Badpuppy Gay Today
Monday, 28 July, 1997
An Activist Critique by Jim Eigo SEXUAL ECOLOGY: AIDS and the Destiny of Gay Men by Gabriel Rotello, published by Dutton, New York, 320 pages; $24.95 1: A Moralist Ecology In Sexual Ecology: AIDS and the Destiny of Gay Men, Gabriel Rotello writes, for the most part, in clear sentences. But after a short outline of select AIDS epidemiology, retrospective and current, the book becomes a windy riff on a strained metaphor, as Rotello transports his reader from the stolid realm of science survey to the headier one of papal bull. This central metaphor, that monogamy equals sexual ecology, can only be sustained by an age-old fallacy common to all fundamentalism. It derives a spurious natural law from time-bound, mutable conditions: the prevalence of HIV among gay men in 1997 and the lack of effective vaccines and treatments to counter it. Its central argument: Significant new HIV infection is occurring among gay men, and beyond AIDS there lurk many unnamed plagues. Gay men should therefore abandon current safer sex strategies (primary among them, the condom code and adopt (serial) monogamy as a communal norm, complete with a system of penalties for the promiscuous and rewards for the faithful. This is the transformative approach, it will make us altruistic, it will make us responsible, and then we can raise kids. Somewhere, I've heard this before. Rotello summons to gay men to march, two-by-two, under the yoke of Noah, back to a mythic Eden, is an unsettling echo of fundamentalism's equation of heterosexual union with nature. Rotello disparages conservative columnist Pat Buchanan's formulation of AIDS : The poor homosexuals they have declared war on Nature, and now Nature is exacting an awful retribution. Yet if we substitute Buchanan's "Nature" with Rotello's Ecology, Buchanan's venom becomes the thesis for Rotello's book. Rotello's call for us to diminish the status of all non-monogamous sex is a muted rendition of fundamentalism's attempt to delegitimize all non-procreative sex. . Both imply that anything beyond their narrow parameters is sin or willful sickness. Appealing to a higher order, fundamentalism always places its polemic beyond argument, privileged over other positions in its very purity as an ideal. Religious reactionaries chant that God made Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve. Sexual Ecology posits a similar pristine state that we fallen contemporaries have befouled. As suspect as the version of sex education that I as a teen learned in Catholic schools, Rotello's answer to AIDS becomes a quirky regurgitation of Judeo-Christian doctrine. Some serious diseases are airborne. We do not, however, advocate cessation of breathing. Some serious diseases are genetic. We do not advocate an end to procreation. Taking a purely ecological approach, I could argue against the existence of cities since urban concentration spawns filth and disease. But the city fulfills certain cultural needs. No serious ecologist argues that we all revert to hunter-gatherers. Rotello contends that conditions gay men have created may be a greater enemy than the virus . That's as useful as blaming cities for the flu. Periodic plagues temporarily shut Renaissance England's theaters, evidence for Puritans of entertainment's essential ungodliness. Puritan ecology could as logically argue that fags and sex don't mix at all. The human impulse to sexual activity is not less ingrained than its impulse to play, and both will survive the Puritans. Since AIDS has been spread by immunization and transfusion, we try to minimize their risk; why is gay sex different? Rotello's ecological argument with current AIDS prevention is that the condom code relies on a technical fix, a mistake of favoring the simple over the complex . As if the solution of universal monogamy (one size fits all) for the diversity of gay male sexuality were not itself breathtakingly simplistic. He has similar disdain for the birth control pill and antibiotics. Recent advances in AIDS drugs, a lease on life for so many, elicit only his concern for potential slackened vigilance in the maintenance of safer sex and for drug-resistant strains of the virus. Yet even Rotello realizes cultures are adaptive strategies for survival . Human history in fact is a sequence of tech fixes that we, unnatural animals that we are, devise to avoid disaster. Even most programs to restore an ecology resort to elaborate tech fixes. AIDS needs a wider menu of more effective technical fixes. Tracking the ecology metaphor takes Rotello far afield, through irrelevant discussions of population control and species extinction, he himself has to admit that gay men are not a biotic category as the species is replenished from without. Parallels he draws between the environmental movement and AIDS prevention illuminate neither. Towing the ecological line can become laughable, as when Rotello extols our Greek forbears as sexual ecologists worthy of our imitation . In fact, sex acts between Greek males (dominant men, passive boys) occurred within a hierarchy that doesn't exist for gay men today, could not be recreated, would not be condoned, and could not fulfill contemporary gay male desire. His whirlwind tour of homosexual history [225-6] finds monogamous fags (unsurprisingly) wherever there are regimented societies: tyranny induces a stability most of us would throw off. Reading it all I kept wondering: in what way would a crabbed monogamy be more holistic than a loving, healthy promiscuity? I didn't expect nor did I find an answer. I knew this book to be no simple ecological tract. It's a reactionary morality, as if nutritionist Gary Null had been channeled through neo-con Gertrude Himmelfarb.
An Activist Critique by Jim Eigo
SEXUAL ECOLOGY: AIDS and the Destiny of Gay Men by Gabriel Rotello, published by Dutton, New York, 320 pages; $24.95
1: A Moralist Ecology
In Sexual Ecology: AIDS and the Destiny of Gay Men, Gabriel Rotello writes, for the most part, in clear sentences. But after a short outline of select AIDS epidemiology, retrospective and current, the book becomes a windy riff on a strained metaphor, as Rotello transports his reader from the stolid realm of science survey to the headier one of papal bull. This central metaphor, that monogamy equals sexual ecology, can only be sustained by an age-old fallacy common to all fundamentalism. It derives a spurious natural law from time-bound, mutable conditions: the prevalence of HIV among gay men in 1997 and the lack of effective vaccines and treatments to counter it.
Its central argument: Significant new HIV infection is occurring among gay men, and beyond AIDS there lurk many unnamed plagues. Gay men should therefore abandon current safer sex strategies (primary among them, the condom code and adopt (serial) monogamy as a communal norm, complete with a system of penalties for the promiscuous and rewards for the faithful. This is the transformative approach, it will make us altruistic, it will make us responsible, and then we can raise kids.
