Barebacking and being, passion and paradox: existentially confronting sex and mortality.
Abstract: In this paper, I will be exploring the phenomenon of 'barebacking' or UAI, the practice of unprotected anal intercourse. I will be hoping to clarify how this currently expanding phenomenon, and the reality of the complexity of issues that underpin the practice itself, can be viewed from an existential and phenomenological perspective. These issues involve passion and desire, need and fulfillment, self-discovery and self harm, values and relationships, isolation and community, power and politics, empowerment and death. We must also take into consideration that we are being confronted by a sexual version of Russian Roulette. I propose to use the work of Existential Philosophy and modern writers on this subject, and also my own experience with clients who are facing the dilemma of either safe-sex or bareback practice.

Key Words

Paradox, Freedom, Isolation, Community, Empowerment, Dasein.
Article Type: Essay
Subject: Mortality (Analysis)
Mortality (United Kingdom)
Ontology (Analysis)
Anal intercourse (Analysis)
Existentialism (Analysis)
Author: Clarke, Colin
Pub Date: 07/01/2011
Publication: Name: Existential Analysis Publisher: Society for Existential Analysis Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Psychology and mental health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 Society for Existential Analysis ISSN: 1752-5616
Issue: Date: July, 2011 Source Volume: 22 Source Issue: 2
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United Kingdom Geographic Code: 4EUUK United Kingdom
Accession Number: 288874218
Full Text: Man is not free from conditions be they biological or psychological or sociological in nature. But he is, and always remains, free to take a stand towards these conditions: he always retains the freedom to choose his attitude towards them. Man is free to rise above the plane of somatic and psychic determinants of his existence. (Frankl, 1967:3)


The phenomenon called 'barebacking' is used as a term descriptive of a specific sexual practice, and is a fairly recent terminology born out of the gay community in America, and appearing officially in the media via a Newsweek article in 1997. It has since been commonly used to identify those men or women who continue to anally penetrate or are penetrated without any form of protection, as in a condom. Barebacking is a sexual act that has been practiced for thousands of years and has been perfectly illustrated by the scenes decorating the Warren Cup; currently on view at the British Museum. It is a drinking vessel commissioned by a wealth Roman client in 1-20 AD., depicting two scenes of a younger and an older man enjoying the act of barebacking in a domestic setting. However, barebacking as a phenomenon has only really gained significance since the 1980's when it was medically established that there was a proven connection between this sexual practice and the transmission of HIV and AIDS. It therefore incurs a sinister element when the act of engaging in this form of sexual expression could be a fatal choice to make.

Motivational desire

Barebacking confronts us with major existential issues, the desire to seek sexual fulfillment and that by choosing to bareback, of necessity promotes the need to accept the anxiety of the possibility of death as a consequence. To choose the sexual act of barebacking over the consideration of self-protection as a priority, must indicate a manifestation of a powerful physical and psychological need. Many factors have been suggested as to why some people are ignoring the question of self preservation over desire, (Shernoff, 2006) has included a negative attitude towards condoms, internalized homophobia, a sense of the inevitability of becoming infected, or even the sense of denial that any risk exists at all. We must first however, establish that the practice of barebacking is not restricted only to Gay or Bisexual men, a recent survey carried out by the New York City Department of Health estimated that: 100.000 heterosexual women have anal sex every year, and that only 23% require their male partner to use condoms, compared with 61% of gay or bisexual men. The report concluded that large number of women in New York were putting themselves at risk of contracting HIV, and other STD's. Amongst gay men surveyed in a study on barebacking by the Centre for Disease Control in Atlanta, HIV positive men were the most likely to engage in unprotected sex, predominantly with someone who they were not partnered with. Many young men and women unlike the older generation, have not been faced with the reality of friends, colleagues or family members contracting HIV and dying from AIDS. This has lead to a false sense of security.

Recent media stories have emerged surrounding HIV drug treatments, which can give the impression that HIV is easily containable and being HIV positive would be more of an inconvenience than a life threatening possibility. Another misnomer is that once you are HIV positive it won't be problematic to have unprotected sex with another who may also be positive, however the combining of different types of positive virus can result in the creation of a more damaging viral strain which may not be so easy to treat medically.

