When eros and death dance together

by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative Loafing, Atlanta, June.

Anybody who has lived long enough to reach sexual maturity knows how perverse the human sexual appetite is - and how much people will do to hide or disguise their tastes.

But sex has become the primary public theater of our time, it seems. Disguises are routinely ripped from the famous and the ordinary alike. Eddie Murphy, the homophobic comic, is caught with a transvestite. Republicans threaten to impeach President "Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell" Clinton for fellatio and its alleged coverup. Jerry Springer daily hosts a show in which the violent agonies of lust and love are enacted by underclass sexual gladiators. Dr. Laura, like Dr. Ruth before her, dispenses advice to the more sedately sexually challenged.

Most Americans regard all of this as burlesque - in part, one assumes, because serious criticism would invite scrutiny of our own behavior. In our hearts, we all know nothing makes us as crazy as lust and that there is little we wouldn't do to satiate it under the right circumstances.

But I think there's more involved too. The Viagra burlesque covers some disturbing facts of life. Unwanted pregnancies continue. Sexually transmitted diseases of all types are on the rise. And, above all, AIDS continues to infect and kill in epidemic numbers.

But even AIDS now has a more congenial face, as Mark King of AID Atlanta has written. Part of the current treatment regimen is the prescription of steroids to help HIV patients maintain body weight. Used in combination with weight-training, the drugs can produce bodybuilder-type physiques. Thus, even if the vaunted cocktails of protease inhibitors begin to lose their effectiveness, the descent into the disfigurement so characteristic of AIDS will be delayed longer than ever. This is an irony that flaunts itself at death: The most attractive by the standards of the culture are often those marked by HIV to die early.

It's easy to dismiss this irony as an intermediate step toward AIDS' (hoped for) transition into a manageable disease -- "like diabetes," as optimists are fond of saying. (It is politically incorrect now to mention AIDS and death in the same sentence.) The macabre, ghastly face of end-stage AIDS used to cast its wearers into an isolation that preceded death by long cruel months. We haven't seen those stick-figures with sallow faces and ragged hair, breathless as they took baby steps with canes, in our public places in several years. They have been replaced by "poz" circuit boys, hairless with tanned muscles.

I'm all for the improvement of the view. But there's a parallel development: Unprotected sex has returned virtually as the norm among many young gay men. I haven't seen any statistics, but it's well known in the gay community that this is so. Of course, it would be ghastly to advocate that the dying forego steroids and return to public exhibition of themselves as grim reapers to discourage unsafe sex among the young. In any case, the young by their nature feel invincible or at least in possession of improved odds that they won't (a) catch HIV at all or (b) will not get sick before a cure is found.

And yet….and yet….

There are still more disturbing developments. Not only have "lapses" into unsafe sex become common, many men now not only find it acceptable but actively "prefer" "barrier-free" sex. Chat rooms on America Online, internet e-mail groups and websites like Xtremesex are devoted to eroticizing "bareback" sex (intercourse that is "bare" because no condom is used). Many of these people are HIV-positive men who have decided they have nothing to lose by being sexual with one another without protection. (Nevertheless, some protest that re-infection does accelerate the disease.)

It gets even more chthonic. There is a substantial movement of men who play a kind of intentional sexual roulette with one another. HIV-negative men purposely put themselves at risk through unprotected sex with the HIV-positive. In this case, the virus is literally fetishized as "the gift". The language of the gift's bestowal is drenched in the metaphors of procreative insemination. Gifters imagine themselves giving something vital of themselves to the men they infect. "It gives me a thrill," writes one, "to know that I have helped bring him to his destiny, inseminated him with my own substance. It's what he asked for."

Hysterics condemn this behavior as stupid or insane. I hope, though, that I have demonstrated here that it is really an extreme of a continuum that includes a quite common and growing indifference to HIV status and safe sex. I do think the new muscularized look of AIDS and the eroticizing of the virus share something very much in common. Both conflate two drives Freud observed as fundamental to humans: pleasure and death.

This conflation of death and pleasure is by no means unique to the minority of gay men. The film Crash, and its eroticizing of car wrecks, was about precisely the same thing. Pornography - the most politically incorrect but psychologically accurate arena of the culture's sexual shadow - reveals this conflation more often than not. Fantasies of rape and other kinds of violent ownership of the sexual object's body are often central and not confined to gender or sexual orientation. Many men engaging in bareback sex talk about how the risk - ultimately of death, for there remains no cure for AIDS - elevates their pleasure.

It is even hard to tell the extent to which bareback sex may be a fantasy confined to cyberspace. The erotic cyberbody, of course, has no need of condoms - any more than the video porn body does and thus the imagination can roam free. If bareback sex doesn't explicitly illuminate the close association of the will to pleasure and death, it certainly reveals - as fantasy or real-life practice - the drive to join with the other completely and without barriers. It is a remarkably reality-based enactment of that other fantasy that has long captivated the erotic imagination: the vampire.

It does little good, then, to demonize as stupid or pathologize as crazy those whose libidos bring them into this pleasureable dance that flirts with death. The extent to which we pathologize them is the extent to which we remain blindly hopeful that AIDS can be defeated by cures or that the infection rate can be more than affected by a few percentage points.

Everything -- everything -- is capable of becoming eroticized. Anything taboo especially is subject to this and nothing in this culture is as taboo as public death. When the taboo is situated against the horizon of an already stigmatized population, gay men, it is easy to understand how what is sensible on the surface gets completely inverted in the imagination.


Copyright 1998 by Creative Loafing | Published June 8, 1998

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