Somewhere, I've heard this before. Rotello summons to gay men to march, two-by-two, under the yoke of Noah, back to a mythic Eden, is an unsettling echo of fundamentalism's equation of heterosexual union with nature. Rotello disparages conservative columnist Pat Buchanan's formulation of AIDS : The poor homosexuals they have declared war on Nature, and now Nature is exacting an awful retribution. Yet if we substitute Buchanan's "Nature" with Rotello's Ecology, Buchanan's venom becomes the thesis for Rotello's book. Rotello's call for us to diminish the status of all non-monogamous sex is a muted rendition of fundamentalism's attempt to delegitimize all non-procreative sex. . Both imply that anything beyond their narrow parameters is sin or willful sickness.
Appealing to a higher order, fundamentalism always places its polemic beyond argument, privileged over other positions in its very purity as an ideal. Religious reactionaries chant that God made Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve. Sexual Ecology posits a similar pristine state that we fallen contemporaries have befouled. As suspect as the version of sex education that I as a teen learned in Catholic schools, Rotello's answer to AIDS becomes a quirky regurgitation of Judeo-Christian doctrine. Some serious diseases are airborne. We do not, however, advocate cessation of breathing. Some serious diseases are genetic. We do not advocate an end to procreation. Taking a purely ecological approach, I could argue against the existence of cities since urban concentration spawns filth and disease. But the city fulfills certain cultural needs. No serious ecologist argues that we all revert to hunter-gatherers.
Rotello contends that conditions gay men have created may be a greater enemy than the virus . That's as useful as blaming cities for the flu. Periodic plagues temporarily shut Renaissance England's theaters, evidence for Puritans of entertainment's essential ungodliness. Puritan ecology could as logically argue that fags and sex don't mix at all. The human impulse to sexual activity is not less ingrained than its impulse to play, and both will survive the Puritans. Since AIDS has been spread by immunization and transfusion, we try to minimize their risk; why is gay sex different? Rotello's ecological argument with current AIDS prevention is that the condom code relies on a technical fix, a mistake of favoring the simple over the complex .
As if the solution of universal monogamy (one size fits all) for the diversity of gay male sexuality were not itself breathtakingly simplistic. He has similar disdain for the birth control pill and antibiotics. Recent advances in AIDS drugs, a lease on life for so many, elicit only his concern for potential slackened vigilance in the maintenance of safer sex and for drug-resistant strains of the virus. Yet even Rotello realizes cultures are adaptive strategies for survival . Human history in fact is a sequence of tech fixes that we, unnatural animals that we are, devise to avoid disaster. Even most programs to restore an ecology resort to elaborate tech fixes. AIDS needs a wider menu of more effective technical fixes.
Tracking the ecology metaphor takes Rotello far afield, through irrelevant discussions of population control and species extinction, he himself has to admit that gay men are not a biotic category as the species is replenished from without. Parallels he draws between the environmental movement and AIDS prevention illuminate neither. Towing the ecological line can become laughable, as when Rotello extols our Greek forbears as sexual ecologists worthy of our imitation . In fact, sex acts between Greek males (dominant men, passive boys) occurred within a hierarchy that doesn't exist for gay men today, could not be recreated, would not be condoned, and could not fulfill contemporary gay male desire. His whirlwind tour of homosexual history [225-6] finds monogamous fags (unsurprisingly) wherever there are regimented societies: tyranny induces a stability most of us would throw off.
Reading it all I kept wondering: in what way would a crabbed monogamy be more holistic than a loving, healthy promiscuity? I didn't expect nor did I find an answer. I knew this book to be no simple ecological tract. It's a reactionary morality, as if nutritionist Gary Null had been channeled through neo-con Gertrude Himmelfarb.
2: Internal Contradictions
A problem frequent with polemic: in the rush to marshal every detail to serve an argument, the bits don't quite fit together. Sexual Ecology is riddled with significant discrepancies that at times burst into flagrant contradiction. If you disagree with any principle Rotello propounds, just stick around for a few pages and you're liable to find its contrary proposed, or at least find it vitally undermined. Not even the book's central tenet is safe from multiple reversal. After a book length argument for the essential holism of monogamy, and much ridicule of technical fixes, Rotello ends his penultimate chapter with a vision of a future. One day technology will have extinguished the final germ.
Post-microbial promiscuity will be OK with Rotello. Yet two pages later  he launches into another attack on medical technology: antibiotics, having fostered drug-resistant strains, have been worse than useless in the fight against Sexually Transmitted Diseases. But this cautionary tale has a trumped-up punchline. He ends by comparing the relatively small number of annual deaths from syphilis in an age before antibiotic treatments with the larger number who currently die of AIDS. Rotello compares epidemiological apples and oranges and predictably comes up with a lemon: AIDS is far from exclusively an STD and at this date its spread has little to do with drug resistance
Rotello's position on oral sex, its infectivity, its place in the epidemic, its place in prevention, its centrality to gay sex, is particularly conflicted. Early in the book  Rotello identifies a significant rise in anal sex in the 70s as the major behavior change facilitating AIDS among gay men. Later  he adds that oral sex is a difficult route for HIV transmission. It's not promiscuity per se but particular sex acts that expedite HIV. Rotello again can cite most experts  as believing that if gay men of the 70s had only performed oral sex with their casual partners and saved anal sex for their lovers, the epidemic could not have happened. Yet he ridicules as a gay folk construction  the belief that oral sex without ejaculation is a low risk activity, despite its being so classified by many health organizations worldwide.
Although he can laud Dutch prevention messages that call for a reduction in anal sex, he derides American writers like Walt Odets and Eric Rofes who today advocate a prevention strategy that emphasizes oral sex and de emphasizes anal sex. Rotello fails to see why a the panel of AIDS prevention experts might prefer to gear their efforts to the actual epidemic, rather than Rotello's construction of one in which mutant subtypes of HIV might evolve toward easy oral transmission . His claim that a major goal of AIDS prevention groups is to reduce anxiety about unprotected oral sex  is preposterous. He quotes one brochure that designates oral sex to ejaculation as harm reduction .
