I Survived the AIDS Crisis and Just Had Unplanned Bareback Sex—It Was Revelatory

The gay men of my generation dreamed of this day, when spontaneous sex wouldn’t be a matter of life or death.

Everything about my first date with Jim seemed plucked from another time.

It was so old-fashioned, I didn’t even know what his dick looked like before we first met. I was window-shopping on Madison Avenue, then turned around to see him window-shopping me. He winked, I smiled, we exchanged numbers, he called (no texting, what a classy guy). We met up for coffee a couple days later and talked for three hours straight, sharing only a delicious lemon bar and decadent looks.

He asked me over, we jumped into a taxi—no Uber on this summer Manhattan night—and, before I knew what was happening, we were having amazing sex in his studio apartment for the next couple of hours, flipping at the height of it all. It was unplanned, undiscussed, unsafe.

I couldn’t have asked for a more perf… wait. Unsafe? What the fuck? Without talking about our status beforehand, without knowing if he was on PrEP or undetectable or neither, without being under the influence of alcohol or drugs, without regrets and freak-out calls to 300 friends, without dialing the doctor and dreading my next HIV test because I knew this one mistake would be the one to kill me? Dear God, what was I thinking!?

Except all of this never happened—except the “undiscussed” part. In the heat of the moment, we both simply forgot. Like I said, from another time.

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Act Up protest, 1988.

In the 30 years I’ve been sexually active, I can count the number of times I’ve had unprotected sex, pre-PrEP (I’m on Truvada) on one hand. And each time it happened, the next day, week, month were filled with more anxiety than a Martin Scorsese film. Times have changed.

When I called Jim the next morning and mentioned our forgetfulness, he said, “Really? I thought we talked about it. I meant to. So, what’s on your plate for today? Oh, I’m undetectable.”

“I’m negative and on PrEP. I think I’m gonna write for an hour and then hit the gym.”

“Bye.”

“Bye.”

There was about as much tension in our conversation as an Abba tune.

I’m familiar with the social media reaction to unprotected sex, which is, more often than not, unkind. I also know the facts about PrEP and being undetectable: Take a daily Truvada pill and the chances of contracting HIV are reduced by about 99%; and Undetectable (U=U) means you cannot transmit HIV. Although many millennials are supportive of my decision to go raw, the more positive feedback usually comes from men of my own generation. That’s because we’ve been there, and now lies a possibility once thought unimaginable. There lies a choice.

What I didn’t know until my first date with Jim was just how much I’ve finally embraced that choice, and how an unplanned sexual encounter no longer freaks me out. Quite the opposite. It was everything I imagined sex to be as a young man: free.

The same kid who lost a lover in 1995, not to HIV, but to resistance to having full-on sex because of his positive status; the same guy who, after finally getting over his overblown fears, in 2004 spent two weeks in a comatose junk-food panic-room state because the positive date he’d just had condom-full sex with left him with a scratch on his stomach; the same man who, just two years ago, post-PrEP, freaked out after a naïve young doctor told him to come into his office because of a “false positive” that scared him is now the same grownup who, finally, after three decades of having fear surrounding what should be the extraordinary pleasure of sex, can safely say he’s in it to sin it. Devil and naysayers be damned.

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That’s not to say lack of discussion is smart or advisable, and I don’t plan on it happening with someone else. We forgot the talk because we got caught up in the moment, sober as day, drunk on the night. And we did have a long chat before the next date. I’m aware of STIs, and know the risks. But I refuse to let every threat attached to unprotected sex upend my love life. I’ve been there, and I’ve witnessed countless others shut down emotionally, physically, or both. Many are still living in that world, the scars and PTSD too damaging to allow for the semen revival.

At a time when sex has become app accessible, and gay men have become visibly more mainstream, we are also witnessing a post-AIDS carnal backlash. Our natural sexual instincts are being stifled by puritanical queers judging what other queers do in the privacy of their own homes. A guy on Grindr asked me out not too long ago only to rescind the offer because I was on Grindr. Figure that one out.

The beauty of my first date with Jim was long in the making. It took a series of nights, weeks, months, years, decades, for me—and those of us old enough to have been sexually active during the AIDS pandemic—to dream of such a world in which spontaneous sex wouldn’t be a matter of life or death. Back then, we still dated and hooked up and sought out life partners, but the promises held out to us from Stonewall had been broken. Instead of coming out and coming to the big city to live out our own gay romcom, we entered a war zone. The enemies were our government, our churches, our parents, our dicks. The same dicks we now send out like pamphlets to the prom. I’ve won my personal war on sex. If there’s a civil war taking place now on the appropriate way to behave in the bedroom, I’m not signing up.

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New York City’s AIDS Memorial at the northwest corner of St. Vincent’s Triangle.

Walking downtown on 7th Avenue a couple of weeks ago, I took notice of what used to be St. Vincent’s hospital across from me and the Twin Towers in the distance. Instead of a “morgue” where friends and lovers and strangers died daily, and two shiny silver structures that sat at the base of ground zero, there were luxury condominiums and one sparkling tower of freedom ahead. I grew angry that the horrors of past times were being erased, literally paved over. I wanted my New York back, and, more specifically, my youth and my friends.

As the saying goes, however, the only constant is change, and within minutes my only regret was that those who died couldn’t see this beautiful new view and the progress that had been unearthed—be it rights, visibility, or gay sex. What was once a cause of chaos is now a reason for celebration. Guilt is the real killer now. Living in the present is the cure.

The wonder of my first date with Jim was that it could even happen at all.

David Toussaint is the author of four books and has been a professional journalist since the age of 15.
@DRToussaint