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Bareback: Re-Opening The Dialogue On Safer Sex In The Age of U=U

Bareback sex feels fucking amazing.

I know, we’re not supposed to talk about that. We’re not supposed to talk about bareback fucking without following it up with that ubiquitous “but use a condom!” statement. However, many communities face significant barriers to condom use and have very legitimate reasons for foregoing them—and these are the communities whose voices have largely been excluded from broader conversations defining “safe sex.”

That’s a big problem. As harm reductionists and sex educators, we can’t talk openly about what people are really doing behind closed doors. We aren’t supposed to legitimize sex without a condom as an option, or rather, we aren’t supposed to acknowledge that it may be the only option for many marginalized people. And that’s exactly the kind of dishonesty that allows HIV stigma to proliferate.

As an HIV counselor and longtime public health activist, as well as an ex-sex worker and IV drug user, I want this attitude to change. We need to re-open the conversation around what safe sex means in America and internationally, because while condoms can be an excellent means of STI protection, they are by no means a realistic option for every person in every situation. And sex workers in particular need to be involved in this conversation, since it is the most marginalized groups among us—drug-using sex workers, sex working trans women, street workers, sex workers of color, and people who fit into many or all of the above categories—who most often find ourselves in situations in which providing bareback services is our only option if we want to make a living.

Dungeon or Psych Ward?: A Crazy Whore Explains It All

photo by Alex Colby
photo by Alex Colby

Being a crazy whore is kind of like being the meanest dog at the pound: out of all of the rejects, you’re the least wanted, and your very existence makes your peers look bad. I say this from experience. I used to work at a pound, and I’m definitely a bitch (HEY-O). I’m also a crazy whore—a pro-switch with disabling, medication-resistant Major Depression, to be precise.  Society has made clear to me that it would prefer if I were euthanized, and a lot of folks within the disability rights and sex workers rights communities don’t want me around either. I give credence to some of the most persistent, prejudiced assumptions people in each group encounter.  Namely, that women with mental illnesses are sexually promiscuous damaged goods, and sex workers are mentally unhealthy damaged goods. What better way to argue against those stereotypes than to deny the existence of those of us who fulfill them?

And there are a lot of us, more than most folks realize. We frequently stay closeted about one or both of these marginalizations, partly because we may lack the physical energy or emotional stamina to brazenly insert ourselves into the activist communities that dislike us. I rarely mention to other people with disabilities what I do for work, and I am equally reluctant to test the reactions of fellow sex workers by discussing my experiences as a crazy ho. Just the idea of walking into a sex worker empowerment meeting and telling everyone that I’m doing this job because I’m too nuts to work full time and I kind of hate it, makes me feel exhausted.

Exhaustion is also why a lot of disabled sex workers don’t work independently. Houses, agencies, clubs, and brothels take on more of the workload associated with sex work, such as finding clients and providing space and security. But houses, agencies, clubs, and brothels are also (usually) more concerned with profit than with their employees’ well being, so you’re likely to find that more agency girls hate their jobs. People who hate their jobs don’t often organize around that identity, which is another reason disabled sex workers lurk in the shadows.

It can get pretty dark hiding out in here. That’s why I like to liven the mood sometimes with some equally dark humor.

Ask Ms. Harm Reduction!

Ms Harm Reduction has the answers for you! (Photo of Dorothy Howe via the Daily Mail)
Ms. Harm Reduction has the answers for you! (Photo of Dorothy Howe via the Daily Mail)

Tits and Sass strongly believes in a policy of harm reduction and education. We want nothing more than for our readers to be happy and safe from harm. Thusly, we are pleased to introduce a new advice columnist: Ms. Harm Reduction. She’s here to answer your questions about, well, just about anything in an anonymous and shame-free way. Do you have a question about drug use, sex, your personal life, workor anything else? Do you have a query for Ms. Harm Reduction? Send them to info@titsandsass.com.

Dear Ms. Harm Reduction,

I’m a stripper who enjoys her work and likes to party. I’ve noticed many of my workmates have been indulging in the latest MDMA party drug, Molly. How do I safely use Molly while I work?