But safer sex literature overwhelmingly qualifies messages about oral sex: there is some HIV risk, there is risk of contracting some STDs, there's a higher risk ingesting ejaculate. Gay organizations that have reclassified oral sex as lower-risk have not ignored ecology , only the very restricted way in which Rotello construes it: they realize that successful HIV prevention integrates low-risk activity into sexual lives that gay men might actually like to have. Rotello has himself implied that the rate of infection from unprotected oral sex would be epidemiologically insignificant.
This contradictory approach to oral sex crystallizes in his sporadic discussion of commercial sex spaces. He observes that [e]ven today, gay sex in public or semi public places tends to be oral rather than anal. Does this please him? Commercial sex spaces, in fact, earn his recurring wrath. Early in the book Rotello chides New York City's establishments for failing to adopt community-enforced safer sex guidelines like San Francisco's. This is compound hypocrisy.
Rotello knows the major block to such guidelines in New York City is New York State's refusal to recognize a difference between oral and anal sex, protected or not. New York does not permit even protected intercourse in (semi)public places. He knows that San Francisco's guidelines allow oral and protected anal intercourse, something he's on record opposing. He expresses horror that the JO clubs of the late 80s gave way to clubs that allow such sex. How can he blame New York's prevention workers for not securing agreement to impossible guidelines, agreement that he, in his zeal to stamp out core behavior, would object to were it secured. After all this, he derides San Francisco's Coalition for Healthy Sex for citing as a model sex space . Blow Buddies, which dares to be as oral as its name.
Has there been a second wave of HIV infection among gay men? Early in the book Rotello maintains HIV is continuing to saturate the gay male population at the rate it always has . Yet a few pages later  he warns that other diseases are poised to strike the moment we provide them an opportunity implying our present conduct is holding them at bay. After a survey of the sketchy literature that suggests a second wave, Rotello himself questions if it's not in fact a misreading: maybe we never significantly reduced infection in the late 80s: are the data half full or half empty ? Rotello contends there's no conclusive evidence that gay men were ever infecting at a rate below epidemic threshold .
Soon he's accepting as fact  the hypothesis that lower infection of the late 80s resulted from saturation, not successful prevention, an implicit rejection of a second wave. Current low rates of rectal gonorrhea among New York City gay men might seem to argue for corresponding low rates of unprotected anal sex, and against a significant rise in HIV. But in order to preserve the possibility of a second wave, Rotello constructs a creative (but unconvincing) reading of the data that dismisses it. By the end of the book  he's calling the second wave well-documented; if so, Sexual Ecology does a poor job presenting the evidence.
Some contradictions undermine his basic position. After criticizing early AIDS prevention efforts that stressed partner reduction rather than the use of a condom for every encounter, Rotello denounces the condom code  as an anti-ecological technical fix, and embraces serial monogamy (which is itself stringent partner reduction). Yet his own proposal for AIDS prevention ultimately backs up monogamy with a condom code of its own.
Other contradictions merely baffle. In one chapter we're told that most heterosexuals find the notion of gay sex repugnant, but will have tremendous sympathy for a man once he has AIDS. The next chapter warns us that moderate and liberal heterosexuals, who have somehow become in the interim supporters of basic gay rights, will abandon our cause if gay men continue to seroconvert. In other words: though straights don't support our right to union to begin with, only if we commit to Rotello's monogamy will they continue to support our right to union. And: though the only lovable fag is one with AIDS, seroconversion will earn us mainstream desertion. Having constructed a lineage for gay men that disproves homosexuals are naturally promiscuous, Rotello himself comes up with the reason for that promiscuity: no women to curb us.
He then says it's OK if we're a little more promiscuous than the rest of the world, but he doesn't specify how much more promiscuous gay men can safely be, or how prevention programs can educate toward such an ambiguous goal, problematic since he's maintained that even drastic partner reduction in the late 80s was insufficient to stop the epidemic in a virally saturated population. Having painstakingly traced a tradition of homosexual moderation, he undermines it when he speaks of a traditionally low level of monogamy among gay men . Yet by the end of the book Rotello maintains that gay men are demanding generally to lead the kinds of lives that moralists wish everybody would lead . If we were, why the need for a book to convince us of the rightness of that institution most central to those lives that moralists would have us lead: monogamy?
3: What's Missing
Sexual Ecology is a paper inflated to book length. By the time I reached page seven, I dreaded the next occurrence of the term sexual ecology. Once the survey of epidemiological literature thins, citations, except for increasingly far fetched attempts to shore up the tenuous ecology metaphor, all but disappear. Rotello's dry, ivory tower polemic begins to feel like a protracted high school hygiene class. But the lack of any original research is not the biggest disappointment. In a book nominally concerned with gay men and AIDS prevention, the voices of the gay men who are having the sex under consideration, and the voices of real-world prevention workers are never heard. There's not even a distant sense of what life is like out in the trenches, of the real battles gay men face. For a book written by a gay man, a former activist with many grassroots contacts and a journalist, it's shockingly bereft of stuff.
With few sources to fall back on, Rotello has to set up a series of unidentified straw men. (Chapter 9, Imagining a Sustainable Culture, hosts a particularly rich convocation of phantom opponents.) Throughout the book, they argue that gay men are doomed to sexual excess. That fighting for adult gay rights solves the problems of gay youth. Arguments unlike any I've ever heard. In the late 80s, it was often confidently asserted that elimination of homophobia would, in and of itself, quickly solve the problem [of AIDS]. And again, later: In this interpretation, AIDS was caused by homophobia. Rotello cites gay men's belief in our own victimization and inability to change, when no gay man I know would ascribe to that formulation, and the activism that arose in response to AIDS refused victimization and only makes sense if it believes in change. My dictionary defines destiny as inevitable or necessary fate. It's not gay men in general who've surrendered choice and change to higher abstraction. It's not they who subtitle books "the Destiny of Gay Men."
Although much AIDS writing is overwhelmingly personal, I have no quarrel with Rotello's decision to keep himself (for the most part) out of his narrative. But how can a gay man's book length discussion of gay men's sex habits fail to consider gay men's passion? [T]o modify sexual behavior in ways that many individuals would prefer not to is a startlingly obtuse way for a gay man to speak about the longing of his fellow men. Gay sexual ecology unsullied in the least by homosexual desire has no claim to holism.