Power, medical politics and subculture

The USA Centre for Disease Control in Atlanta is reporting a surge in HIV among gay males which they have discovered is resulting from a desire from some men to actively become HIV positive. This presents the question why would anyone wish to deliberately seek to become infected, and what rational would govern this thinking. There are various responses to this leading question and I hope to show the possible existential issues that present themselves in exploring them. I want now to consider that the concept of maintaining good health, against apparent recklessness resulting in infection, can be challenged by some who see this as a form of political control.

Dean (2009) has some interesting ideas regarding the 'Imperative of Health' as producing a conflict between the bareback subculture and mainstream culture, seeing it as a contest between two secular concepts, on the one hand seeking sexual pleasure, and on the other accepted health standards. He contends that: 'Fidelity to the subcultural ideal of erotic pleasure necessitates betrayal of the mainstream cultural ideal of health or, more precisely, betrayal of a distinctly medicalized understanding of what counts as health' (Dean, 2009: 60). He goes on to make the point that:

By idealizing optimum health as the human body's normal state, our culture has marginalized death. Too often death is regarded as a sign of either medicine's technological failure or the deceased's moral failure to consistently practice risk avoidance (Dean 2009: 60)

This stand off between the bare-backer and the medical establishment introduces the concept of power into the frame. It was Foucault who stated that from the eighteenth century European society generated an 'imperative of health' that demanded the active pursuit of health as being every-ones duty and their objective. We now exist in a Western Society where the promotion of healthy living has become an individual and collective responsibility. This may eventually lead to the power of the State deciding who will be considered for treatment when it is required, and who will be rejected due to their non-conformity with healthy living guidelines. In our mainstream culture of identifying and labeling potential health risks, you can be considered to be diseased without any supporting symptoms, ie: gay and bisexual men are not allowed to offer blood to the transfusion service. It has been noted by the commentators on barebacking such as Shernoff, Dean, Halkitis, Wilton and Drescher, that the pursuit of erotic pleasure defines the subculture, it defines a collective entity rather than defining mere individuals. In the bareback culture it shows an allegiance that is to an entity that goes beyond the individual, thereby promoting promiscuous sex as a particular kind of fidelity in being more faithful to the subculture. However, this fidelity to a subcultural notion of erotic pleasure, requires ignoring the mainstream cultural ideal of promoting good health above all other considerations.

We can now consider the existential issues that are being raised. Here we are looking at the body as an expression of being, that we are an existent in a world where being with others is only possible through acknowledging their being, or their having a body. It is interesting to explore what the existential philosophers have to say about the body, especially when they discuss sexuality, which we can accept is the most intimate way that the body relates to other existents. As Macquarrie (1972) suggests, the ecstatic character of the sexual act points to the central existential role of the body in sex, for ecstasis is 'ex-sistence' the going out of oneself. In the sexual relationship the individual goes out from himself to the other in a unity of being-with-the-other. We can therefore understand barebacking as an attempt at a complete sharing of being. If we accept it as having an inescapable ontological dimension, which I will discuss later in this paper, then even casual sexual encounters are not just on the fringes of existence, but are in effect, bound to affect both persons involved quite fundamentally. In this experience both express the totality of being-with-the-other, however flawed it may seem. We are faced here with two counterpoints, the acceptance of the inevitability of being-with-others, but at the same time embracing the notion of individualism that many existential philosophers emphasize. This leads us into a possible political arena of the individual versus the group.

Embracing risky sex acts such as barebacking finds a w ay to circumnavigate government health imperatives thus refusing to acknowledge health as an instrument of power and control. Power is an important element in the structure of the barebacking culture, as it brings together both individual and collective ideals of choice and decision making as required. When asked in 1983, "How do you envision the political goals of homosexuals as a group" Foucault said:

I would say that the homosexual consciousness certainly goes beyond one's individual experience and includes an awareness of being a member of a particular social group.--As for political goals of the homosexual movement, two points can be made. First, there is the question of freedom of sexual choice that must be faced. I say freedom of sexual choice and no t freedom of sexual acts because there are sexual acts like rape which should not be permitted whether they involve a man and a woman or two men. I don't think we should have as our objective some sort of absolute freedom or total liberty of sexual action. However, where freedom of sexual choice is concerned one has to be absolutely intransigent. This includes the liberty of expression of that choice. By this I mean the liberty to manifest that choice or not to manifest it

(Kritzman, 1988: 288).