Best,
Desperately Desiring Molly

Dear DDM,

Ms. Harm Reduction has to wonder why you would choose to do your hard-earned MDMA among the ruffians we call our customers. Wouldn’t you rather enjoy your drugs in the company of your bosom companions, in the privacy of some psychedelic boudoir somewhere? However, if you’ve set your ecdysiast heart on E at the club, we do have some pointers for you.

Don’t Hit Women Or Whores: Whorephobic Domestic Violence and Its Discontents

War Machine's rationalizations (Screenshot of War Machine's tweet)
War Machine’s tweeted rationalizations—note the number of retweets and favorites (Screenshot of War Machine’s Twitter feed)

“Don’t hit women or whores” reads an oh-so-helpful comment under one of the many reports of the brutal assault and attempted rape of porn actress and dancer Christy Mack by her ex partner, War Machine (formerly known as John Koppenhaver), this past week. And that’s one of the nice ones. Most of the not-nice ones start with “what did you expect?” and get worse from there. Koppenhaver himself seems to see his role in the attack as a tragic victim of fate, a “cursed” man who had hoped to be engaged to the woman he broke up with in May, whose house he broke into in August.

While, in the face of the graphic and horrific story that Mack released, Koppenhaver’s view seems woefully out of touch with reality, the truth is, he’s right to predict sympathy for himself. Assaulting a sex worker, especially one that you once deigned to be in a relationship with, is viewed as pretty understandable. Just by watching TV or using the internet (ever), how many hundreds of jokes and not-jokes did Koppenhaver encounter excusing and encouraging him to do just that? It might be tempting, for the sake of our views on the state of humanity, to label his on-the-run tweets as a disingenuous ploy for public understanding, but I believe it is the less likely explanation of the two. What reason have we to believe that Koppenhaver was special, that he was somehow immune to the prevailing cultural narrative about the worth of those who do sex work? Why wouldn’t he think of himself as a lamentable casualty of an unfair system?

The Second Shittiest Thing About Being Abused: Survivor Solidarity And Getting Out

Part of a piece in the Waiting Room/Domestic Violence Tableau at the Topeka Library (Photo by the Topeka Library, via Flickr and the Creative Commons)
Part of a piece in the Waiting Room/Domestic Violence Tableau at the Topeka Library (Photo by the Topeka Library, via Flickr and the Creative Commons)

I actually didn’t know who Christy Mack was until I started seeing articles about her attack flying around the internet last week. But her story is one that is familiar to me. Intimately familiar.

I stripped for eight years, in a dozen clubs across New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Iowa, Minnesota, Colorado, and Georgia. I met strippers who were also full service sex workers inside or outside the club, sugar babies, cam girls, and adult film stars. I’ve seen co-workers “graduate” into Playboy and Hustler. I’ve seen every combination of education, economic background, race, size, upbringing, parental status, and religion, so when I overhear non-sex-workers talking like we’re all a certain type, I can only laugh.

But one thing we all seem to have in common is an abuse story, either one of our own or of someone very close to us.

One thing I noticed early on in my career is that stripper locker room talk is brazen and honest. There is some high speed bonding that goes on over trays of eye shadow and half-finished drinks. As a more-or-less good girl going to state college on my parents’ dime, I was no stranger to boozy heartbreak stories, but stripper stories almost always went somewhere darker, faster. Without even knowing a co-worker’s name, I might hear the details of how her ex-husband broke into her house, or how she was borrowing a phone from another girl after receiving threatening texts from a stalker. I’ve had girls show me pictures of men on their phones with the warning, “If he shows up, tell the bouncer and come warn me. I don’t care if I’m in a VIP, just come tell me.”

There’s this recurring theme in our love lives a man will admire us for our independence and freedom, and of course, our money. We’ll thrive on the attention for a while and we’ll enjoy spoiling him with gifts or trips. Maybe he moves in because his roommates are irresponsible, or maybe we move in with him because we’re sleeping over all the time anyway. And then the fights start.

“Where the fuck were you until five in the morning?”