No glory holes or fisting orgies for [the Greeks] sniffs the author; no musings on the meaning of semen exchange. Since fisting is epidemiologically neutral, we have to assume that Rotello's disdain is, what, esthetic? moral? If he can't at least empathize with those for whom semen exchange is crucial, how can he aspire to write about AIDS prevention among gay men? By the time the polemic hits full-stride, even the writing goes. By chapter eight, two successive sentences read: The answer is moderation. Balance. Such prose is more appropriate to a self-help audiotape; the simplistic sentiments expressed, utterly unequal to the gravity of the choices gay men face in the age of AIDS
By the final chapter, argument and style have undergone concomitant deterioration: The fact that the challenge we face is an ecological challenge, with all that that implies, is not so much suggested by theory as, it seems to me, dictated by biology. Whole chapters of blather. Toward the end of Sexual Ecology, Rotello engages in a rare flight of fancy and envisions a future generation reading the crumbling, yellowed pages of his book. His readers wonder what all the fuss was about. If his book is all they have of our era, it's for sure they won't have the remotest sense of what it was like to have been a gay man of flesh and blood, making difficult sexual and health decisions every day of the epidemic that was AIDS.
Rotello's armchair analysis will permit none of the messy stuff of a real life in our times to bleed through. The book's early survey of selected AIDS epidemiology never transcends freeze dried pastiche. Later, the evidence of real lives lived might have jolted Frankenstein to life; it never comes. Long before it ends it's clear the book is not concerned with mundane AIDS prevention. It's a lengthy brief for gay monogamy, with AIDS its occasion. There's no guarantee that Sexual Ecology would have been a better book had it been a forthright paean to gay marriage (with a chapter perhaps on STDs); but it would have been more to the point. But then, who'd have bought it? or put it out?
4: Twisted Histories
To fit gay men into this twisted future, Rotello has to twist our recent past. According to Rotello, only with the political revolution of Stonewall did gay men discover the anus. Before 1969, buggery was rare and rimming unheard of. So how do we explain the last hundred and fifty years of male homosexual literature? A century before the riots, Lautreamont could enthuse: O that the world were a celestial anus! I would plunge my penis past its bloody sphincter. Writing in the 30s and 40s, Genet depicts anal intercourse as central to his sexual expression (both to bugger and be buggered), and waxes poetic about rimming. Written in the 40s (and recalling an earlier time), the early fiction of the American Sam Steward (Phil Andros) paints a world in which anal sex, often reciprocal, is the quintessence of homosex; he is expert enough on rimming to warn of its health risk.
Contrary to Rotello's assertion, there is ample evidence that the homosexual targets of the Navy witch-hunts of 1919 knew of and sometimes practiced anal intercourse, as did at least one of the trade investigators [see Lawrence Murphy, Perverts by Official Order]. Sodomite has been a synonym for faggots for a long time, and sodomy for anal sex. That said, anyone who lived through the decade knows there was an exponential rise in all sex in the 70s, particularly in gay male sex, as legions came out of the closet and sex spaces proliferated. Rotello is wrong in his recurring assertion that most gay men refuse to recognize that our sexual activity in the 70s facilitated the spread of AIDS ; and wrong that there's been no public discussion about it . All our prevention materials, in proselytizing for behavior changes, show that we've made the connection. There has been significant behavior change as a result of those prevention efforts. A core activist distinction between risky behaviors and risk groups (a distinction Rotello ridicules as a bit of political correctness that has cost the gay community prevention dollars) could only be built on such a recognition.
Unlike Rotello, I know of no gay man who's worked long and hard to obscure the connection between AIDS and risky behavior . Rotello needlessly ridicules the early AIDS prevention efforts of gay writers and organizations (in retrospect pathetically misguided  ), made in good faith and based on the little available data. These efforts took place amid confusion and growing fear, before there was a known causative agent. To say of early campaigns aimed at partner reduction that such reductions made little difference  is plain wrong. It meant a great deal to the individual men who remained uninfected as a result. A page later Rotello himself presents data showing that even in an environment of 40% infection, significant partner reduction can reduce infection by one-third. Rotello's own prevention plan, universal serial monogamy, would itself be a drastic form of partner reduction. Having mocked partner reduction as a prevention effort and pointed out how much more effective advocating use of condoms for anal sex would have been, Rotello does an about face. He laments that, with the isolation of HIV came the reduction of all safer sex messages to the condom code: always wear one during anal sex and you need worry about nothing else .
This is revisionist history. In New York City, for example, GMHC's safer sex publications (like comic books) and safer sex classes had a much more varied palette of risk reduction procedures than condoms for anal sex. A generation of gay men literalized the early, important prevention slogan, Come on me not in me, quite polymorphously. In my observation and my own experience, in the age of AIDS the majority of casual sexual encounters between gay men do not involve anal intercourse at all. (Rotello extols a cohort of gay men in Holland for achieving a 0 rate of new HIV infection after encouragement to reduce anal sex outside primary relationships ; he neglects to add that the pool of infection among Dutch gay men was astronomically lower than among their counterparts in urban America.) In Rotello's version, politics largely determined the original consolidation of gay opinion behind the condom code: no gay leader would question a right to anal sex and to many partners . Again bad history.
The condom code was the result of a very natural desire to make the greatest impact with the minimal intervention. For many men, a simple barrier to the fluid that carried the virus seemed the easiest way to accomplish this. (For those averse to latex, emphasizing non-penetrative sex acts might be; for others, anal sex without a barrier with a primary partner of the same serostatus. A lot of men have mixed and matched strategies in sequence or combination.) Rotello is wrong that prevention efforts have been silent about condom risk . In fact, guidelines routinely suggest how to minimize risks (double bagging, using monoxynol 9, withdrawing before ejaculation). Among the darts Rotello tosses at the condom code: some gay men get high in order to have the unprotected sex they most desire .
Rotello speculates that if the success of the condom code requires eradication of gay men's substance abuse problems, its prospects are dim ; I would have thought that the success of a commitment to monogamy would require very sober men indeed. Venturing beyond the condom code, Rotello blames GMHC's guidelines  for assuming that some gay men would have more than one partner. But guidelines that presumed an airtight monogamy for all would have been irresponsible. By book's end  he accuses the new AIDS prevention movement of accepting high transmission rates and an eternal AIDS epidemic; his censure is irrational. Who would work for a movement he believed pre-doomed to fail?