Exploring the experience

For some gay male bare-backers' the experience that presents can be about a sense of overcoming isolation, and so ironically they posit that once they are infected, they will be invited into an existing supportive community. For them, an HIV positive status can be felt as a rite of passage into that group. We can see this as a form of identity comparison, as Bohan (1996) suggests, when viewing the status of a gay man needing to fill the absence of a heterosexual identity, belonging to a new gay community can, 'afford opportunities to rewrite one's life script in a positive way'. For others, by becoming infected they feel that it will liberate them from the previously experienced anxiety of the uncertainty surrounding their sex life; that somehow this will reduce the worry of staying safe, and the continuing tests needed to confirm this status. They feel that as an HIV positive man, all they need to be concerned with is taking a few pills. This then avoids needing to confront the possible trauma of not knowing, or needing to know, the status of the other when engaging in the act of barebacking. And for others it can be about the sense of intimacy that they feel is lost by using condoms which can be perceived as creating a barrier to experiencing real intimacy. Sex without protection also offers a commitment to the other, and shows a trust and need to be with the other in an intimate sex act. In reality there exists three categories of sexually active males and females: HIV negative, HIV positive and HIV untested. A growing trend in the USA. is bug-chasing, an activity which involves men actively seeking out positive partners to infect them. These are men who use internet chat rooms to contact other potential partners specifically for unprotected sex. Bug chasing purports to show that by overcoming your fear of contracting HIV, you become master of your sexual destiny and at the same time prove your manhood. This is an issue that contributes to the exploration of masculinity within the sex act, and for therapists working with such clients, creates an opportunity to consider the ontological aspects of this. For therapists confronted by the complexities of barebacking presented by clients, I suggest that working with them through phenomenological description and existential exploration will be of use in helping the client to understand the choices that they are making. As Spinelli (2005: 30) suggests, what phenomenological psychology directs us toward is the 'application of the phenomenological method to issues and problems in psychology so that the individual's conscious experience of the world can be more systematically observed and described'.

Merleau-Ponty in commenting on sex and sexuality suggests:

I may be reduced to the status of an object beneath the gaze of another person, and no longer count as a person for him, or else I may become his master and, in turn look at him.--Sexuality is neither transcended in human life nor shown up at its centre by unconscious representations. It is at all times presented there like an atmosphere. There is an infusion between sexuality and existence, which means that existence permeates sexuality and vice versa, so that it is impossible to determine, in a given decision or action, the proportion of sexual to other motivations.

(Merleau-Ponty, 1958:195)

Considering the reality of being and sexual energy

One thing that cannot be ignored by barebacking is the concept of being for others, it is a practice that cannot be indulged in alone. As clarified by Spinelli (2005) 'being-for-others' is, ultimately, the awareness that "I am the other". It breaks down the imposed separatism and isolation of "self" and "other". This can be illustrated by a young client I am calling Simon, who was a young gay man referred to my by another therapist at Pink Therapy. The main issues identified by him were acute depression and the inability to communicate naturally with others, especially to understand what was expected of him by others. Six months into our weekly sessions he arrived as usual, but I soon experienced a different sense of energy in the room and I felt myself feeling concerned because I couldn't understand why it felt so different. There was nothing tangible about a change in his body language or in our exchanges, but something had altered. It was only after the session had finished that I began to explore my own reaction. Searching through my own passed experiences, what I arrived at was to identify the new element present in the room as some kind of sexual energy, something that I hadn't noticed in any of our previous sessions. I felt the need to address this when we met the following week, and he then offered me the following explanation.

