At one point, Tim Dean’s Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking turned my stomach. I am not going to recount the exact moment around page 137 where this happened (you can check out the section on body-warmed-next-day felching on your own), but I will say it remains my all-time most exhilarating encounter with critical theory. After all the years I had spent studying critical theory and queer theory especially, I finally encountered something I could not immediately process, could not immediately reconcile, could not immediately digest. I had to put the book down for a moment, make myself a cup of coffee, and consider how Dean simultaneously elicited both an intellectual and visceral reaction. For a moment, I was no longer engaged in thinking about ideas and circumstances; instead, I found myself guided through an almost liturgical practice honoring an unfamiliar constitutive fact of sexual identity thrust relentlessly from the dark recesses and emerging as pale matter on the surfaces of comprehension—a threshold of revelation. It strikes me as lamentable how seldom queer theorists aspire to make such an intercession.
2009 was a relatively auspicious year for queer theory publications. That year witnessed the publication of Leo Bersani’s Is the Rectum a Grave?: and Other Essays, which anthologized nearly two decades of his oft-cited scholarly publications. This was the same year that José Esteban Muñoz’s highly influential Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity was published. 2009 was also the year that the paperback version of David Halperin’s What Do Gay Men Want?: An Essay on Sex, Risk, and Subjectivity was published.
Halperin’s essay begins by recounting the trajectory of the pathological homosexual to an affirming identity along familiar Foucaultean pathways: “…the lesbian and gay movement has produced a remarkably plausible and persuasive new definition of homosexuality in political rather than psychological terms. To be gay, according to this new definition, is not to exhibit a queer subjectivity, but to belong to a social group. …To be gay therefore is to be marked, through no fault of one’s own, by the stigma that comes from persistent social rejection and exclusion. What gay people have in common, then, is not a psychological disorder but a social disqualification” (2).
Halperin sees this social disqualification as productive ground for the formation of subjectivity. One of the defining moments of this new identity is the adoption of safer sex practices to mitigate the ongoing reality of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. However, coming out of the 1990s, the practice of barebacking, where men have unprotected penetrative sex with other men for a variety of reasons, gave pause to many people both within and outside of the gay community. As Halperin explains, "Just when sexual difference was finally getting distinguished from pathology, just when homosexuality was ceasing to be considered a sickness, just when HIV/AIDS was at least starting to be recognized as a global pandemic, a public health emergency, and a terrible historical accident instead being portrayed as a gothic tale of sexual crime and punishment—just at the moment a new syndrome, that of the psychologically afflicted gay individual who knowingly seeks to be infected or to infect others with HIV, has restored to homosexuality its venerable identity as a disease” (34).
My own research, which includes work by notable epidemiologists like Elizabeth Pisani and Jacques Pepin, incline me to disagree with the rosy depiction of the pre-bareback state of affairs depicted by Halperin. Many argue that efforts to curb HIV infection rates continue to be hampered by the perceived affiliation with the disease to homosexuality. From a shamelessly personal perspective, I continue to see articles about the oft-maligned patient zero who turned out to be nothing more than a false flag distraction by folks who should have known better. Only when this patient zero nonsense stops will I begin to be amenable to any argument that HIV is no longer “being portrayed as a gothic tale of sexual crime and punishment.”
Halperin’s operation, which includes earlier arguments made by Tim Dean, attempts to prove that the tools offered by psychoanalysis consistently fail to account for the presence of risky sex because such an operation remains inherently amenable to reductive arguments about normality. Instead, Halperin elaborates on Michael Warner’s arguments concerning abjection. To be clear, Halperin clearly states that his “point is not that psychoanalysis is intrinsically hostile to queers or unadapted to a just appreciation and analysis of queer eroticism” (98); moreover, he does not “intend to install abjection in place of psychology or psychoanalysis as the foundation for a new science of the gay subject” (99-100).
So, when Halperin responds to his self-imposed question “What do gay men want?” by stating that they want a subjectivity not necessarily grounded in the precepts of psychoanalysis (itself an admitted subjectivity engine) and not entirely transferred to the concept of abjection, he doesn’t exactly stick the landing. I don’t spend this much time with Halperin just to point out the faults in his argument (okay, maybe I do just a little). But these topics remain just as critically important today as in the years following the new millennia.