At least as startling, Rotello's commentary on safer sex posters is worthy of the Jesse Helms school of art criticism (where hot photos of fags promulgate faggotry). [I]t would not be surprising if they that is, posters with cute boys holding condoms exhorting an audience to DO IT were influential in teaching young gay men that the preferred form of homosex is anal sex . Forget that the poster doesn't even mention anal sex. Rotello would contend that, since most gay men don't use condoms for oral sex, the presence of a condom in the poster implies an appeal to anal sex. But if they'd said: use condoms for anal sex, Rotello would have complained that they were discouraging their use for oral sex, and were explicitly promoting anal sex. Such a Catch 22 condemnation of just about any sexy, safer sex message is particularly ironic coming from Rotello. In the summer of 1995 his AIDS prevention group (GALPHA) complained that draft regulations for New York City sex clubs failed to require so many safer sex posters per so many square feet of wall space.
This proposal to divert scarce prevention dollars to such statutory micro-management raised a few eyebrows. I now wonder what dour posters GALPHA had in mind. Schoolmarms replacing cute boys? skull and crossbones over cock and balls? The fight for sufficiently explicit and engaging safer sex materials has been hard-fought; Rotello would apparently throw away our gains.
As Rotello asserts, degaying AIDS  may have cost us gay-targeted prevention dollars. But, given the insufficiently explicit messages of much government sponsored AIDS prevention materials, I don't know we're much the poorer for it. And degaying AIDS arguably spared many people infection in those pockets of urban America where AIDS is a heterosexual threat. But Rotello is wrong that activists promulgated the notion that millions of American heterosexuals outside of drug users and their partners would ever be infected: even most pioneer activists realized that heterosexual mating patterns would militate against massive transmission of this difficult to transmit virus. The specter of heterosexual AIDS  probably did gain us research dollars. Of all Rotello's twists of history, the one that most puzzles me, a gay New Yorker on the epidemic's front-lines, is his undeviating depiction of gay men's response to AIDS: always narrowly self-interested, usually delusional .
He underestimates us. The response of gay men to AIDS, individually and through our organizations, has been characterized by a pervasive altruism. There is little in gay culture, he sniffs, to encourage a wider sense of responsibility . This is not the gay culture I know. Mutual affection has been the fuel that runs the vast network of grassroots AIDS-related service and activist organizations, and the glue that holds them together. It has fed innumerable more personal efforts among friends, lovers and relative strangers. Finding in myself the strength to carry out personal and community AIDS work has been to use a term Rotello is particularly fond of transformative. And I've found this transformation mirrored in friends and lovers and other gay men throughout the epidemic. The task of gay men now is to build upon this bedrock a vibrant culture (sexual and other) of mutual and communal support. Rotello's vision, which privileges one form of sexuality as optimally ecological, would support only those who are of like habit.
Of all the gay men Rotello's book slights, none fare worse (and with less reason) than HIV+ men. Rotello's characterization of the unmitigated self-interest , and irresponsibility of HIV+ men in casual sexual encounters  runs counter to almost all my own experience. (He quotes selectively from Scott O'Hara's deliberately inflammatory editorial, Exit the Rubberman without mentioning that O'Hara is so determined to notify potential partners of his HIV status, he's had HIV+ tattooed on an upper arm.) Contrary to Rotello's assertion, the condom code does not let HIV+ men off the hook . In fact, as Rotello notes, AIDS prevention literature calls for using condoms for anal sex irrespective of serostatus it does not have a special message for HIV+ men.
It's Rotello who campaigns for targeting separate messages to HIV+ and HIV- men, complains that the condom message has been the same for all men , then blames prevention efforts because HIV+ and HIV- men might somehow extract a different message from the same unambiguous materials. Other sub-populations of the gay world are pictured in narrow or distorted ways. Rural gay men are closeted, their sex is shame-ridden, they lack negotiation skills . Other prevention workers and theorists are blindly self-interested . Young gay men routinely court infection so they won't have to practice a burdonsome safer sex any more . (Rotello admits this last fact is frequently unspoken if he means it's infrequently spoken of, he's right; I've never heard such a thing) In one chapter he stereotypes lesbians as more contentedly monogamous than even heterosexuals , but soon approvingly quotes Torie Osborne's indictment of sexually adventurous young lesbians as consumerist . (As if a queered American Dream of spouse, pet, house, and maybe a kid were not comsumerist?)
Promiscuous fags supposedly somehow infected these young dykes with their libertinism. But, contrary to Rotello's claim, not even we libertines believe in our absolute sexual freedom ; only absolutists believe such things exist. Gay culture is a good deal richer than the shallowness depicted here. Think of the significant figures in gay thought and politics and art and literature of the last generation, and of their impact within and beyond gay culture, and you'll begin to realize just how blind Rotello's portrayal is to most of what we are.
At the beginning of the book , Rotello admits he's reversed some earlier activist premises. Maybe Sexual Ecology would be better read as a book length sub rosa mea culpa. Overt Augustinian confession had been more exciting. But the resourceful reader in search of enlivening subtext will find modest reward. Like when the former party promoter preaches withdrawal from the fast lane. Or when the former editor of a magazine, the existence of which depended on ads that glorify sex, attacks ads that glorify sex . Or when a former activist (and current journalist) accepts without question the dated, self-serving assertion of New York City's former Health Commissioner, Stephen Joseph, that activists have needle exchange.
In handling the activist response to the epidemic, the book captures the mood no more accurately than it captures the facts. Which argument was aggressively promoted by gay and AIDS activists? That we deserved support because we had now become desexualized good gays . In the years that saw the queering of gay liberation, how could someone aggressively promoting his desexuality be designated an activist? ACT UP's profile was pro-sex and in-your-face about it. Its weekly meetings quickly gained a reputation as the sexiest place a gay man could find himself on Monday evenings. Later Rotello comes to his senses and terms most activists sexual libertarians, but by then  he's polarized those who adopt a lifestyle of sexual restraint and those very libertarians who drift farther into an acceptance of homosexuality as inevitably diseased and death ridden, a characterization no opponent of his would accept.
