It's hard to pinpoint exactly when semen became the focus of so much erotic fixation in the gay community. Maybe it had something to do with AIDS activist Tony Valenzuela coming out on the cover of Poz magazine in 1999 as an HIV+ gay man who enjoyed condom-less sex. "The unprotected sex … was beautiful, intimate, satisfying. I didn't shower afterward," he told the magazine. "We slept with his come inside me." Or maybe the threshold was crossed in 2004 with the release of the seminal porn flick Dawson's 20-Load Weekend, in which a strapping, virile bottom has unprotected sex with a score of men. Or maybe it came earlier, when treatments for HIV/AIDS developed in the 90s made the disease more manageable and convinced many gay men not to think of semen as potential life-destroying poison.
Whatever the case, semen is everywhere these days. You can find it at CumUnion, an international "pro-choice" (a.k.a. bareback or condom-less anal) sex party series where sharing fluids is embraced. You can find it all over the porn industry, where more and more studios are producing bareback films rather than condom-only stuff, according to the blog Str8UpGayPorn. You can even find fake semen, in the form of FT Cum Lube, a sex product that bills itself as "the closest thing to jizz in a bottle." A few years ago, the Centers for Disease (CDC) control reported that bareback sex between men had increased 20 percent between 2005 and 2011—and with the advent of PrEP, or the practice of taking a pill that makes it much more difficult (though not impossible) to contract HIV, it seems safe to assume that more men are going out in the world unprotected.
For 15 years, Steve Gibson has been a leading figure in San Francisco HIV prevention for the gay community, as well as a member of the SF AIDS Foundation. As someone working in the trenches of sexual health, Gibson does not see the pro-cum choice attitudes I've recently noticed as isolated incidents.
"Yes, there are groups of men who identify as cumpigs," says Gibson. "I don't think this is a unique phenomenon. It shows the power of male sexuality."
Gibson says that a second major shift in semen relations is happening right now as PrEP is breaking down more barriers between HIV+ and HIV- men. "For so many years, semen was feared. The most intimate expression of gay sex was lethal," Gibson adds. "But for the first time people aren't afraid."
There are also many sociological reasons why gay men might want fetishize bodily fluids—to be cumpigs, in other words. Since the 1970s, Dr. William Leap, currently a professor at American University, has studied the ways gay people use language to express sexual identity. Leap says the language surrounding bareback sex, including words like "breed and seed," imply the transmission of power from one man to another. Leap cites a puberty ceremony of the Sambia people of Papua New Guinea as an example of how semen can take on mystical qualities; part of the ritual involves boys ingesting the semen of tribal elders to absorb a life force and fully become men. The idea that gay men might be recreating such rituals in the bedroom may not be that far off.
Adult entertainment insiders echo Leap's notion. According to Leo Forte, a director and videographer for Kink.com: "In porn, we worship this image of guys with the biggest dicks. The bigger the cock, the bigger the load, and the more masculine the man whose seed will be inside of me."
Leap thinks it may not be just the literal viscous semen that is desired, but the feelings of transgression surrounding the act of transmission. And, like many sexual taboos, these feelings become something to fantasize over, fetishize, exploit, or even be addicted to.
"Real queerness means pushing boundaries of what is forbidden," says Leap. "Semen transmission is a form of personal contact that normative society says is wrong for gay men to do. The idea that there is risk is what makes gay sex attractive; it's illegal, condemned, and justice may come crashing down on you at any moment."
"Cum is glorified so much because it contains the essence of taboo," agrees Forte. "Look how it is spraying all over this guy's face. It's going near his asshole, oh no!"
"Semen transmission is a form of personal contact that normative society says is wrong for gay men to do." — Dr. William Leap
There's evidence that these taboos around semen have loosened since PrEP was approved by the FDA in 2012. One 32-month study of PrEP users released by Kaiser Permanente in 2015 found no new HIV infections among participants—but 41 percent of them reported using condoms less often.
It's probably simplistic to attribute the rise in barebacking simply to PrEP. This week Howard Grossman, a gay doctor in New York who sees a lot of LGBT people, wrote that he has observed spiking STI rates in patients who are on PrEP and not on PrEP, both HIV+ and HIV-. This dovetails with CDC reports that syphilis, a disease that disproportionately affects men who have sex with men, is on the rise.
Grossman suggested that PrEP wasn't the culprit in all this. "The real problem, in my view, is that adequate screening and treatment for STIs is often not available, and education about STIs in the United States sucks (to put it mildly)," he wrote. "For the last 30 years, the only message about sexual health that many young people received was either to practice abstinence only or, in more liberal venues, to wear a condom every time to prevent HIV."
Despite these problems, there are reasons to be hopeful—today many gay men have more open attitudes toward sex and semen than they once did, but more importantly they are not forced into the shadows as previous LGBT generations were. Queer rights and acceptance have given us freedoms that were unimaginable in the immediate post-Stonewall era—we're in a place where the first known man to get HIV while properly using PrEP can tell Poz, "I believe in personal accountability and responsibility for your own health. I'm open and upfront with all sexual partners, from my status to my dislike of condoms."
Maybe the recent rise of unprotected sex is an aberration; maybe the pendulum will swing back the other way and condomless sex will once again be regarded as practically a crime. But for now, I can't get cum out of my head, or off my face.
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