Walt Odets San Francisco East Bay gay therapist and psychologist and author of In the Shadow of the Epidemic: Being HIV Negative in the Age of AIDSWalt Odets, Home Page.Books on gay men, HIV, and AIDS prevention by Walt Odets, information and some full text.Articles on gay men, HIV negative gay men, HIV and AIDS prevention by Walt Odets, many with full text.Talks on gay male issues, gay couples, AIDS and AIDS prevention by Walt Odets, many with full text.Psychotherapy and couples counseling for gay men and gay couples with Walt Odets.Contact Information for Walt Odets, San Francisco East Bay psychologist.Search the Walt Odets website for books, articles and talks on gay men, gay couples, HIV-negative gay men and AIDS prevention.Index of the Walt Odets website listing full text book chapters, articles and talks on gay men, HIV negative gay men, HIV and AIDS prevention.
Back to Talks Main Page

The National Gay & Lesbian
Task Force Policy Institute
Creating Change Conference
Durham, North Carolina, November, 1993

From a Panel Discussion Moderated
by Eric Rofes
Sex in the Age of AIDS

By Walt Odets

Rather than attempt to directly answer Eric [Rofes'] question about what sex is like in the age of AIDS, I would like to try first to approach the issue of why Eric has had to pose the question at all.  Why, twelve years into a sexually vectored epidemic among a sexually identified minority, have so few really attempted to pose - much less address - this important question? How is it that the practical pressures, the horrors, and the politics of the epidemic have shut down our thoughts, and often our feelings about this basic issue?

The obvious part of the answer is that sex has always been hard to talk about.  And if it was hard to talk about before, the addition of a lethal virus to the mix cannot have helped matters at all.  But the epidemic itself has thrown in new obstacles against the honest examination of sex and our feelings about it.  There is our persistent desire to do well in the epidemic, and to have others perceive us as doing well , and that means we shouldn't have problems, especially with the very thing sex - that got us into the epidemic to begin with.   And we, of course, have wanted to simply feel O.K. from day to day, and to deny that sex has become even more complicated or problematic than it might have been before.  Such desires have conspired to make it difficult for us to think and feel about how we're really doing - which is sometimes less than well - and how we're really feeling about our sexuality and to talk with others about these things.  So Eric's proposed discussion for this workshop is at the same time startling and obvious.  The fact is, most of us have done very little talking about how we experience sex now that it has become indelibly associated - in the minds of gay men at least, and if only unconsciously - with the most devastating, uncontrolled worldwide pandemic of modern times.

If we are to believe what we say or imply publicly - between fellow AIDS service providers, between friends, to gay men in the form of AIDS education, and often to each other in bed - sex is as it has always been.  Except, of course, that we all purport to do it with condoms when "the exchange of body fluids" is an issue.  But can sex be so untransformed by this epidemic?  Can the most emotionally complex of human experiences be so untouched?  The answer is clearly no.  And our feelings about sex and sexuality must, like so many other feelings lurking in the corners of this epidemic, be talked about if we are to survive this lifelong event not only biologically intact, but humanly intact - as human beings with a capacity for intimacy and for love - and, lest we forget, with a capacity for the fun of sex.

Link to HomeLink to BooksLink to ArticlesLink to TalksLink to PsychotherapyLink to ContactLink to Site SearchLink to Site IndexTop of Page

We, the gay community, are defined and have largely allowed ourselves to be defined in terms of our sexuality.  We now find ourselves in a sexually vectored epidemic; we find that the sexual behavior - anal intercourse - most traditionally loathed in gay men and the one about which many of us feel the most shame - receptive anal intercourse - is the "culprit vector"; and we find ourselves with the lifelong prospect of being expected to do something that all men have refused to do with any regularity over the last century, to use condoms.  That we are having trouble with this expectation, and that our feelings about sex are complex is evident in the facts and figures: In San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York - and perhaps even in Boston - nearly as many gay men are getting fucked without condoms as ever got fucked before there was an epidemic.  Such statistics demand that we better understand what sex is like for us in an age of AIDS.  Here are some of the feelings I have seen in my personal experience and in my clinical experience as a psychologist working with many gay men in psychotherapy:

    1.  AIDS has reinforced or resurrected many of our old feelings about sex - confirming unconsciously that gay sex is bad sex and that those who "indulge" or "over-indulge" reap just rewards.  Though the tide is clearly beginning to turn, we have just lived through a near decade of sexual asceticism, 12 years of Republican advice to just say no.  Thus sex is something that we are reluctant to experience for itself, or to simply enjoy, something that needs to be justified with "purpose," and that, when engaged in without purpose, must be done surreptitiously.  The epidemic has returned sex to the list of serious topics - by entangling it in new ways with old feelings of guilt, shame, and irresponsibility. 

