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Blaming the Rise of HIV on 'Gay Sex Parties' Is Dangerous and Irresponsible

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Sometimes it's wonderful to wake up gay and some days, well, not so much. My perfectly Instagrammed breakfast of eggs benedict was seriously spoiled on reading the Guardian and the Independent's latest overwrought articles about 'gay sex parties' being linked to a rise in HIV diagnoses.

This story is trotted out in some form or another every few months or so, usually illustrated with a microscopic selfie of HIV itself or a blurry picture of a heaving Vauxhall club. For the uninitiated, here's how these pieces usually roll: a 'study' is done on HIV rates, a journalist will trawl the sexual health clinics or ask charities for statements until something is said that will make a good headline. Usually a finger points firmly at a supposed increase in gay sex parties, a Roman orgy remixed for the Vauxhall generation.

The piece is printed, society safely compartmentalises HIV as a nasty disease restricted to gay men getting off their heads in sex dungeons, and gay and HIV charities call for more investment so they can research this 'phenomenon'. And everybody's happy. Except, I would hope, a lot of gay men, who must surely be scratching their heads and wondering why there's such a prurient interest in their sex lives - and, worst of all, why they haven't been invited to these hedonistic shagfests.

This makes a good story in the press because it puts gay men right where they want them: sweating, wide-eyed in dark, cavernous clubs, their hands all over each other's bodies - super-toned, because we all live in the gym, remember. It's easier to be frightened and place the blame on a part of society when you imagine their activities to be on the fringes of the law and decency. We can have children and equal marriage is now law and on its way, but it's like we're almost too normalised for the press. They look for another way to make that all-important distinction and surprise, surprise it all comes down to where we put our peckers.

Even gay writers themselves peddle this nihilistic fairytale, wondering what can be done about the devastating effect of drugs on the gay community. While there are valid concerns about the long-term implications of drug use, from mental health issues to emotional and financial instability, they're not exclusive to gay men. Ecstasy is just as happy sliding down a heterosexual throat as a gay one. Coke and meth are also equal opportunities drugs; any hooter will do.

The Independent quotes the manager of the CODE sexual health clinic as saying 99 per cent of his clients only used the drugs for sex and that "emotionally vulnerable men - often HIV positive - found that they could only enjoy sex while on drugs". Strong stuff indeed, but CODE is a clinic which specialises in treating and advising gay men or MSM (men who have sex with men) who are into the "harder sex scene" and "may use drugs during sex". It's by no means representative of the gay scene as a whole.

While the hysterical term 'gay sex parties' makes for a good headline, it irresponsibly diverts attention from what's really going on. HIV isn't on the increase just because a handful of gay men are going at it like knives in some mythical, debauched group session in some dark corner of Vauxhall.

For a start, there is a general increase in testing - a trip to the sexual health clinic doesn't hold as much fear for many gay men as it did 10 or 20 years ago. Also, work on prevention could be improved dramatically. Budgets are being slashed in local health authorities and the HIV/AIDS campaigns are nowhere near as prominent as they were in the 1980s; a whole generation exists who can't remember the general fear that accompanied pretty much any sexual liaison during that ultra-serious decade. Maybe progress in treatment has been HIV's worst enemy - the disease can now be 'managed' and many people with HIV go on to live pretty normal lives. This is great, of course, but the fact that HIV is no longer seen - or, indeed, promoted - as a death sentence has perhaps led to indifference in the guys practising unsafe sex.

Barebacking - shorthand for having sex without a condom - isn't restricted to men whacked out on crystal meth being pummelled by strangers. It could be that after years of safe sex it is seen as an exciting, liberating alternative. Anyone who has had sex will tell you that it 'feels better' when flesh touches flesh, and barebacking will surely appeal, along with a perception that 'naughtiness' is sexy. Forbidden fruit tastes even sweeter, after all. Consensual barebacking between two HIV negative men still isn't ideal, as there could be other health risks, but it happens. The bigger problems arise when one or more of those taking part is dishonest or simply unaware of their status. And you don't need a load of blow up your nose to be a liar.

A lot of gay men just don't understand the implications of barebacking, because HIV isn't being treated with the seriousness it deserves by society as a whole. It's a thing that only guys who go to 'sex parties' need to worry about, right? Not the rest of us. Until we start speaking like HIV is everybody's problem, and not an issue restricted to sex addicts brutalising each other in saunas while coked out of their domes, we're never going to get the message across. It's a real problem that can happen to almost anyone, promiscuous or not. It does, after all, only take once.

We all have a responsibility to protect ourselves and each other from HIV - frantic scaremongering and finger-pointing in the press doesn't help at all.

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