Author Roundtable III: Tim Dean's Unlimited Intimacy

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

posted under , , , by Unit for Criticism
Written by Ryan M. Jones (History)

Tim Dean’s Unlimited Intimacy provided a provocative experience on Monday, December 8, one that I was honored to participate in. I read the section of this book with a certain bias—two people I know recently found themselves facing life-changing news due to their sexual experiences, and as such, reading about a subculture that actively cultivates the HIV virus as a form of kinship struck me as particularly pathological. However, I also understood that part of the exercise Dean’s work intended to complete was to challenge an initial response such as mine, one cultivated by two decades of safe-sex education, but also one that is enmeshed in competing ideologies of health and illness, risk and pleasure. I believe that Dean succeeds, although ethical concerns seem to be unresolved with the current form of his book...

The event was headlined by Dean reading from his work, followed by an insightful look the process by which books are reviewed and revised on their trajectory towards publication. This was offered by Prof. Matti Bunzl, who had been one of the reviewers of the text. Bunzl’s primary claim was that a tension existed in Dean’s work between the self-reflexive revelation of his HIV status and at times dismay at activities in the bareback culture (such as the intention infection of others) and his desire to remove discussion of the subculture to a neutral ground where new insights into sexuality and society could be better evaluated, free from kneejerk reactions that were biased against bareback culture. Bunzl asserted Dean could have his cake and eat it too—at once create a neutral space as well as offer his own judgment on the subculture, something that I too found desirable from Dean as author, yet didn’t find in the text. Following Bunzl, Cris Mayo offered a reading of Dean vis-a-vis her work on queer youth, citing similarities in the way that subcultures rewrite more mainstream cultures (such as through appeals to risk and nonnormative behaviors), as well as her concerns on the implications of bareback culture for queer youth already surrounded by a confusing array of sexual information, especially as these youth are entering complex adult cultures partially unaware of the significance of the activities taking place. As for me, I had a number of questions as the final respondent, which I have elaborated on below. I do wish to thank the Unit for inviting me to participate and for helping make my presence in person possible.


On my own second reading of he text, a number of questions remained unresolved for me. First, I found it difficult to believe that bottoms (men who are penetrated) were as actively praised as “heroes” for the subculture and as hypermasculine men as Dean described. This is due in part to the manner in which the bottoms are treated, from parties in which negative bottoms are proffered to tops of indeterminate HIV status in a sort of roulette game.

It seems to me that far from a bonding event, a hierarchy remains that privileges tops over bottoms, whether in terms of power (such as who is dominating who towards a certain desire), in terms of tops being “gift givers” who can bestow HIV on someone else, or in the lack of evidence that after sex, bottoms were affirmed as hypermasculine and that the degredation during sex was just part of the fantasy, rather than an expression of reality.


Do people actually inhabit versatile roles, or are they more demarcated. Dean offers that one can be both a gift giver and someone who receives a gift, a top in one moment and a hypermasculine bottom in another. But, like with the unclarity towards the status of bottoms in bareback subculture, I’m left wondering if people in bareback subcultures are truly versatile, or if versatility, a stated goal of many gay rights organizations and a feature of North American gay cultures that at least partially eschewed heteronormative gender identities, is part of the homonormativity which bareback subculture also attempts to undermine.

Health and Risk

If bareback subculture rewrites the manner in which we can conceive of health and risk in that it refuses to link infection with illness, what they do we do with the bodies involved in such a subculture, especially as the subculture is identified as one that worships muscularity and masculinity. Many men who are HIV positive also take testosterone supplements, thereby promoting a stereotypical masculine physique at the gym which translates into a body desirable in ways similar to mainstream culture: big muscles, ripped physique, an appearance of overall health. In this way, bareback subculture seems to ratify mainstream health perspectives (e.g., those of gym culture), even as the appearance of health belies the possibility of infection. Additionally, what of the presence of bareback twinks? Gay porn sites are rife with younger, less muscular men having “raw” sex (think Chaosmen, HotStuds or Bareback Twinks). Two questions then: first, in relation to Cris Mayo’s points on the problems with young queers who grew up with little sex education being initiated into a complex subculture they may not fully grasp the consequences of, what role do twinks have in the bareback culture? Or in another way, what role do those who do not have muscular bodies have in this subculture? Are they more frequently found in the bug-chasing or bottom positions vis a vis more experienced members? Tim Dean did have an interesting response in the presence of emaciated, diseased bodies in bareback porn—this then points to the subculture’s possible glorification of other forms of eroticism, but more evidence would be needed. The second question is this: is the presence of barebacking now in mainstream gay porn—which has long been a bastion of promoting safer-sex practices after AIDS forced the abandonment of the pre-condom romps of the 1970s—an attempt at the normalization of bareback subculture by those in the mainstream who themselves like (whether as fantasy or reality) unprotected sex, but prefer it under a regulated guise, rather than the free-flowing, often anonymous practices of the subculture. That is, under circumstances which do not transmit the disease, such as is required by many of the websites through the constant screening of models for HIV. Is homonormativity striking back, bringing this unruly subculture under its regulatory purview by eroticizing “deviant” behavior inorder to control it and reaffirm the commitment of the mainstream gay community to stopping HIV.


