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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.

We’re Not Crazy For Doing This: Sex Workers With Mental Illness

“Patients Waiting To See A Doctor, With Figures Representing Their Fears” by Rosemary Carson (via wikimedia)

Most people have some form of a lurid narrative about drugs, exploitation, childhood abuse, and mental illness come to mind when they imagine the life of a sex worker. However, sex workers’ relationships to their identity are far more complex and difficult to characterize than that trite narrative allows for. When it comes to sex workers who do live with the stereotypical trope of also having a mental illness, it becomes even more essential to uncover what these sex workers themselves have to say about their lived experiences of that mental illness and sex work.

People diagnosed with mental illness frequently have their decisions invalidated and undermined by the dominant culture. Many individuals who do not have much experience with mental illness will attribute any socially unacceptable behaviors to “mental illness.” In much the same way, people who have never been in the sex industry tend to sideline the decisions of sex workers by inferring that trauma or abuse must have predestined them to a life in the sex industry. When people who are neither mentally ill nor in the sex industry say these things, they are robbing us of our ability to exert agency.

Amber, a full-service worker from Washington DC, states, “I very strongly believe that the way that society treats sex workers, mentally ill people and other marginalized communities (that often intersect)…[is] based on kyriarchal/patriarchal, colonialist, and capitalist systems of control. In order to treat marginalized people better, I think we all have a lot of work to do regarding the unlearning of certain stigmas and stereotypes.”

The presence of stigma is one the key aspects of institutional violence keeping communities and individuals subjugated. It proliferates because it benefits those in power in this way. Stigma creates legal and moral justifications for the criminalization of sex work in America. It also creates an environment in which mentally ill people can be stripped of their rights through court-ordered institutionalization, coerced medication, and the assignation of relatives as proxies to control them legally and financially. The disqualification of the decision-making abilities of communities on the margins is a weapon of the oppressor.

Tara Johnson, a stripper from Portland, Oregon, elaborates on the ways in which decision making can be invalidated based on association with the sex industry, especially if one also has a diagnosis of mental illness: “Just because I’m (sometimes) crazy, doesn’t mean I’m wrong. My sex work was not me acting out, or indulging in yet another form of self-harm. It was nothing that entitles people to belittle my full humanity. It’s nothing that automatically means that mentally ill sex workers, especially ones who may have other issues too (drug use, etc.) should automatically be deprived of the rights that privileged, able-bodied civilians are entitled to.”

Sex work is not a dysfunctional behavior stemming from our disease. Rather, it is often the best choice we can make to adapt to our mental illness. In truth, many people with mental illness find sex work helpful in a variety of ways as an occupational choice. It gives us a less rigorous schedule which allows for more emotional instability. Sex work can also affirm us as something we can excel at when mental illness has hindered our success in more traditional pursuits.

Sex Work and Partner Violence: How We’re Forced To Negotiate Our Own Abuse

Late porn performer Linda Susan Boreman/ Linda Lovelace, abused for years by her manager boyfriend Chuck Traynor (Image by Nino Eugene La Pia, via flickr and the Creative Commons)
Late porn performer Linda Susan Boreman/Linda Lovelace, notoriously abused for years by her manager boyfriend Chuck Traynor (Image by Nino Eugene La Pia, via Flickr and the Creative Commons)

Editor’s note: This post was originally erroneously attributed to Victoria Joy. The piece is actually by Ruby Rue.

Victims of violence are more likely to have experienced violence at the hands of someone they know. The same goes for sex workers. There seems to be a lot more concern about stranger-danger in the industry than there is for what I’ve seen as the bigger threatthe people already in your life. I’m not suggesting you don’t screen clients, of course that is important. I’m also not suggesting isolating yourself from friends and family. But, article after article I’ve read about sex workers’ partners reflects some of my own experience. Now, luckily, the situations I’ve been in have never escalated to physical violence. Butverbal abuse? Manipulation? Sexual harassment? Sexual assault? Check, check, check, and check. Let’s break down this potential mine field and see how sex work stigma and abusive partner behavior collide in the worst ways possible.

