I’m writing a little today about words.
For about a year now I’ve had a mild crush on a minor celebrity. Wait. My puppy love has pushed the definition of ‘celebrity’ about a mile past the much-contested boundary where it already lies muddied by the present-day culture of Snapchat fame. This guy who’s been the object of my infatuation is the brother of a female minor celebrity who, despite being an actress in small roles on a couple of shows that watchers of cable programming might have seen at one time or another, isn’t exactly a household name.
(Of course, I could just skip all the mystery and name names. But I won’t, and I’ll ask my readers not to either, simply because I don’t want people typing in the guy’s name into Google along and having a sex blog appear at the top of the search list. I’m a gentleman, after all. Once in a while, anyway.)
The only reason at all I know of the actress’ brother is because he appears on YouTube with his sister once a week in a regular feature in which the pair of them play vintage video games. These short segments usually consist of the siblings shouting obscenities at each other at the tops of their pretty considerable lungs. Hey, as someone who has shouted plenty of obscenities at video games in his lifetime (I’m probably doing it right now, as you read), I find their antics pretty amusing.
What I’m leading up to, in my shaggy dog story of an introduction here, is that this last week in their celebration of retro gaming, the pair were playing some outdated cartridge-based game from the mid-nineties. The brother was trouncing his more famous sister pretty soundly. Furious, she started yelling at him that he was cheating by using the power-ups the game was liberally providing. The brother, scissoring his legs furiously, fibbed and denied it all. “I’m barebackin’ it here!” he shouted back. “I’m raw-doggin’ this mother, dude! I’m barebackin’ it!”
Well, lawks-a-mercy. Gracious me! Must fan myself at the memory.
Anyway, once the blood came back into my brain after that explicit little exchange, it got me wondering: how’s this dude know what barebacking is? And does he want to do it with me?
And more interestingly to my wandering mind, how often do straight guys use the word barebacking to refer to unprotected sex, anyway? I honestly don’t know, but I’d be interested in finding out.
The word bareback and its origins intrigue me because I feel a bit as if I were there at the start of its use. Long before sites like BBRT, long before bareback movies were their own profit margin, before bareback was reduced to part of an inane goddamned hashtag, guys fucked other guys without protection as a matter of course. Men were accustomed to sticking their dicks in each other’s holes for countless generations without wrapping them in latex. Condoms were never a consideration for gay men; not having to use them, ever, was considered one of the few perks to being gay in a less enlightened age. Only in the face of the devastating effects of the AIDS epidemic did we start changing our behavior . . . or choose not to.
I was in college when the news about the gay plague started to spread. I had a standing subscription to the Village Voice that was my lifeline to a world larger than lacrosse, Lacoste, and the Greek pledge system that were the obsessions of the small Southern college I attended. I devoured its pages, memorized names and places as if there’d be a pop quiz at any moment, and drank in the New York sophistication. It was sometime during my sophomore year that I started reading about ‘gay cancer’ spreading through the community. Within months, they’d renamed the syndrome GRID. It was one of those moments in history when for a very long time the language we were destined to use for decades following was still in flux. We didn’t have the concept of HIV in the scientific realm yet; we didn’t even know the word AIDS. That vocabulary would be nailed down soon enough. For a while—a scary while—we didn’t even have the language beyond concepts like death and sickness and fear to discuss what was happening.
I think what most people fail to remember, or simply don’t realize, was how much confusion we experienced in those early days of the plague. Without a definite cause yet established, and with so many people throwing out theories of what could be causing the chaos, it seemed as if the rules of how we were supposed to protect ourselves changed daily. One week we’d be assured it was definitely something coming from overseas. We’d be okay if we didn’t fuck around with foreigners. Then suddenly a scientist would say something in the papers about how perhaps poppers were involved. It was something in the poppers, we’d rush around telling ourselves. A bad batch, maybe. Something that happened with poppers abuse. One week we’d be told there’d be a cure within months; the next we’d be gravely informed to dig in for the long haul.
The combination of half-informed scientific assertions and real fear led us to some real Chicken Little behavior, making us run around squawking that the sky was falling while indulging in superstitious nonsense in the hopes that we might be spared.