As a historian, I wanted more evidence to support Dean’s work. I wanted to see more oral histories or at least evidence why the anecdotes chosen were representative. I wanted, perhaps, more numbers on participants and roles played in the subculture, as well as evidence on how the visual aspects of bareback subculture—the pornographic aspect, for example—actually influence the decisions and desires of the participants. I imagine some of this evidence will be provided in the later chapters we didn’t get to read. Additionally, I was unsure about the significance of etymology to the subculture. Dean makes some provocative, insightful, and elegant readings of the etymology of “gift” and “virus” and how older meanings of these terms related to current realities in the bareback subculture. I wanted to know, however, if the individuals actually were thinking of etymology as they fucked.

Death culture

One of Dean’s most interesting and crucial assertions is that bareback subculture has reconfigured what “life” and “death” are, making death a part of life rather than the opposite of life itself. This occurs in the relexification of HIV as a gift rather than as a death sentence, HIV as a trial of masculinity rather than a stigma, and death as something to be eroticized rather than feared, among other ways. I saw parallels to this relexification in the Death culture of Mexico, a place where death is celebrated yearly on Dia de los Muertos and is seen as a passage in life, rather than life’s end. Anti-AIDS campaigns in Mexico have at times linked themselves to Mexico’s different perspective on death as a means to destigmatize the disease, even as mainstream culture can be significantly phobic about those with the disease. However, if death is seen as part of life rather than its end, then like in bareback culture, death is seen as a consequence of living and as a means of potentially challenging the medicalization of health and life. Moreover, an acceptance of death provides spaces for attaining desires at least partially free from the fear of HIV, as well as a lifestyle that is bittersweet: cognizant of the dangers and risks of sex, but desirous of both the risks and potential consequences as a result of having lived, with death as the freedom from sexual regulation and previous concerns in life.

Condom culture

In contrast, many Latin American nations such as Brazil have also had successful condom campaigns that took unsafe sex—which is the general norm in Latin America—and deroticized it in favor of condom culture. For one Brazilian campaign, it was a matter of honor for fathers and sons to use condoms and get tested, regardless of their sexual proclivities. Using fun commercials and phrases like “strapping on a condom,” safe sex was eroticized in a culture that had seen it as the male right to inseminate any orifice he chose. It is interesting, therefore, that in North America, bareback subculture was the solution to the restrictions of the AIDS epidemic, while condom culture sprouted in Latin America for the same reasons, seeing condoms not as restrictive (as bareback culture did) but liberating from previous notions of sexuality and a conservative backlash against sex during the epidemic.


Overall, a fascinating and provocative study which generated much discussion among professors and students at the Unit’s event. I look forward to further conversations about this work. If you attended…any thoughts?.


Make A Comment


Keguro Macharia said...

I missed the event, but!

Does Tim address the ongoing structures of anonymity that subtend a lot of contemporary bareback culture? (The "room will be dark, come in, don't need to see your face.")

If so, and especially following his first book, how do these non-communitarian modes of community (paradoxical as that is) function as implicit critiques of the idea of "intimacy" and of "kinship?" Or are they recuperated as alternate forms of kin-making without the obligations of kinship, or obligations driven only by contingent, occasional pleasure?

How to think, also, about the many bisexual men who bareback, but because of their bisexual (and often heterosexual) modes of identification, have an oblique relationship to gay bareback subcultures, even though they are very active participants in such cultures? (And here, there's much more to be said about the homosexualization of HIV/AIDS by heterosexual and bisexual men, and its unfolding tragic consequences.)

Keguro Macharia

Anonymous said...

I think Dean's evidence base is pretty selective. Compare D. Halperin's What Do Gay Men Want

meenu said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Saint-Petersburg Hotels said...

I was honored to participate in. I read the section of this book with a certain bias—two people I know recently found themselves facing life-changing news due to their sexual experiences, and as such, reading about a subculture that actively cultivates the HIV virus as a form of kinship struck me as particularly pathological.