But by then, Rotello has become so rabid in his desire to mainstream gay men, he holds those gay men who've recently seroconverted responsible for the AIDS backlash that he's terrified will occur . Fear of backlash will not motivate most gay men: they don't conduct their personal lives as the straight world would have them do. Early in the book Rotello valorizes lone, unheeded voices from early in the epidemic. In his few personal appearances in the book, he positions himself as heir to this tradition: delivering an unwanted message to parents of gays, failing to convince a panel of the high risk of oral sex.
He recounts near universal opposition by gay and AIDS groups  to his organization's proposal to remove doors from cubicles in New York sex establishments. Rotello's voice (as he realizes) may not be the majority voice among gay men . But he needn't worry as much as he does that fresh HIV infection might prompt friendly editorial boards and politicians to desert gay men [281 2].
Rotello's is the voice that the mainstream wants to hear. Of recent books that deal with issues of AIDS prevention, Sexual Ecology is the one published by a mainstream house. And even among gay men, a call to monogamy might well be embraced by Our Leaders, so gaga to get us married. Though it's not my particular kink, those that want to chain themselves to one another should go ahead. But in this age of health crisis, let's first secure for the rest of us a right to healthcare irrespective of job or spouse or lack of one.
5: Monogamy as an AIDS Prevention Strategy for Gay Men
All the elaborate engine of Sexual Ecology drags on a one-word signboard: Monogamy! Could anything as complex as an ecology be reduced to a mantra so blissfully simpleminded? One could argue that in the potentials of promiscuity there's an interconnected web of a sexual culture that's closer to an "ecology" than the isolated couples of serial monogamy. But by fiat serial monogamy is anointed "ecological" , the book's central breathtaking leap of illogic. This "deep" ecology of monogamy as an actual AIDS prevention strategy has all the specificity and real world relevance for gay men today that Nancy Reagan's bromide of a decade ago, "Just Say No," had for people who faced chemical dependency.
Rotello warns us that his plan has no real specifics, encourages education and the continued development of community alternatives to bars and baths, throws out a few vague incentives for maintaining monogamy. It seems we need to change a whole cultural system of rewards and punishments in order to achieve his goal . We ought accord monogamites a "status" withheld from all the rest of us (perhaps a sliding scale, with the faithful for life on top and us lifelong sluts the grubs), rewarding those who integrate sex more holistically into their lives . (Cash incentives perhaps? I'd have thought monogamy its own reward.)
Then he tells us again that his platform has no concrete planks yet, and that we are free to disagree with the few non-specifics that he has proposed and come up with some of our own. But for AIDS we need strategies that people can apply to their lives and adapt with ease, not a vague hope that a whole culture can turn on a dime. (Be thankful it won't: just imagine the gay culture this book would engineer.) In the middle of a health crisis, does Rotello seriously propose that we replace current AIDS prevention programs with this muddle?
Rotello's implicit prevention message might be formulated: Since not all of you will use condoms every time you should, construct your life so you can never be in a position where you might fail to maintain your safety.
This is also a prescription for a cramped, airless life. Early in the epidemic, monogamy was the facile, sterile solution that much of the outside world proposed for us: why can't these fags control themselves? But how would monogamy actually work among men who have sex with men? There is not the constraint of a child-bearing partner. Rotello recognizes this and says it need not make us a lot more promiscuous than heterosexuals, just a little not a useful personal prevention strategy for an HIV- gay man. Even among heterosexuals, who have a tradition of monogamy and an arguable biological imperative toward child-rearing, marriage today is in a shambles.
That it has throughout history been the engine of much enforced misery does not recommend it to many gay men. Rotello tells us  that in 1978 only 14% of gay American men were in monogamous relationships. Has AIDS changed this? Rotello maintains that even today the natural tendency of gay sexual life is to slide into a posture of unsafe sex with multiple partners . (I would contest the generality "unsafe" and recast the whole metaphor.) Even in the face of death, gay men have shown no widespread inclination to monogamy. It might have seemed a logical individual response at the beginning of the epidemic, but was never long entertained by most gay men, a measure of how little it satisfies a significant number of us. For many, monogamy would not be the "balance" that Rotello calls it, but imbalance; not "moderation," but a desperate surrender of freedom.
Since many would find it purgatory, enforcing Rotello's utopia would take extensive, draconian social engineering unlikely to occur. What today would induce gay men to embrace monogamy in numbers large enough to make it effective AIDS prevention?
Openly nostalgic for the days of "The Fear" the epidemic's early years when a mood of terror and ignorance prevailed over many gay lives, forcing some into sporadic celibacy or a doomed, makeshift monogamy, Rotello would again preside over virally enforced sex lives. He disparages  the recent tendency in AIDS prevention programs to encourage open discussion of individual occurrences of unsafe sex. He believes any lessening of the stigma attached to unsafe sex will promote it. Forget that everything we know about how people change unwanted behavior says they begin by acknowledging it. Coupled with his glorification of fear, Rotello's celebration of stigma is breathtaking. Would he frighten unwilling gay men into monogamy? what sort of lives would he have us lead?
Fear is a healthy animal response to threatening conditions. But it's usually a time limited response, an emergency response. (Personally, I don't have the fear of AIDS that I had in the mid-80s and I won't again.) As such, fear is an ineffective base for long term AIDS prevention. How is a life lived in fear "healthy" anyway? Protracted fear is phobia. Contrast this valorization of terror with the generous, liberating vision that's informed gay life since Stonewall. (Rotello actually calls the shackles of his prospective AIDS-induced monogamy this revolution .)
So essential is the maintenance of fear to Rotello's prevention program, he quite remarkably laments two features of the virus which limit its devastation: even between seriodiscordant partners, most unsafe encounters won't result in infection, and those that do won't result in immediate disease. Such "weak penalties"  vitiate viral fear: the penalties meted out to men who have occasional unsafe sex are uncertain and abstract Rotello asks us to figure out how we can make them swift and certain.