I felt remote enough from the epidemic’s center not to feel immediately threatened. That false sense of security didn’t keep me from reading the news, week by week in the Voice, to see what they were saying about it. It wasn’t too long before the epidemic was making national headlines, of course. When finally HIV had been identified, we were told by serious government officials that we were all to wear condoms and never exchange fluids, ever again. To a lot of lock-step millennials accustomed to obeying and never questioning the orders of a higher authority, the prescription seems reasonable. But we were a generation of men who were already flouting the law every time we dropped our pants with another man. The sex we were having was illegal in many if not all states. The ways we had to seek it was illegal. If we’d been listening to the state and federal governments in which we’d grown up, we wouldn’t have been congregating, much less copulating.
Enforced condom use—each and every time—was a sexual regimen that a lot of gay men couldn’t take seriously. Condoms had long been the things straight guys wore when they didn’t want to make babies. Condoms were for breeders. They weren’t something that any gay man had ever bought in his lifetime, much less use. Sure, it said on the box that they could prevent disease, but even youngsters like me knew those warnings was some real World War II shit. Straight men hadn’t used condoms to avoid syphilis since the Army handed them out to privates after the Liberation of Paris. Bosses bought rubbers to prevent their secretaries from having babies. That’s what condoms were for.
I first stumbled across the term bareback in the dawn of the internet age. Although I was using the computer to hook up as early as 1989 with the Prodigy system (gawd help me), it was a couple of years later when I started dialing into other networks that I discovered IRC—internet relay chat. IRC was a primitive network by any standards, though like roaches after a holocaust, it’s proved pretty much indestructible over the years. One joined channels like #gay or #gaysex to chat with and meet like-minded men. Although the channels usually never held more than thirty or forty people at a time, I had a pretty good success rate in scoring fucks. There may have been more local gay channels to join. My memory is foggy on that point.
I’m not sure how I found the channel. I think a trick of mine landed in it, or I was invited by someone I knew. But I landed in the IRC #bareback channel sometime in 1991. It was long before hashtags, long before bareback films, long before bareback web sites, and long before straight boys were shouting it at the tops of their lungs during video games. Bareback. It was a new word that only a few dozen people were using to describe something that generations of us had done when we’d shoved our raw cocks into another man’s ass. Bareback. It sounded masculine—the kind of thing that cowboys did. With stallions. Cowboys and stallions were more appealing, sexually, than anything that clinicians were coming up with.
The term authorities used for the act, unprotected sex, sounded cold, sterile unappealing, just like it was supposed to. No one was going to call up a guy and growl, “Come over and let me perpetrate unprotected sex on you.” If you got a phone call from someone demanding, “Let me bareback that ass,” though. Yeah. You’d hop in the shower and drive halfway across town for that, right?
As a new word for something very old, bareback had the advantage of sounding both wicked and transgressive. It got the point across. For a while, if anyone actually brought up the word, you could be pretty sure they were into it. Its abbreviation, bb, was a code that worked just as well. You like bb?, you could ask someone online. If they knew what it meant, they were into it. If they had no clue, it was easy to cover your ass and say you mistyped, or maybe were abbreviating the endearment baby. Something. Anything. They wouldn't know.
For a long time, it really felt as if the new slang word were ours—that is, it seemed to belong to those of us who were actually engaging in the act. And it stayed like that for years, until the mid-nineties, when web browsing overtook the world of homegrown dial-up bulletin boards and AOL and IRC. The web changed everything. We had sites like Bareback City, and the beginnings of Bareback Jack. Guys who’d previously only employed the word in secret corners and private bulletin boards were putting their bareback preference into profiles that many, many more people were seeing—and the safe-sex adherents were noticing. Visibility got the word attention.
Suddenly just as many people were using barebacker as a pejorative, a demonization of those who choosing raw fucking and its risks as the sex they preferred to have. The mainstream press started to write articles about the legions of dangerous, evil, gay barebackers who lurked online and perverted the innocent, conveniently choosing to ignore the fact that in real life, people of all orientations had sex without condoms. Straight people in particular were still barebacking each other in record numbers on a daily basis. A word we’d chosen—a word that had seemed so liberating and exciting in its early days—started to be used against us.
It still is, of course, by those who see it as a derogatory. And for those who see it as a badge of pride, it gets used in all kinds of ways. It’s just a word. A word we take for granted. I think it’s valuable to remember there was a time before this when it was new, and unknown, and not at all guaranteed to become the slang we use daily.
But by and large, though, except when it’s employed by the mainstream press for its shock value, I’d assumed that the gay population had largely reserved the right to the use of the word bareback. Hearing it shouted between brother and sister on a mainstream video channel, over the electronic, bleeping soundtrack of a video game from twenty years ago, got me thinking about how long the word has been not only been around, but a part of my day-to-day life.