Going Viral: Interview with Tim Dean

"Some barebackers have appropriated the motto of the American Express company -- Membership Has Its Privileges -- to articulate their sense of belonging to something more than an imaginary community." -- Tim Dean, Unlimited Intimacy.

Tim Dean teaches English at the University of Buffalo. He is the author of several books, including Gary Snyder and the American Unconscious and Beyond Sexuality; his forthcoming essay collection will be titled Porn Archives. We chatted last week about his most recent book Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections of the Subculture of Barebacking.

MARK ADNUM: Thank you for writing Unlimited Intimacy. It was great to discover a scholarly engagement with the barebacking subculture and even better, a HIV-related book that is neither memoir nor advocacy. However, I don’t know many guys who own a copy. Do you think the book has found an audience?

TIM DEAN: I do think the book has found an audience. It has sold over 5,000 copies -- which qualifies it for bestseller status, as far as university press books go -- and it has received a lot of reviews, in both the mainstream and academic press. One recent review of the book, by a law professor, was 74 pages long! (That guy probably needs to get a life.) The latest review I saw describes the book as “an ethical thought experiment.” The reviewer says that the book is “artful because it has the capacity to make us nervous.” I liked that way of describing it.

But what means the most to me are all the emails I receive from guys who have read it, guys I don’t know, many of whom are not in the university but are just regular gay guys. Those email messages almost always begin the same way your question begins: Thank you for writing this thing! Someone had to say what is said in the book and I was happy to do it.

MA: I wonder if it isn’t incidental that you’re HIV-negative. Do you think somebody HIV-positive could have written this book, this way?

TD: You’re not the first person to ask me that question. I don’t think of being HIV-negative as an identity, and I’m not sure how important my status was in writing the book. The first draft of the book didn’t mention my status, but then various readers said that I needed to come out about it, so I included some discussion of that. Now people ask, “Are you still negative?” as if the answer to that question might cast the book’s argument in a different light. If I’d written Unlimited Intimacy as a poz guy, it would have been read simply as a defense of my status and the way I like to have sex. But, in fact, it’s not about me! The book talks some about my experience -- it seemed important to be out about my own barebacking -- but you’re right that it’s not a memoir.

MA: You "don't think of being HIV-negative as an identity", yet you acknowledge that declaring that information about yourself alters the entire context of your book?

TD: What I mean is that being HIV-negative isn't something that's stable -- it could change quite easily. It could have changed between the time I wrote the book and when it was published. I also mean to say that my HIV status is very far from being the most salient thing about me: it's a fact, but it doesn't determine how I look at the world or view sex. I wanted the arguments I made in the book not to get reduced to either a neg or a poz position -- hence, not mentioning my status in early drafts. I try to write against identities of all sorts, in order to expand the scope of what we can think about. But people persuaded me that I had to come out about my HIV status in the book. It does change how the book is read, to some extent, because readers want to be able to position the author relative to HIV status. Clearly I'm still trying to ask, Why does it matter what my status is unless I'm about to blow inside you?

MA: Unlimited Intimacy lost me for a while there when you asserted that “condoms feel anachronistic to many gay men now” and that “who wouldn’t admit to preferring intimacy free from the muted sensations and interruptions of rubber or latex?” While a couple of men I’ve encountered -- of either status -- have gone into a sulk when rubbers have been brought forth, the overwhelming majority of men I know don’t bat an eyelid at the idea or use of condoms. Can you talk me through your point of view here?

TD: There must be more degrees of separation here than usual, because you & I are definitely not having sex with the same guys! I started writing the book because I was so struck by how, when I moved to San Francisco in 1997 and began going out to sex venues there, nobody seemed to be using condoms any more. I needed to understand what was happening. Everybody wanted me to cum in their ass, without ever discussing status or anything else. That’s what I was referring to when I said that condoms feel anachronistic -- as if the late 80s, early 90s never happened.

But I think that if you pull out a condom during sex, men will often use it without much fuss. If, however, you don’t mention protection, there is now the assumption that the sex will be bareback. The same guys who will use a condom for you will happily bareback with someone else. That may be too much of a generalization, but you get the point. Guys don’t like to negotiate these things in the heat of the moment -- although they will spell things out ahead of time in an online profile.

MA: I’m also curious about your description of bareback porn as a challenge to “pornographic conventions [that] regulate what may -- and may not -- be shown”. The cinéma vérité styling of Treasure Island Media (for example) presents an entertaining illusion of truth but all of the required preparation and most of the probable consequences of each scene have been dutifully edited out. In this sense, bareback porn is just as contrived as regular studio porn, isn’t it?

TD: I do think that bareback porn of the Treasure Island Media variety looks different from regular studio porn. And when TIM first appeared on the scene, the difference was even more striking. Paul Morris talks on his site about how he makes porn -- and how he thinks porn should be made -- and I don’t think he’s bullshitting or that he approaches it in the same way that other pornographers do. Of course it involves editing; TIM porn does not show certain things. But they show stuff that other porn doesn’t or won’t, and that’s part of the appeal.