Because not even a full-blown AIDS panic will be strong enough to compel monogamy endlessly into the future, Rotello has to paint the devastatingly predictable result  of a return to promiscuity once AIDS is under control: other plagues. Monogamy requires such a high level of fear because, to be a successful prevention strategy for gay men, it needs to be complete. Because the gay male urban population already has a high rate of HIV infection, HIV men can't with impunity engage in unprotected sex to even the degree heterosexuals can.
Rotello may allow us to be a little more promiscuous than them and still avoid his censure, but we won't long avoid the virus unless we observe the condom code. And even monogamy presents microbial danger if each member has a different serostatus. Rotello cites a study of heterosexual seriodiscordant couples ; only 48% consistently used condoms. With figures like these it's hard to present serial monogamy as AIDS prevention. Its defenders might argue that while there will be lots of individual infections within couples, the epidemic will be contained. I'm thankful that most AIDS prevention efforts in the real world actually care about all lives, even those that are, in the chilly abstract, epidemiologically insignificant.
Studies show that youth is a time of relative promiscuity. Even in a time of AIDS, even for heterosexuals: as I write this the airwaves are alive with the "news" that lots of college kids are having lots of sex with lots of different college kids. For gay urban youth today the pool of potential partners is vast. In its significant aspects the sexual revolution will not be easily reversed. In failing to provide a framework in which promiscuity can be healthy, Rotello's dictum of serial monogamy effectively abandons gay youth. At one point Rotello valorizes those who, youth spent, withdraw from the fast lane; no accolade will confer on them retrospective immunity. Rather than moralistic pep talks, effective AIDS prevention exploits technologies to develop strategies that answer human needs. Even Rotello, realizing that as prevention strategy serial monogamy would be ecological disaster , backs up his leaky boat with a call to observe the very same condom code on which he's heaped such ridicule. Rotello turns his guns on monogamy's perceived greatest enemy: the core group of multipartnerists. All his talk about "contact rate" obscures the reality of individual lives in an age when many consistently practice safer sex: a simple rate of partner change no longer determines STD rates.
Early on, Rotello admits : A core in which everyone uses condoms or engages only in masturbation is not going to amplify disease. This makes his consistent knee-jerk scapegoating of a "core" of multipartnerists, irrespective of behavior, suspect. The danger of Rotello's construction is that it invites measures that would eliminate that group's activities measures that would be diversionary and wasteful of time, money and attention. Like his attack on sex clubs.
Like Rotello's, my experience is that the sex that goes on in clubs is overwhelmingly manual or oral, and most anal sex takes place at home. Epidemiologically, the only "core" activity is unprotected anal sex. But that takes place outside the core between relatively steady partners as well. Some men infected "monogamously" will in turn be infecting the core. Effective prevention programs target the activity of individuals rather than their membership in some amorphous group that has to be identified differently in an age of safer sex, as imperfectly maintained as that may be. But don_t look to Rotello's book for help in differentiating this activity: he confounds the very different health risks of unprotected oral sex, unprotected rimming and much more in a single short paragraph [105-6]. Adding to worries about deep kissing seems to me counterproductive to AIDS prevention.
Yet HIV is dozens or even hundreds of times more difficult to transmit than any other known venereal pathogen . So, rather than fanning panic into the distant future, why not accept and exploit HIV's uniqueness?
"Brothel cultures" throughout history have never known anything like AIDS. Rotello's own listing  of the several factors that facilitated the initial explosion of HIV among gay men in America implicitly recognizes that altering any contributing factor should produce a vastly different ecology and curtail the spread. Quick, effective prevention strategies try to do just that. Counter the disease until it's conquered, altering behavior as necessary. But don't consecrate that alteration as some naturally ordained ecological ideal. Laying waste a whole landscape of sexual activity is not something we could easily do. Nor would anyone who prizes people's rights to self-determination want to.
A monogamy prescribed by fear of a virus, liable to be as barren as marriage forced by unwanted pregnancy, might keep one free from virus, only to destroy one's sexual health. The confectionery utopias of social engineers seek to live people's lives for them. By contrast, exemplary AIDS prevention programs would facilitate the maximal sexual health of diverse individual gay men, preserving their right to choice.
6: Toward a Future of Gay Male Sexual Health
We oughtn't easily surrender our desire to a virus. In a world full of germs , we must learn to act on our desires with the maximal safety, minimal risk we can manage. Yes, the "sexual ecology" of white heterosexual America is not conducive to HIV transmission. To mimic it merely for that would allow AIDS alone to rule our lives. "The consistent adoption of condoms by approximately half of all gay men is a remarkable success by almost any scale ." Even Rotello's worst-case reading of current data holds that we're probably never far above epidemic threshold : if we could keep the rate of unsafe activity where it is right now, the lower infectivity that new treatments promises would be enough to end the epidemic . All the more reason to redouble efforts that have been significantly successful already, and augment them with those that have a chance of success in the world gay men live in. Calls to monogamy may be simpler than the dirty work of the real world, but the latter messy complexity has one significant advantage: it has a chance of being effective. It's undeniable that new infection occurs. One doesn't have to accept Rotello's reading of the second wave of AIDS infection to advocate constant refurbishment of our AIDS prevention strategies. One problem has been in not seeing to it that our prevention efforts remain abreast of the epidemic and speak to the whole range of gay men.
In 1997 many younger men don't know AIDS firsthand, and few older ones retain the same level of horror they had. More effective AIDS treatments and hope for better ones will continually alter the prevention landscape. The new therapies offer us an occasion to renew a community commitment to safety. Rotello seems to lament the success of protease inhibitors  because the hope their success engenders may increase core group behavior. Unlike Rotello, I see little evidence that new AIDS therapies are fueling significant abandonment of safer sex practices. But if the message of fear no longer speaks , exploit the current sense of hope. For men who are positive, there will soon be more effective therapies.
For men who are negative, there's a conceivable end to the epidemic where a year and a half ago there seemed none: determine to remain negative until then. The time is more than ripe for an overhaul of the concept of safer sex, how we impart it to new generations of men and how we aid older men in maintaining it. I don't equate ecological sex with freedom from virus.
But Rotello is right in one thing: gay male sexual culture, group and individual, will be healthier when it's infused with a sense of community, and every individual gay man shares in the well-being of every man he has sex with and, by extension, all gay men better and healthier sex for our tribe than a series of fear induced marriages could ever make for.
