Op-Ed: 'Bareback' is Obsolete

Op-Ed: 'Bareback' is Obsolete

Gay adult producers and studios: it’s time to move on. Nearly 30 years into the HIV/AIDS epidemic that devastated the ranks of fans, talent and producers alike in its early days, and still claims its victims today, the disease has become a chronic, manageable illness. So you can stop marketing your content as “bareback” or “raw,” or some variation thereof. Look around: most content produced for gay and bi men is now condomless.

The “bareback” tag is now a crutch. With the success of rigorous STI testing and the advent of PrEP, condoms have largely been abandoned in content produced for the gay market. And yet, there is a flood of content crossing the transom that markets itself as bareback — a now-creaky descriptive for “condomless” that emerged into mainstream marketing from the gay, bi and queer subculture of the ‘90s whose denizens elected to forego the use of such barriers in their daily lives.

HIV/AIDS emerged into the public consciousness in the very early ‘80s and cut a horrific swath through gay communities. By the end of the decade, dozens of performers, producers, directors and others were gone. Those who remained voluntarily elected to include condoms in all of their films, like it or lump it. It took some time to bring everyone aboard, but soon it was impossible to produce, much less market, a gay adult film if the male performers were not condom-clad.

Awards bodies in the ‘90s such as the Gay Erotic Video Awards made a point to include trophies given to the most creative depiction of safer sex. Reviewers took pains to point out when performers incorporated condoms into their sexplay. And yet, behind the scenes, the prophylactics were derisively described as “magic condoms” — as in, they “magically” appeared on a stiff cock.

Safer-sex activists passionately argued that “magic condoms” defeated the purpose of disseminating safer-sex information if there was no proper instruction involved. Those on the other side of the debate argued that it was enough to simply include condoms in adult films and it would cross the bounds of free speech to enforce how they were to be used.

The eventual appearance of such boutique brands as Hot Desert Knights, SX Video and Treasure Island Media made the clear point that condoms were not part of the equation. The titles they produced were conspicuously ignored by the mainstream porn industry and could not be advertised, for the most part, in magazines. However, brick-and-mortar retailers knew they were selling hand-over-fist — pun intended — and would often move enough units to appear atop bestseller lists, if they could be mentioned in print. The breathless descriptives —“Raw!” “Bareback!” — that linger to this day, no doubt, first put down roots here.

The men who appeared in these new “bareback” movies were summarily blacklisted from appearing in condoms-only titles. This blacklist continued into the new century as the industry was regularly roiled by news that yet another popular performer had crossed the divide into the bareback genre.

When Jeff Palmer, an A-list marquee stud for Falcon Studios, snubbed his nose at mainstream porn by declaring he would only film bareback titles, and earned a lucrative contract, the bareback debate took a decisive turn. Palmer’s popularity soared and there was no turning back.

The crux of the debate, on an individual level, came down to personal choice: if two or more grown men consent to have sex without condoms, and they accept the risks involved, who are we to argue otherwise? It’s their call; they accept the consequences of their actions. And if they allow cameras to film them, so it goes.

But an adult film studio doesn’t have to aid or abet that choice; they have a responsibility, perhaps, to protect those under their employ and to model safer-sex techniques and procedures to the very audience that needs that critical information. For several decades gay porn films were quite literally the only piece of mainstream entertainment that even discussed condoms at all. Several generations of gay and bisexual men watched their matinee idols wear condoms when they made love; it’s a message whose import, however imperfectly delivered, cannot be underestimated.

It is a thorny, highly personal and combustible debate that has never been resolved to anyone’s satisfaction. But another evolution was underway. As VHS tapes went extinct, ahead of the rise of social media, the original bareback porn studios faded or switched tactics. Treasure Island, with its punkish, anarchic aesthetic, remains prolific today. But raw, condomless sexplay is not front-and-center as a marketing tool; it’s one component of a larger tapestry.

Late last year, when Falcon Studios Group began to release condomless content, the storyline took another notable shift. The news caused nary a ripple in the market. Even the revelation that Chi Chi LaRue, the industry’s top director for over three decades and for many years a staunch condom-only activist, would direct some condomless titles hardly raised an eyebrow.

“My criticisms in the past always came from a place of concern for the well-being of performers and from the responsibility I had for sending a message to viewers about the importance of safer sex practices,” LaRue said.

“Of course, this was a very big decision for me. I had to be confident that we would be in the safest space possible with the group that I could trust, and that’s why I chose to do it with Falcon Studios. I started working with the studio 30 years ago, right after the beginning of the AIDS crisis, and when (studio founder) Chuck Holmes required condoms in all Falcon movies. Chuck made the right decision to send a message and to help stop more people from contracting HIV or dying from AIDS,” noted LaRue.

“I would not have made the decision to direct a bareback production unless I could be 100 percent confident that all the proper procedures were followed, and I knew that Falcon Studios Group would handle all the protocols relentlessly.”

Falcon Studios Group President Tim Valenti echoed LaRue’s comments. “We pride ourselves on the safety of our models and would not have started shooting condom-free productions for any brand without being absolutely certain that they would be safe,” he said.

Titan Media, whose founders publicly, repeatedly declared they would never shoot condomless content, has quietly paused production. When the Falcon legacy brands — including Falcon Studios, Raging Stallion Studios and Hot House Video — shifted away from condoms, joining such studios as Kristen Bjorn and global powerhouse BelAmi, condoms-only content unexpectedly became niche, and skin-on-skin once again became the norm, returning the industry to a pre-AIDS state.

To be sure, condom content is still produced. Its message is still vital and necessary. But the “raw” and “bareback” tags no longer carry an illicit thrill. They no longer differentiate content, except to serve as a poignant reminder that gay men were once overwhelmed by the constant intrusion of real-life moral quandaries into their most intimate expressions of sexual fantasy, and that sexplay marketed as barrier-free couldn’t help but carry an illicit erotic charge.

PrEP has changed the game for everyone. Today, marketing your content as bareback, or raw, is like advertising a fast-food restaurant as serving french fries.

Here’s what studios can do: drop the condomless come-ons and redouble your efforts to educate and inform your audience about safer sex. Tell them about condoms and PrEP and reassure them regularly about the efforts you undertake to protect your performers, from sexual wellness to mental health awareness. Make it part of your core mission, especially if you’ve ever used the words “bareback” or “raw” or a variation thereof as a marketing tool.

This does not have to be an expensive or time-consuming proposition. Many studios do this already to varying degrees, but it should become part of your business plan and a key component of your social media presence.

It’s time for the gay adult industry to fully move into the 21st century.

JC Adams is the News Desk Manager for XBIZ with 25 years of experience in the adult industry. Find him on Twitter. XBIZ published his first op-ed on this topic in 2009; read it here.

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