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Gay & Bisexual Men Sex
What are gay relationships like?
Just as heterosexual relationships vary greatly so too do gay relationships. There are many stereotypes surrounding gay relationships, fueling homophobia.1Not only are stereotypes harmful, but they are largely inaccurate.2 3 As with heterosexual couples, gay relationships can be short-lived or long-term, and although gay men can have multiple sexual partners, many choose to be in monogamous relationships.4 5 6 Regardless of sexual orientation, everyone has their own preferences when it comes to sex, and a person's sexual and emotional needs may alter over time.7 8
Both heterosexual and homosexual men can enjoy a wide range of sexual activities, including kissing, massaging and rubbing each other, masturbation and mutual masturbation, giving and receiving oral sex, using sex aids, penetrating with fingers, and anal intercourse. The common perception that gay relationships always involve anal sex is incorrect and many men in gay relationships do not have anal sex at all.
In heterosexual relationships, it is a common expectation that it is the male role to push for penetrative sex and the female role to resist until she is ready. Young people naturally believe that there must be equivalent roles in gay relationships; that one man is dominant and the other submissive. In fact, this need be no more true of gay relationships than it is of heterosexual relationships.
Anal sex in gay relationships
Some people presume that sex between men will involve anal penetration. This is often not the case and many gay men don't see anal sex as a necessary part of their sexual relationship. A national study carried out in Britain in the 1990s discovered that between a quarter and a third of homosexual men have never had anal sex as either the penetrative or receptive partner.9
between a quarter and a third of homosexual men have never had anal sex.
Research with young gay men carried out in the UK in the early 1990s10revealed a strong belief that anal sex would be a large element of any gay relationship. However, many of the participants said that this was not what they wanted, and found that it was not necessarily an expectation of the other person.
"I definitely thought that anal sex would be a big element of a gay relationship. Every time you met a new partner, you'd think, oh f**k, here we go ... I didn't think that men actually kissed each other or held hands or in any way touched each other, other than to turn each other on to have an orgasm" Jason
However whilst many of the gay men participating in the study were pleased to discover that anal sex wasn't an expectation in their early relationships, they were usually very clear about the particular circumstances under which they would agree to penetrative sex. Much of this seemed to be based around a concept of the 'right' time and included notions of trust, respect, 'saving it', sharing yourself and 'doing it with someone special'. Anal intercourse appears to be seen by many young gay men (at least before they start having penetrative sex) as a similar marker of a 'committed' loving relationship that is encouraged in young people when there is discussion of (vaginal) sexual intercourse.
"If I was to have anal intercourse I would want to have it with someone who I really appreciated and liked, and not just anyone. Like losing your virginity, say. A lot of people would want to lose their virginity to someone who they were with .. someone special." Dean
These same notions, however, do not protect young men from being infected with HIV. In reality these notions can directly contradict safer sex messages, which may be vital for young men to act on:
"I think there is almost a sense that sex is safe as long as you've been with a person for a certain amount of time. Or if you've been seeing somebody for quite a while, that if you insist on using condoms, then you don't really love them. You're letting them down somehow and it's not as close." Rob
Perceptions of gay relationships
In Britain, in the United States, in Australia, and in European countries such as Norway, the Netherlands and Germany, gay and bisexual men - more often referred to as men who have sex with men (MSM) were among the first to be affected by HIV. For many people in Britain the reporting of HIV and the prevailing climate towards gay people only served to reinforce assumptions about gay men and their sex lives.
As a result of this many young gay men grew up with strongly held preconceptions of gay relationships.11
"I couldn't relate to two men having a relationship. You think that's only sex" Michael
"I really had no concept of what gay was. I had this idea that it was a sodomite or something. I had no concept of a man having a relationship with another man ... I sort of fantasised about meeting someone who actually wanted me. A man who wanted me. But this was pure fantasy. It was almost like I couldn't be so rude as to suggest that anyone else was like me. This lowest form of life. Which is why it was such a shock when people were openly gay. It doesn't bother you?!!"Luke
"I thought that the minute I started seeing someone I would have to leap into bed ... I never thought that I'd end up friends with a whole lot of people." Daniel
Gay men and HIV/AIDS
In many countries, men who have sex with men have been heavily affected by HIV and AIDS. HIV prevalence among men who have sex with men has been found to be as high as 25% in Ghana, 30% in Jamaica, 43% in coastal Kenya and 25% in Thailand.12In the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and many parts of Western Europe, more people have become infected with HIV through male-male sex than through any other transmission route.13
On the basis of these figures gay men have been stigmatised for being promiscuous and taking unnecessary sexual risks. However, evidence suggests that on the contrary gay men have been very sensitive and responsive in regard to safer sex promotion, which has been shown to significantly increase condom use among men who have sex with men.14 15The high rate of infection reflects a complex relationship between a lack of information, particularly in the early days of the epidemic, patterns of sexual activity, the risk of infection and prevalence of the virus among gay men.
In response to the global AIDS epidemic and increased awareness about the high HIV risks of anal sex, many gay men who previously had penetrative sex altered their behaviour.16 17However, HIV infection rates among men who have sex with men in many Western countries have increased in recent years, which can be attributed partly to increases in high risk sexual behaviours such as anal sex.18 19Maintaining safer sex practices requires the continued reinforcement of HIV prevention messages and services, which are failing to reach a great number of gay men around the world.20It is also suggested that the availability and effectiveness of antiretroviral drugs has led many gay men to underestimate the consequences of HIV infection.21The urgent need for HIV prevention among men who have sex with men is not just apparent in Western countries; sex between men is a primary HIV transmission route in Latin America, and there is growing evidence that male-male HIV transmission is a significant problem in Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.