I think about how many times I’ve had a friend who was a good decent friend, a decent, “good guy.” I figure, he’s pretty great, I should date him. And almost immediately, the whole situation sours. I wonder, “Did I do something wrong?” Maybe if I had a clearer head I’d see that the deterioration of the relationship is related to his resistance to my standing up for myself. Still, in the context of abuse, it’s going to be branded as my fault. There is no way of knowing that a guy will treat you the same way when he’s dating you as he did when you were just friends. For whatever reason, dating can open the can of crazy douchebag worms in a seemingly otherwise wonderful man in your life. The beautiful wonderful man you are dating can make this very same quick switch the second he discovers you were or are a sex worker, though I will bet you anything that if he reacts poorly to that information that there were already other problems in the relationship.

The first instance is misogyny and the second instance is whorephobia. Both misogyny and whorephobia are leveraged in relationships in order for the abuser to gain:

1. More outside supporta rallying cry against you
2. More sympathythey’re broken hearted, you’re just a slut

I’m going to break down some intersections between whorephobia and abusive partner behavior, based on my personal experiences. You can use this to help identify whether your partner is an abuser or not. Much of this will be familiar, because the world is still pretty shitty about these issues.

Ask A Pro: Oral STIs and Throat Swab Protocol

Ask A Pro 1 is a our new column focusing on work and health, intended to share straightforward information about what you can do to keep yourself as safe as possible while on the job. Questions will be answered by sexual health expert Sarah Patterson, M.Ed. (See full bio below.) Questions you’d like to have answered can be sent to sarah.elspeth.patterson (at) gmail (dot) com, or to our info (at) titsandsass address. Full anonymity is guaranteed. 

Dear Ask A Pro,

I’ve been escorting for about six months and I usually don’t require that my clients wear condoms during blowjobs. I’m not having symptoms of anything, but I asked my gynecologist if I could do a test for oral STIs to be safe and she said I didn’t need it. She knows I’ve had some unprotected oral sex, but she doesn’t know about my job. I think she was trying to save me money but should I go back and tell her it’s important to me to get it? How at risk am I from giving bareback blowjobs anyway? I’ve heard that spitting isn’t much safer than swallowing but does that make a difference?

Sincerely,

Swab Seeker

Jealousy Is Not An Excuse: Monogamous Norms and Partner Violence Against Sex Workers

(Image by antonia!, via Flickr and the Creative Commons)
(Image by antonia!, via Flickr and the Creative Commons)

I am non-monogamous by choice, not just by de facto circumstance because of the fact that I am an escort. I live with one of my serious partners, and have a few other partners and sexy friends. I’ve never been suited to monogamy, and sex work has always played a role in that for me. When I was a baby sex worker and dancing at a sleazy club, my emotionally abusive boyfriend at the time asked me to quit, after initially telling me he was fine with it. His reasoning was that he just couldn’t stand the thought of me even flirting with other men. I quit quickly after that conversation, telling myself it was because I hated the work and not because of his jealousy. It was mostly because I didn’t want to lose him, though. He continued to abuse me after that, eventually forcing me to isolate myself emotionally from anyone other than him. His jealousy forced me to work jobs that were even less emotionally healthy for me than dancing at that club or PSOing and camming were. He used heteromonogamous norms to assert complete control over every aspect of my life. Eventually, I woke up and quit him for good. He retaliated by smashing out the windows on my car. I consider myself pretty lucky to have never been physically assaulted by him.

After that, I refused to have anything to do with anyone who felt they had any dominion over my sexual choices. I was in a couple of relationships that were monogamish in between then and now, but always with the understanding that I was free to have sex with whomever I pleased if the circumstances were right. Now I will only be in relationships with people who fully understand that I am my own person who makes my own choices, both sexually and emotionally. While I am not the sort of person to tell people what do with their lives or how to structure their relationships, I find the expectation that every relationship should be monogamous to be highly problematic.

Last week I awoke to the news of what happened to Christy Mack, the adult film star who was sexually assaulted, severely beaten and nearly killed by her ex-boyfriend, mixed martial arts fighter Jonathan “War Machine” Koppenhaver. According to a statement she released last Monday, she and a friend were attacked by Koppenhaver when he showed up at her house unannounced and found them there together. One part of her statement stuck out to me, and I’ve been thinking about it all week. In Mack’s words:

When he arrived, he found myself and one other fully clothed and unarmed in the house.

What really got me was the choice to state that her friend and she were fully clothed. This woman was assaulted by her ex to the point of being hospitalized in serious condition, and she still felt pressure to highlight the fact that Koppenhaver had not caught her in an act of sexual indiscretion. It shouldn’t matter; not only because he is her ex, it just shouldn’t ever matter. Catching someone having sex with someone else should never be an excuse to attack them.