Successful AIDS prevention will be generous rather than narrow, to accommodate the widest range of sexual (and other) dispositions. It's my experience that multipartner sex can be compatible with, even foster a healthy sexual ecology, and that safer promiscuity can be at least as "transformative" as monogamy. For more than a dozen years I've been a more or less promiscuous practitioner of my version of safer sex, a personal expansion of the hoary old slogan: "Come on me not in me" which for me is still a hot thought.
In my sex life I stress non penetrative sex acts, wear condoms for my infrequent anal sex, do not use condoms for oral sex but do not take ejaculate into my mouth. (This will seem unacceptably risky to some gay men and unaccountably stodgy to others; I support them all in their right to make their own sexual decisions and ask that they refrain from interfering with mine.) I take the HIV test regularly; though middle-aged, I remain HIV- . I'm relieved that the era of my most concentrated AIDS fear is over, though I'm not immune to the rare, short term, low grade AIDS induced panic. Fear has ceased to be the primary reason I keep safe. Applying some of the community lessons that activism taught me, I now play to promote personal, partner and group pleasure and health, and persist in believing that the best long-range prevention, supporting habits to be maintained over a lifetime, will be fueled by desire rather than fear.
No one can make an unerring blueprint for something as fragile and subject to flux as a sex act is. But during this epidemic I've been able to distill a personal sexual lexicon that's consistent with both my health and pleasure, and, I hope, with that of my partners. I don't elevate it to a universally applicable ecological law; it's not the Destiny of Gay Men, or even of this gay man forever. Safer promiscuity is not the right strategy for every gay man; I don't even know if it can be practiced by a sizable proportion of gay men.
But I do know that there are many men who've practiced it successfully throughout the epidemic, and that I and others resent the call to close down the very establishments that enable our practice of safer sex. Only a short time after Stonewall, the official police harassment of gay social and sexual spaces abated . This ignores the fact that in Stonewall's home, New York City police, with the support of reactionary gay journalists, have, for the past three years, regularly infiltrated and closed gay cinemas, bars and clubs. Rotello uses data showing that bathhouses contributed to the early epidemic [197-8] in an attempt to embarrass opponents of his efforts to close current commercial sex establishments.
Old-fashioned bathhouses and sex clubs some devoted to safer sex, many not "have staged a return " Of course, those that are devoted to safer sex should not be identified with old fashioned bathhouses, and he's already identified (semi )public gay sexual activity in our time as mostly manual and oral. I find chilling the indifference of a fellow gay man  to the consequences of the forced relocation of even a small amount of casual sex from safe establishments where condoms are available and fag bashers rare. Thus the safety and comfort and sense of community that characterize baths, rather than something to honor, becomes something to destroy . How does he think he has a right to rob men of something that he knows to be so significant to their lives?
Rotello's focus on the evil of core group behavior scapegoats and stigmatizes those of us who engage in multipartnerism, and works against AIDS prevention. Rotello tells gay men outside the core that they can't just ignore us: core members are dangerous because they occasionally infect outside the core. This invites action against the core group and misses the point: many in the core group play safe. For some of us multipartnerism has not been a threat to our safety, but its source; and semi-private and commercial sex clubs the platform for that safety, a platform that Rotello and his fellows would, in the name of unproved theory, deny us.
In many sex clubs there is an unspoken taboo against anal sex without condoms. For some, Rotello's efforts would eliminate that communal inducement to safety and move sex to an arena that's risky for them: not public space but a stranger's bedroom. Community norms can promote safer sex; communal sex is one way. And when safer sex becomes the norm at a commercial establishment it can promote safer sex in other contexts. Rotello's advocacy of closing sex spaces has interfered with my own practice of safer sex and diminished the pleasure I share with dozens of other gay men in any given year, interactions that I and they cherish, interactions that strengthen the web and fabric of gay New York City. During this epidemic every sexually active gay man has attained a body of knowledge.
Hundreds of thousands of gay men have altered the way they express their sexuality and come up with safer models that more nearly meet their needs than monogamy could. Pooling these bodies of knowledge would be a more effective prevention project than hunting down the promiscuous; gay men might draw from the pool in accord with their needs. And more effective than handing them verbal charms (Moderation, Balance, Monogamy) too airy to long survive real life, too narrow to let them breathe. There are alternatives to closets and coffins. Early in his book Rotello poses  its central question: can gay men readapt our behavior so we can create a sustainable culture at the same time we preserve our liberation?
I reached the end of the book with only the foggiest glimpse of that culture (O gray new world!), wondering what notion of gay liberation could trash so much earlier gay culture and commit us to so much internal and external regimentation.
Like earlier generations of gay liberationists, I acknowledge the genuine power of multipartner sex. In a quest to subvert the current order, some queers have found a polygamy of potential that anyone might be anyone else's lover a useful tool for opening up the airless, asocial closed circuit of the state-sanctioned couple, can you imagine a queer nation reduced to such couples in the aggregate? Rotello claims that most activists are sexual libertarians and that, among gay men, sexual libertarians have the strongest voices. If he's right, I'd like to issue a challenge to all my loose-lipped, loudmouth comrades, irrespective of serostatus. Afraid that safer sex messages teach only self-protection, Rotello demands a heightened sense of responsibility from HIV+ men.
Believing that most HIV+ men already act with great responsibility, I call on all gay men. Time is past due for a prevention activism to augment our treatment activism. One task: to develop simple structures staffed by community members to facilitate healthy pleasure in commercial establishments and elsewhere. Unless we go out and claim our sexual space, forces from inside and outside our community will work to take it from us.
We can make places that promote our individual and our communal health. Which, as we libertines know, is a lot more than freedom from a pathogen. But for those of us who are still free of HIV, it includes steps to maintain that status as well.
If you'd like to discuss the future of community-based AIDS prevention, contact me at: JIM EIGO, PO Box 492, NYC 10009 / (212) 533-2769 /JIMEIGO@aol.com
(Ed. Note: See this week's GayToday People feature--Gabriel Rotello: "I'm No Demon!" An Open Letter to Sex Panic.)
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