Daily News Miner
July 28, 1996
IN THE AGE OF AIDS, LOVE CAN LEAD TO RISK
UNPROTECTED GAY SEX ON RISE
By David W. Dunlap The New York Times
NEW YORK—In a time of mortal peril, Carlos Cordero believed he had found romantic sanctuary.
He had tested negative for the AIDS virus. So had the man he loved. They enjoyed a privilege most gay men had long ago surrendered, to let their passion lead them, uninhibited and unprotected.
As it turned out, however, his partner's test result was out of date.
Today, Cordero, who is 32 and lives in Manhattan, is coping with an AIDS-related cancer known as Kaposi's sarcoma and skin tumors known as molluscum. He has also heard all the recent talk about how HIV is becoming manageable.
"I've always been very, very uncomfortable with the message of HIV being so manageable," Cordero said. "It's a constant encounter with the bad. The cancer is real. The lesions are real. Taking pills is real. It doesn't seem so manageable to me at all."
If there is a prevailing image of how HIV is transmitted, it probably involves anonymous assignations between men in bathhouses and back rooms, on piers and in parks. It is an image reinforced by periodic municipal crackdowns on public sex. There is truth to the picture, but the setting can just as easily be a bedroom and the context a loving relationship.
Interviews with nearly two dozen AIDS educators, organizers, counselors and are providers make it clear that regardless of the danger signs, unprotected anal intercourse and fellatio are a permanent part of the gay sexual landscape. For some men, indeed, these acts are imbued with a symbolism that is romantic and even spiritual.
"Sexual desires and activities are sources of great comfort and pleasure which may be needed now more than before the epidemic," wrote Eric E. Rofes, a longtime gay organizer in San Francisco, in Reviving the Tribe (Haworth Press, 1996). "While treated as exchangeable and expendable by many prevention campaigns, specific acts in fact provide considerable meaning and value to gay men's lives and identities."
Gamalier de Jesus, a counselor with the New York Blood Center's Project Achieve, which recruits people at risk for infection by HIV, the AIDS virus, in preparation for future vaccine trials, has encountered couples who deliberately plan to have unprotected sex.
Dr. Barbara Warren, a psychologist who directs the mental health and social services program at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center in New York, has also noticed that many men in romantic relationships — younger men, especially — forgo safer practices.
"If they have anonymous sex, they will use a condom," Dr. Warren said, "but if they're in love, they think that will somehow magically protect them. There's also an assumed fidelity that's not always the case."
Exactly how many men have unprotected sex with other men is impossible to say, but evidence from some cross sections of the population is striking.
In a series of sex-related workshops this year at the community center, 300 men were asked about their behavior. Forty percent reported having had anal s ex without condoms with men who were either HIV-positive or whose status was unknown, said Cordero, who works as a health educator with Community AIDS Prevention Activists, a cosponsor of the workshops.
In a study of 149 gay men between the ages of 18 and 24 in New York City, Laura Dean and Ilan H. Meyer of the Columbia University School of Public Health found that 30 percent reported having had unprotected anal sex in 1991, up from 27 percent the year before, while 89 percent reported unprotected oral sex, up from 83 percent the year before.
"In point of fact, the vast majority of gay men are practicing safe sex," said Dr. Thomas J. Coates, director of the Center for AIDS Prevention Studies at the University of California at San Francisco. But he estimated that there were still 10,000 new HIV infections annually among men who have sex with other men.