In one of the most memorable scenes of the 2005 film Brokeback Mountain, Heath Ledger's character uses his own spit to lube up his dick before he penetrates Jake Gyllenhaal. The characters are caught in a furtive moment without lube (which, in the chronology of the film, might have been simply K-Y Jelly), but they cannot hold back their desire. Here, the act of using saliva as lube represents both passion and primality. These cowboys have given themselves over to the heat of the moment, and their own bodily fluid lubricates the gears of their desire.
Yes, there's a romanticization of spit fucking in the gay community which probably far precedes Brokeback Mountain. San Francisco-based Mr. S Leather, an adult entertainment store, sells a product called Spit Lube H2O that has the look and feel of thick, stringy saliva. "Spit on your boy's hole and give it to him deep," goes the tagline. When it dries up, you can actually use a bit of spit to recharge the lube. The gay porn mogul Paul Morris glorifies spit in several of his extreme, no-limits (they contain actual blood and bruises) films. He says of one scene: "This is how man sex should be: lube free, spit'n'shove, hard fucking action." Spit fucking is a cruder, somehow more authentic form of gay sex in Morris's primal sexual aesthetic.
"Some would say that the best sex is unplanned. You could call it a fetish, but I think that people want a sexual experience that feels real, and during which they have a real physical or perhaps emotional connection. I think saliva use can be part of that," says Vincent Cornelisse, a general practitioner and sexual health specialist from Australia's Melbourne Sexual Health Centre.
Cornelisse and his team saw that spitting was central to the sexual experience of many gay men, and they wanted to better understand the risk factors associated with it. "We think that throat gonorrhea is a significant driver of the spread of gonorrhea," Cornelisse says.
They proved this hypothesis correct. In a 2016 study conducted by Melbourne Sexual Health Centre, they found that there was a significant relationship between cases of rectal gonorrhea and using saliva as lube. Their study concludes that almost half of rectal gonorrhea cases may be eliminated if men who sleep with men (MSM) stopped using their partners' saliva for anal sex. Part of the reason for this drastic statistic is that gonorrhea can often go undiagnosed, and thus is easily spread.
"Gonorrhea of the penis is usually pretty obvious, with a yellow, milky discharge, but throat gonorrhea often has no symptoms, so people don't know they carry it, and hence they don't know that they need to get treatment," Cornelisse says. "From a throat, gonorrhea can spread to another throat, to a penis, or to an anus. From an anus, which also often has no symptoms, it can really only spread to a penis, or maybe a throat if someone has a particularly talented tongue."
Gonorrhea of the throat has been linked to antibiotic resistance—super gonorrhea. As gonorrhea goes untreated in the throat, it can swap genetic material with other bacteria lingering back there, such as streptococcus. When this bacteria receives inadequate or incorrect antibiotic treatment, it can become a resistant to first-line medicines.
"We suspect that getting control of throat gonorrhea may be important to prevent the development of antibiotic resistance," Cornelisse says.
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Driving down rates of all gonorrhea will require a multi-pronged approach. First will be frequent and thorough STI tests for at-risk populations, which must include oral swabs for gonorrhea. Urging gay men to use commercial lube for anal sex, rather than spit, will also reduce the spread. Condoms remain the most effective tool for reducing the spread of all STIs; however, Cornelisse's work shows that STIs spread in more complex ways during anal sex without condoms. Public health messaging should embrace these complexities, as well as the realities of the ways in which gay men have sex.
It's worth pointing out that anal sex with plenty of lube is way more pleasant for everyone involved. No health professional—or sex advice columnist for that matter—says "just spit on your dick and shove it in." Perhaps it's worth showing to gay men that spit fucking is more fantasy than reality. Even in porn, where it looks like sex is natural and spontaneous, there's definitely plenty of lube being used.
"Yeah, everything is pretty lubey," says mister Pam, a veteran porn director and cinematographer for Naked Sword. She's known for creating porn as exquisitely shot and glossy as a big-budget Hollywood film. Her actors are well lubed-up so they can last for scene after scene, but the stars are also kept clean of distracting, drippy lube. On set, mister Pam keeps industrial-sized pump bottles of Swiss Navy or Gun Oil Lube, and rolls upon rolls of paper towels to mop everything up. She often shoots with silicone-based lube because it can last a long time…so much so that it permanently stains sheets, which Pam chalks up to a production expense for making porn.
As a biological woman, mister Pam has learned a lot by shooting gay porn. "I have parts that are self-lubricating, I went years without using lube. But I do have to say, it makes sex a lot more enjoyable and lengthy," she says.
On the subject of vaginal sex and lube, there is not a conclusive body of evidence on the subject. There is some thought that commercial lubricants can alter the pH of a vagina and lead to increased infections, but the evidence is mixed and inconclusive. There are no studies about the use of spit lube and increased vaginal infections. But, presumably if spit fucking in the ass leads to increased rates of gonorrhea, spit fucking in the vagina probably isn't a great idea either.
The best way to have sex, whether in the vagina or anus, is to have sex that is comfortable for both partners, especially the receptive one. The fantasy of being caught in the moment and "sticking it in" may need to be tempered, as this results in some of the riskiest sex scenarios.
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