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Gay Sexual Ethics: What's acceptable?

Wed 20 May 2009 In: Safe Sex View at Wayback View at NDHA

In the wake of Auckland's HIV 'predator' care, researcher Craig Young discusses the parameters of allowable consensual gay male and bisexual sexual behaviour that do and should exist within our ranks. For starters, consensual gay sex is a social good, with consent occurring when there is a male individual who comprehends the need to critically evaluate and foresee the consequences of a given sexual act. It is optimal when someone has sufficient maturity and self-esteem to insist on self-protection, as well as the ability to care for one's partner. Classical antiquity might be helpful here. In ancient Greece, there was no formal set of legal constraints that prevailed in Greek city states when it came to love and sex between men, apart from eighteen as the commonly agreed age of consent for this. However, there were certainly corresponding constraints against heterosexual adultery, punishable by a death sentence, and heterosexual men who wasted their financial resources and estate on hetarae (elite female sex workers) were often mocked in everyday gossip. As for love and sex between men, DIY ethical guides governed this field. One was supposed to read such literature, reflect on its applicability to one's life, and modify one's ethical and sexual conduct in order to reflect moderation in one's emotional and sexual life toward one's beloved. Unfortunately, these eminently sensible and practical DIY self-help guides to sexual conduct were obliterated by the onset of Christianity, with its dogmatic insistence that reproductive heterosexuality was the only form of 'permissible' sex. Everything else, consensual and non-consensual, was grouped together in a meaningless hodgepodge designated as 'sodomy.' Fortunately, Christian prescriptive moralities and legislation were pushed back as Europe, Canada and Australasia decriminalised male homosexuality in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which accelerated after the development of heterosexual contraception enabled wider uncoupling of straight as well as gay sex from the imperatives of pregnancy and childbirth. So, what then? Initially, sex on site venues proliferated to take advantage of sudden gay male freedom to have as many sexual partners as we wanted, with 'only' STIs to worry about- until the arrival of HIV/AIDS forced a new generation of gay men to consider that the ancients just might have had something when it came to moderation and self-reflection. Sexual conservatives tend to complain about the multiple partner ethos and obliviousness to STIs that prevailed within pre-epidemic gay male communities, but social exclusion, discrimination and denial of sexual identity were all disincentives to prudent and responsible sexual behaviour. When the HIV/AIDS epidemic did arrive in the mid-eighties, it was realised that the key to prevention was adoption, maintenance and perseverance in condom use, regardless of the number of one's sexual partners, one's HIV status, or other factors. I have deliberately made no distinction between HIV statuses above because regardless of HIV status, one should always practice safe sex. Indeed, most HIV+ gay men do so, whether as individuals or through the collective efforts of organisations like Body Positive and NZAF, which educate people about what life is like with HIV, and how one needs to wrap up, stay safe and protect one's partner. HIV+ partners can both get more virulent strains from re-infection if they have unprotected sex. By contrast, there are irresponsible and foolhardy HIV- gay men out there, who do P/crystal meth, or other drugs, without any regard for risk reduction or harm minimisation within the latter context, and who deliberately bareback due to either substance abuse, low self-esteem, ignorance or just 'safe sex fatigue.' Thus, we rightly commend the conscientious and responsible HIV+ gay man who works actively to insure that others don't get exposed, and castigate his careless and irresponsible HIV- counterpart. However, what about HIV+ individuals who do go around 'deliberately infecting' other people? "Naming and shaming" is counter-productive, and risks defamation charges if the person who is targeted actually isn't the irresponsible party. The latter also carries risks of criminal mistrial. From necessity then, most of my subsequent comments will be made at the level of hypothetical statements from this point on. For the most part, HIV+ gay men are conscientious and collectively organised, and work tirelessly to prevent the spread of HIV. In individual cases, we know nothing of whatever biographical factors might be involved. Individuals may have intellectual disabilities, yet come from protective families who accommodate them, or may have cognitive processing problems that prevent them from realising the long-term strategic implications of current unhealthy behaviour, or may have a DSM IV -defined antisocial personality disorder that means that they don't care about harming others. I am not saying that the above are mitigating circumstances, but they are exceptional cases, given the strong levels of collective identity and responsibility operative within organised health promotion and social networks of HIV+ gay men. They may all require more traditional public health and law enforcement strategies than might otherwise be the case. I should note that the above musings are purely hypothetical. As with the aforementioned DIY ethical guides of Classical Greece, these hypothetical examples are meant to be thought experiments, reflections on possible reasons for sexual behaviour in given instances, and some may be more relevant than others, while still others may be open-ended possibilities until we know further about individual biographies in contexts like HIV+ life story narratives, court cases or clinical journal reports. If one condemns an HIV+ man who behaves unethically toward others, let's not forget HIV- sexual predator Richard Sturm, who took advantage of chemically intoxicated young men for his own sexual pleasure. Sturm sexually violated those young men. Let's not single out Auckland's HIV+ predator without recognising that there are HIV- sexual predators out there who behave just as much without any sense of collective responsibility or identification with others. Sexual freedom means sexual responsibility. It means ethical conduct toward one's partners, no matter what HIV status one is. With freedom comes responsibility, and the duty to care for oneself, and one's partners and community. Recommended: James Davidson: The Greeks and Greek Love: London: Phoenix: 2008. Michel Foucault: History of Sexuality Volume II: Care of the Self: London: Penguin: 1983. Craig Young - 20th May 2009    

Credit: Craig Young

First published: Wednesday, 20th May 2009 - 11:26am

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