    2.  The epidemic has scared the wits our of many of use - making us afraid of sex and our sexual desires, secretive about what we do lest we reveal it to others and thus ourselves; and it has given those of us who have conflict about our sexuality an apparent real-world reason to put the conflict on the back burner.  Our anxiety about sex or intimacy, now sometimes seamlessly integrated into our fear of transmitting or contracting HIV draws on old vices.  If we used to drink or drug to have sex because it was homosexual sex or intimate sex, we now drink or drug because it might also be dangerous sex.  And like our pre-AIDS anxiety about sex, our current anxieties now also compel many of us to contain our behaviors until they burst forth in impulsive, secretive, and often destructive ways - or, perhaps even more destructively, to avoid sexuality altogether.

    3.  Sex before the epidemic and in the age of AIDS has something else in common: condoms.  Before the epidemic gay men were not using them much, and now it turns out that we do not like them much more than other men.  Many of us simply will not use them.  And despite what our common sense AIDS educators have told us, many gay men experience their real limitations.  They are unnatural, they break the flow of lovemaking, they taste bad, and they are a physical barrier to touch and intimacy.  They are, for many of us, contraptions from hell in the heaven of lovemaking.   Worse yet, they are a constant, concrete reminder of AIDS and of the potential of love making in the age of AIDS, a symbol in the bedroom of all the conscious and unconscious - largely unspeakable - fears and anxieties that have attached themselves to our sexual feelings.  As a psychotherapy patient once put it to me, "I'm sick and tired of retiring to the bedroom with a virtual pharmacopoeia in hopes we won't kill each other." 

    4.  Condoms lead naturally to my next point: Semen exchange.  What we now call "the exchange of body fluids" used to at least be fun, and at best about an expression of intimacy.  We wanted another man not only to come on us, but in us and anywhere else he could manage.  We may now think of semen as lethal, but many of us still want it.  A psychotherapy patient - a professional AIDS educator, by the way - recently told me that after a year and a half of strictly "safe sex" he had the night before ejaculated in his partner's mouth.  "And how did you feel about that?", I asked him.  "Well at first I was very upset.  But then as we fell asleep together, I thought to myself, 'Now we're married.'"  Such important feelings do not disappear simply because AIDS lurks in the wings.

Link to HomeLink to BooksLink to ArticlesLink to TalksLink to PsychotherapyLink to ContactLink to Site SearchLink to Site IndexTop of Page

I want to conclude with a brief story that occurred a few years ago. A psychologist friend, Steven, and I were asked to do a training with a California police department on what they called "AIDS and Gay Sensitivity."  Sitting in the back of the room was just the sort of guy you feared would be there: really big, mean-looking, and obviously very angry.  After Steven and I had spoken for half an hour, we asked for questions and discussion, and after a moment of silence, this fellow raised his hand and said with all the belligerence his appearance suggested: "I want to know just one thing.  What's it like to take it up the ass?"  As you can imagine, there was complete silence in the room, and then Steven said quietly, "Wonderful." 

How clear and powerful Steven's feelings: and how buried and complex they've gotten for many of us - buried under the realities of AIDS, the conscious and unconscious fantasies about it, the hopeful pipe dreams of AIDS educators, and the new AIDS politics of an already politicized minority.  The short and true answer to Eric's question about sex in the age of AIDS, the one so easily denied, is: complicated, even more complicated.  For sex today is entangled with meanings that should never have come near it, entanglements of fun and anxiety, wonder and horror, trust and fear, hope and hopelessness, intimacy and killing - and love and death.  If sex is to survive as a fundamental form of human intimacy - and a fundamental source of pleasure - we must dig it up.  We must think and talk more about it - more earnestly, more searchingly, more honestly than ever.  



Links for Walt Odets, San Francisco East Bay gay psychologist.


Copyright 1989-2013 Walt Whitman Odets