Problems with practicing safer sex
The primary mode of transmission of HIV between men is through anal sex without a condom (sometimes called "bare back sex"). For young gay men there may be particular problems with trying to practice safer sex. Some young gay men may not feel secure about obtaining or using extra strong condoms for anal sex because if they are seen purchasing or in possession of them it might be interpreted as a disclosure of gay identity. They also rarely have the benefit of sex education in school in which sexual behaviour between same-sex partners is discussed. This can make it very hard for young gay men to feel comfortable about negotiating safer sex.
"The only passing comment was men and women do it up the vagina and gay men do it up the arsehole! And that was it! That was the first time I'd heard of it." Tariq
"I was waiting and expecting to hear something on homosexuality, safe sex and different things in sex education. Maybe some information that could help me. But I got nothing. There was nothing. So I just left it at that, and I discovered that going to toilets, cottaging, that I could meet people, which is what I wanted." Tim
Some young gay men believe that having fewer partners and being monogamous is adequate protection against HIV.22 Research in the UK23suggests that significantly more young gay men are in closed or monogamous relationships than older men. This may explain why some young men are getting infected because it's within these relationships that some of them are having unprotected anal sex. This is often on the basis of assumed negative HIV status.
The young gay men participating in the study were also asked whether they associated AIDS more with older men. They were almost unanimous in their dismissal of the idea that they were less vulnerable to HIV than older people. A number of the young men suggested that they were at greater risk than their older counterparts, perhaps reflecting a different version of the same stereotypes about youthful recklessness.
"You seem to assume that younger people have more sex than older people. Which isn't necessarily the case. But ... younger people may, I don't know, sleep around, or, in the heat of the moment forget to put a condom on." Matt
Many of them were also aware that young people miss out on the information which encourages safer behaviour and this was also used to explain why younger men might be at greater risk.
"I think it would affect younger people because when I first come out I went with someone in the toilet, penetrated them, without a condom. Because you're young and naive. So I would assume it would affect people who were young. Because they've not had any experience, they don't know about safe sex and stuff like that." Mark
Problems with sticking to safer sex
The status of a relationship can affect gay men's commitment to having protected anal sex. For young gay men there is often a shift from a situation where there was a great fear associated with having anal sex (and little information available about safer sex), to a position where once people are 'out', the information available reassured them about having penetrative sex. A decision never to have anal sex often changes to a decision to always have protected sex. Once in relationships this position changes again such that at certain times with certain people unprotected anal intercourse may take place. What is clear is that an overriding determination always to have protected anal sex does not always translate into action when in relationships.
- 1. Vaknin S (2006), 'The merits of stereotypes'.
- 2. GLBTQ (2004), 'stereotypes'.
- 3. American Psychological Association, 'Answers to your questions for a better understanding of sexual orientation & homosexuality'.
- 4. Odets W. (1998), 'Some thoughts on gay male relationships and American society' Journal of the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association 2(1).
- 5. San Francisco Chronicle (2004, 27th February), 'Gay couples can be as stable as straights, evidence suggests'.
- 6. American Psychological Association (2005), 'Lesbian and gay parenting'.
- 7. Positive Life NSW (2006), 'Rules of the heart: relationship agreements between gay men'.
- 8. ACON (2008), 'Relationship agreements'.
- 9. Johnson et al (1994), 'Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles', Oxford: Blackwell Scientific Press.
- 10. AVERT (1996), 'Young gay men and HIV infection'.
- 11. AVERT (1996), 'Young gay men and HIV infection'.
- 12. amfAR (2008), 'MSM, HIV, and the Road to Universal Access: How Far Have We Come?'.
- 13. UNAIDS (2010) 'UNAIDS report on the global AIDS epidemic'
- 14. Herbst JH et al. (2007, April), 'The effectiveness of individual-, group-, and community-level HIV behavioral risk-reduction interventions for adult men who have sex with men: a systematic review' American Journal of Preventive Medicine 32(4)
- 15. Johnson W. et al (2008, 16th July), 'Behavioral interventions to reduce risk for sexual transmission of HIV among men who have sex with men' Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Issue 3
- 16. Pietro N. (2005) 'No turning back: HIV and gay male sexuality' The Body
- 17. Davies et al (1992), 'Sexual behaviour of young gay men in England and Wales' AIDS Care 4(3).
- 18. Dougan S. et al (April 2007) 'Does the recent increase in HIV diagnoses among men who have sex with men in the UK reflect a rise in HIV incidence or increased uptake of HIV testing?', Sexually Transmitted Infections 83(2).
- 19. Johnson A. et al (2001), 'Sexual behaviour in Britain: partnerships, practices, and HIV risk behaviours' The Lancet 358(9296).
- 20. The Global HIV Prevention Working Group (2007, June), 'Bringing HIV Prevention to Scale: an Urgent Global Priority'.
- 21. Cohen S. (2005, May), 'The Guttmacher Report on Public Policy'.
- 22. Pietro N. (2005) 'No turning back: HIV and gay male sexuality' The Body
- 23. AVERT (1996), 'Young gay men and HIV infection'.