For some time he had been engaged in conversing with another older man on a chat-line over the internet. The result was that after a number of exchanges they had eventually met up in person. What he had then experienced, was an "opportunity to engage in role playing" where the man was the "master" and he was "the boy". This had developed into a series of continuing exciting sexual encounters which he had fully embraced. He had also discovered that by giving all control to the 'master' and not being required to make any decisions of his own, he came away from these sessions feeling empowered by the experience. On asking him to further describe this feeling of empowerment, he explained that he felt a great sense of fulfillment by giving the 'master' pleasure by doing exactly what the 'master' demanded, which also included barebacking. He qualified this by explaining that he experienced the whole scenario as liberating and empowering in its effect, and had discovered that this carried through to his normal everyday life.

Many conflicting thoughts entered my mind about power and manipulation, but also about trust and intimacy and respect for each other discovered through the roles that they played in their sexual games. It appeared to facilitate a new sense of confidence in this client's world view, which had previously been experienced as fearful, unknowing and isolating. But, can we as therapists, accept the fact that this client took a significant risk to expand his experience of being-in-the-world-with-others. Yalom (1998) sees as a basic premise, the existential position is one where we can examine the conflict that is born from the, 'individual's confrontation with the givens of existence'. He proposes that we can do this by a method of deep personal reflection, that we need to reflect deeply upon our experience of, our position in the world, our boundaries, and our potential or possibilities, Then, we can arrive at a point where we can confront the givens of our existence.

For Simon, his most problematic existential dimension was the Mitwelt, the interpersonal aspect of his life, social interaction in general caused him the greatest anxiety. Social situations can often produce anxiety for the average gay man in coming to terms with himself and the world around him, but for Simon, there was an added complication of his feeling of inadequacy at conducting himself in almost any social situation, a real sense of not knowing how to be. If we consider this in phenomenological exploration, Heidegger show's that:

The ontologically relevant result of our analysis of Being-with is the insight that the 'subject character' of one's own dasein and that of others is to be defined existentially--that is, in terms of certain ways in which one may be. In that with which we concern ourselves environmentally the Others are encountered as what they are; they are what they do (Heidegger, 1962:163).

Simon's greatest anxiety in life was in not knowing socially what he would experience from others, or what others expected of him, which rendered him insecure and unsure of how to be. We can now understand from this, how his experience with the 'master' eliminated one of his greatest fears as he was now directed how to be, this decision was made for him. So, at last he had discovered a situation where he knew what to expect from the other, and was now able to manifest his own sense of self in this situation. In his study of Sartre, Scott (1981) has acknowledged that it was Sartre who said that the whole question of our being with others can be at the centre of modern metaphysics and ontology. Both Sartre and Heidegger in different ways offer their ontological viewpoint on the issue of how we are fundamentally present with ourselves and with others. It is their ideas which contribute to our re-examination of our own expectations about ourselves and how we live, and ask us to think and see in ways that are appropriate for how we and the world are together. By examining the ontological aspects of Simon's experience must surely help us to understand his feelings and reactions. Heidegger's phenomenological stance gives us the core idea of standing back and allowing what is presented to be as it is. What is there is then free of our own demands or considerations. I can be solely present with the being as it occurs, I am not dictated to by how I think it should be engaged with: this is the basis of the phenomenological approach. Jaspers (1970) addresses the question of man having to seek meanings and act meaningfully as part of his nature, and whatever choice he makes whether he acts or not, it is impossible for him not to choose either actively or passively. There are questions thrown up by Simon's conversion from his previous timid, passive, unsure way of being and his dread of making decisions into being transformed by the power of his sexual experience with his 'master' and 'boy' role playing into a more confident way of being.

Exploring the ontic and the ontological

Simon was able to enter into a new relationship with another in an open and trusting way. The ontic aspect of this was a mutually agreed role play negotiated between them of 'master' and 'boy'. But from this developed an ontological aspect which transformed the effect through Simon's sense of reaching a degree of freedom, "a respite" from the experience of the previous demands of the outside world on his sense of being. The powerful trust enacted out between them allowed Simon to develop a new sense of well-being and enlightenment through allowing his feelings to be free and spontaneous. This I feel was a development that gave Simon a new confidence about himself and how he could function in the work-place and in new social settings.

