The actors in these videos know what scenes and activities they will be participating in; they also know exactly what the appeal of bareback porn is to their intended audience, and that appeal is at least partially tied up in the associated risks.
And then there is Blue Bailey, the star of the show. The press release for the film will tell you all about Blue: what’s done to him and by whom, and even where. What it won’t tell you is that Bailey is already HIV-positive. So now there is a new dynamic in play: an actor is creating a fantasy of an activity that poses a great risk for HIV-transmission, but the risk for him in the actual scene is zero. Sure, there will be some who will trot out that old specter of HIV “superinfection” (and indeed, Tracy Clark-Flory felt so inclined in her article for Salon.com, linked HERE) but superinfection (being infected with more than one strain of the HIV virus simultaneously) is actually already pretty common among HIV-positive people and the scientific community isn’t united on how it affects progression towards AIDS and the various treatment options available. There was an article in the New England Journal of Medicine (linked through this Wikipedia page on Superinfection) that found that some individuals with superinfection actually have a slower progression towards AIDS.
3. This isn’t a new story. It’s just a new iteration. I was never a huge Queer As Folk fan; I thought it was generally pretty poorly written, and with the exception of Debbie (Hal Sparks’ character’s irrepressible and fiercely loving mother) I thought most of the characters were not very well developed or interesting. Especially the lesbians, who seemed to exist to confirm every negative stereotype gay men have about lesbians. But in the last season, there was a short arc about Robert Gant, who played Hal Sparks’ HIV-positive boyfriend, being approached by a young man who wanted Gant to infect him with HIV on purpose. He was a “bug chaser;” the men who help to fulfill this desire are called “gift givers.” This bug chaser trope has been around, in real life as well as the arts, for a long time. It’s one of many possible reactions to the fear that HIV brought to an entire community of men. Rather than being paralyzed by fear, wondering if the next test would come back positive, or the next, or the next, some men chose to be infected purposely; dealing with the infection and any potential illness was less terrifying than dealing with uncertainty. A jar filled with what looks like spoiled mayonnaise being injected up some pornstar’s ass may be something new, but the narrative itself is not.
And this is where we come back to my original question: do we have the right to be self-destructive?
If someone chooses to take part in an activity that they know will have adverse affects on their health and may even shorten their life, do they have the right to make that choice? Should people who manufacture fantasies have to limit their range of expression for those who may not approve? If this isn’t your particular fantasy, you are not required to consume it; should your limits and boundaries be the standard by which we measure the limits of everyone’s sexual expression? If not yours, then whose? Beyond some common sense guidelines (age of consent, and consenting to take part in activities that are clearly defined and discussed beforehand) do we as a culture have the right to limit those activities, sexual or otherwise, that are potentially dangerous to the self but not to others?
I know that this isn’t an easy question. I certainly don’t have the answer; I’m just a drag queen who likes queer theory and spends too much time on the internet looking up weird shit. But it’s an important question. So much of the rhetoric about ‘Merica is about self-determination – but what if your self-determination leads you to things that could harm your life, or even end it? How can we think about fantasy in new ways to include uses that allow us to face some of the things that scare us most? And how do we as a culture react if one person uses that fantasy for catharsis while another uses it as a blueprint for self-destruction?
I’m not turned on by Treasure Island Media’s particular fantasy in “Viral Loads” – as Paul Morris notes in the Vice Interview linked above, I’m just not the intended audience. But the longer I think about it, the more I think it’s important that it exists. However you feel about this particular statement, it’s one that should be made. And at least it’s interesting; so much porn is just the same formulaic grinding of tanorexic muscled Adonises with big dicks and blank stares. This movie has something to say; like one of John Waters’ old Dreamland Pictures films it puts something filthy on a pedestal and asks the viewer to look at it, hoping that in doing so, the viewer will become more aware of their own boundaries and limits. And how we react to those things (and sometimes people) that exist outside of our own boundaries speaks to who we are as people, what we value, and our ability to be compassionate and inquisitive and understanding.
That kind of introspection in the face of things that shock and challenge us is very rare. It can be dangerous. And as far as fantasies go, it’s sexy as hell.
Tags: AIDS, Bareback, Big Chaser, Blue Bailey, Bound and Gagged, Fantasy, Gift Giver, Hal Sparks, HIV, HIV Positive, HIV Transmission, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, Laura Kipnis, Miss Jaye, Paul Morris, Poz, Queer As Folk, Robert Gant, Safer Sex, Treasure Island Media, Viral Loads, World of Champagne