MA: But why do so many viewers buy into barebacking porn as fly-on-the-wall, documentary -- for some, I believe, it even works as instructional?

TD: Because Paul Morris is a fucking genius? No, I don’t mean that seriously (though I do think the guy is incredibly smart). Part of the appeal of TIM porn, especially in the beginning, is that the guys in it look pretty ordinary. They’re not models or porn superstars; they’re just horny guys who are fucking for the camera the way they fuck at home. Viewers can relate to that in a way that they can’t relate to the extravagant productions of Titan Media, for example. I’m not saying that one is better than the other, just that they’re different, and that the difference involves more than the presence or absence of condoms. I have friends who dislike TIM not because the porn is bareback but because they say TIM guys are ugly. What they mean is that those guys are ordinary.

Paul Morris may be inspiring people to make their own porn as much as he’s inspiring them to take risks in sex. People do all sorts of things with pornography; I don’t think most people follow it blindly.

MA: You look at how some participants in the barebacking subculture understand themselves as having rejected of the imperative of health -- defiant pioneers. Meanwhile, negatives are often accused of being overly health conscious and obedient. Yet, few negatives that I know are as familiar with clinics, pharmaceuticals and blood counts as many positives are. Who is more passive to medicine here?

TD: To define yourself in terms of staying negative is still to anchor your identity to medicine and to health norms, just in a different way. Mainstream Western medicine says, If you’re gay the most important thing is for you not to become HIV-positive. It’s a way of defining sexuality totally in terms of freedom from disease, as if that’s all sexuality is about. It says nothing about pleasure, about sexual experiment, about intimacy; it does not think about sexuality holistically but only in terms of microscopic pathogens. It’s exactly the same approach that defines teen sexuality in terms of avoiding pregnancy and STIs. God forbid we should talk to young people about sexual choices, options, pleasure, and their overwhelming desires for intimacy that are also in tension with their desires for independence! So I do think that the emphasis on HIV-status is a very narrow, very medicalized, very identity-based understanding of what health is and could be. It makes health about conformity to norms.

MA: Your reading of What I Can’t See is so compelling.

the guy who is multiply penetrated remains blindfolded. Thus what the audience sees is precisely someone not seeing. The condition of not being able to see what’s betting inside your body via sexual means is transformed into a spectacle that can be witnessed. It is as if What I Can’t See were allegorizing gay life before the discovery of HIV -- a life not of sexual hedonism as much as of an inevitable yet temporary blindness to exactly what may be entering one’s rectum. We might say that the fantasy motivating this movie is that of being able to choose that temporary blindness, rather than being subjected to it by historical circumstance.

Is the barebacking subculture, so often understood as a new thing, ultimately a retro-manifestation of amnesia -- nostalgia even?

TD: There may be some nostalgia involved but I’m sceptical about understanding bareback subculture as a form of amnesia. “Look! All these stupid barebacking fuckers have completely forgotten the hard lessons we learned in the 1980s. Send them back to school so that they can learn the lessons of Larry Kramer!” That kind of moralism doesn’t get anyone anywhere, especially when it’s pronounced in the name of History -- as if we should all tie ourselves slavishly to the past and never attempt to do anything differently.

What made me want to write about bareback subculture was my sense that it was something new, perhaps even something unprecedented. When guys fuck without rubbers now and trade loads, it just isn’t the same thing as it was in 1975. But, in What I Can’t See, there may be an attempt to imagine what fucking in 1975 felt like. You can be interested in the past, especially the sexual past, without wanting simply to imitate it.

MA: Is there room for a companion book that explores the world of insistent negatives, who choose to limit their intimacy in exchange for limiting their risk, and who are perfectly comfortable with that?

TD: That book has already been written. It’s called The Book of Hygiene.

MA: That seems like a typically dismissive response to the decisions that many HIV-negative men feel they have to make.

TD: Look, I totally get why someone might decide to limit his intimacy in exchange for limiting his risk. That’s a completely rational decision, based on a calculation, and it’s not difficult to understand.

The point of Unlimited Intimacy is that the rational decision is not the only reasonable decision in the realm of sexuality. Guys who make different decisions about sex are not simply crazy or irresponsible. We live in a culture that is sex-obsessed and yet also profoundly ignorant about—and fearful of -- the power of sex to undo our identities, our rationalities, our civilized selves. If there is a companion book to mine—and I hope someone will feel inspired to write it -- I’d like it to explore the relationship between sexual desire and sexual fear among men who have sex with men. That would be worth hearing about.

Thanks for this conversation -- I really enjoyed the exchange and I’m honoured to appear on Nightcharm.

MA: You’re very welcome.

Large pictures: performers Peto Coast (top) and Dawson (bottom).

Grab a copy of Unlimited Intimacy in paperback, or, if you like to keep yourself modern, for Kindle.