Is this what Heidegger (1962) means when he says that if we accept that: Dasein has proven to be what, 'before all other beings, is ontologically the primary to be interrogated'? There is a profound feeling that Simon experienced an aspect of transcendence through his letting go of known experience. This reflected in our continuing sessions by becoming more open and allowing us to explore the ontological significance of Simon's experience. Together we discussed the barebacking element in his role-playing and reached an understanding that it had been a seriously considered part of their sexual encounter, and that for him, the overall perceived trust and emotional support that he felt from the other, outweighed any possible negative aspect. It established a transparency of commitment and a strong element of well-being in their relationship. Through this action, Simon had uncovered new ways of experiencing being-with-the-other, he allowed himself to risk the unknown and in so doing uncovered new ways of being-with-himself.

The finiteness of life confronted

So, where is death, the great existential anxiety placed in this discussion about barebacking, indeed, does it signify a being-towards-death? On the evidence available, barebacking does not appear to consciously contain a death wish, it may deny the possibility of it's relevance in the nature of the act being carried out. It may appear to some barebackers that the significance of exposure to a potentially lethal virus is a risk worth taking. Others may consider themselves immune to it and therefore free to ignore the factors of practical safety. Seen from an existential perspective, we can understand that the existential anxiety about the finiteness of one's life emanates from a position of not knowing, and seen from this position, becoming HIV positive helps the individual to acknowledge the reality of the finiteness of being human. So, should we as therapists consider that deliberate barebacking can help to eliminate some fundamental existential anxieties? It may seem difficult to arrive at a position of accepting that there is a possible gain involved in barebacking, apart from the sensual pleasure. But from a psychological perspective, it could be seen to contribute in acknowledging the anxiety surrounding one's one finite existence, and that in turn, frees up the being to engage fully in life. 'Insofar as human existence cannot fully be reflected upon by itself, it cannot be fully analyzed either--human existence exists in action rather than reflection' Frankl (2000: 36).

I have encountered in working with some HIV positive clients, the admission that before their diagnosis they had wandered aimlessly through life, but since they were presented with a seropositive confirmation, they found that they were embracing life in a very active way. We can therefore see that in embracing life and acknowledging the finiteness of it, they have become more authentic:

In authenticity, the individual accepts death, and faces it as his or her own prospect. And the solitariness of personal death reflects the care one must have towards one's life. To stand in authentic awareness of the possibility of one's death is to accept the individuality of one's own existence, to realise that one exists for the sake of oneself, that one must care about life (Deurzen, Kenward, 2005:21).


Yalom (1998: 265) makes the comment that: 'Death is only one component of the human being's existential situation--To arrive at a fully balanced therapeutic approach, we must examine the therapeutic implications of other ultimate concerns'. Here he is referring to freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness. In this paper, I have tried to address the complexity of issues that barebacking raises within the individual, but in fully engaging with these issues and using a process of phenomenological uncovering we can facilitate the client to discover their own authenticity and an openness to being. Langer (1981: 315), in her reappraisal of Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, states that: 'Sexuality is the "skeleton" upon which all human relationships are constructed. Sexual relationships, as already noted, form the basis of our concrete relations with others. However, they usually "remain implicit inside more complex conduct'.

The act of barebacking embodies both ontic and ontological elements, and paradoxically can be both debilitating and empowering, but ultimately becomes the choice of the individual who engages in the act and must be respected as such. As Macquarrie (1972) states, 'Sexuality can sometimes be primitive--a truly human sexuality is no mere bodily instinct but a highly sophisticated existential phenomenon'. To take an existential approach, as Cohn (2002:69) says, 'focus on the experience that while 'givens' are unchangeable, our responses are not fixed--But these past events are now part of a different present with different possibilities'.

In Passion we are overwhelmed and out of control. We do n ot manoeuvre and manipulate ourselves into passion, we rather find ourselves moved and drawn into it. Emmy van Deurzen (1998: 62)

This paper is an edited version of the paper presented at the SEA Sexistential Conference in November 2010.


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Colin Clarke is a UKCP registered psychotherapist in private practice working with individuals, couples, and groups, and is an accredited sexual minorities therapist with Pink Therapy, specializing with issues of sexual orientation.

Contact: Located in Camden London NW1.
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