Moreover, Halperin’s critique of psychoanalytic theory does not account for the work done by Lee Edelman, whose No Future offered a paradigm-shifting proposal that gay people embrace an ethic based on the Death Drive. Rather than focusing on political paradigms, Edelman pursues a line of inquiry wherever it leads and to its conclusion. To reflect back on the personal, one of the first times I had a sense of subjectivity was while reading No Future. Edelman's fidelity to a methodology of inquiry produced an utterly convincing argument. This same mode of inquiry informs other important queer texts like Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet and Judith “Jack” Halberstam’s Female Masculinity. In fact, it is because of Tim Dean’s relentless commitment to pursuing the existence and implications of the bareback subculture that I believe Unlimited Intimacy belongs in the pantheon of sacred queer texts. Though, of course, as a person subjected to endlessly overlapping identities and communities, I remain suspicious of political and social “solutions” while at the same time being drawn to ethical ways of considering my lived experiences.
It is unfortunately difficult to conduct a book review of such an intricate and nuanced text even though Dean’s prose is crystal clear in its precision and accessibility. I will discuss some key points, especially regarding methodology. I will then conclude this review by considering what Dean’s work reveals about a certain recent cinematic phenomenon.
First, Dean takes seriously the subject of his inquiry. He acknowledges the existence and importance of the bareback subculture in a broader context: “I suggest that barebacking cannot be understood as restricted to the subculture it has created, since barebacking concerns an experience of unfettered intimacy, of overcoming the boundaries between persons, that is far from exclusive to this subculture or, indeed, to queer sexuality” (2). Dean further acknowledges that HIV is a factor of the barbacking subculture that should be addressed as opposed to mitigated: "Barebacking isn’t merely Russian-roulette sex, that is, fucking with life-and-death stakes; barebacking also raises questions that complicate how we distinguish life-giving activities from those that engender death” (6). These complications stem, in part, from the very fact that the barebacking subculture poses new ways of forging connections by sharing a virus. As a result, “Bareback subculture,” according to Dean, “Reclaims gay sex as sexuality by relegating epidemiological concerns to secondary status” (11). This reclamation acknowledges the key insight that gay sexuality has been lost in discussions of safe-sex techniques and practices—the sacred liturgical rites often supplanted by clinical prohibitions.
Some may find their hackles raised at this line of thought. However, as a person who has studied the epidemiology of HIV and has actually engaged in harm-reduction outreach, I can attest that HIV spreads along pathways that many would find surprisingly not gay. In fact, I would argue that Halperin’s reductive argument connecting gay male identity with HIV may well serve to perpetuate a gay/HIV stereotype that exacerbates those very misconceptions that hamper epidemiological efforts already struggling to confront the actual global scope of the pandemic.
I found two of Dean’s claims regarding psychoanalysis to be especially enlightening. The first is found in a footnote regarding the same Michael Warner argument that Halperin finds so productive. In it, Dean expresses his concern that eliminating psychoanalysis leaves “only psychological descriptions of subjectivity … that cannot account for the unconscious and thus cannot explain the transindividual dimensions of subjectivity” (20). From my take on Dean’s argument, the bracketing off of psychoanalytic theory may well increase the likelihood that a subjectivity based on abjection can be pathologized on a case-by-case basis. In short, Halperin’s outcome-based model opens the door for the very “outcome” he claims to want to avoid. The second claim I found especially interesting deals with the nature of sex itself: “Psychoanalysis originates with a fundamental distinction between the irrational and the nonrational, a distinction that exempts the nonrational from the taint of pathology” (32). If, according to Dean, sex is hooked up to nonrational processes, then attempting to address the irrationality of risky behavior calls the whole operation of addressing the HIV pandemic through a framework of irrational behavior into question. The consequences of this distinction could well extend to current epidemiological practices. Clearly, just these few examples demonstrate the value of rigorously pursuing the tenets of psychoanalysis, of scrupulously attending to the requisite details of that pursuit, and faithfully considering the results of that process.
Dean ultimately turns to ethics to conclude his analysis. He argues that “cruising exemplifies a distinctive ethic of openness to alterity and that—irrespective of our view of the morality of barebacking—we all, gay and nongay, have something to learn from this relational ethic” (176). Here, Dean returns to the promise—a promise expressed forcefully by Sedgwick—that queer theory offers transformative insights for us all. As Dean states in his introduction, “If barebacking is defined not as intentional unprotected anal intercourse between men who remain unaware of each other’s HIV status but, more broadly, as fucking without condoms, then few adults remain wholly unimplicated in it” (27).
Dean’s ethical proposition focuses on urban settings, but I also believe that if and when queer theory ever commits to a much-needed turn to rural queerness that his work in Unlimited Intimacy will provide a much-needed ethical conceptual framework for such an undertaking, especially considering the prevalence of barebacking practices known to currently exist. But it is also the central chapters of Unlimited Intimacy, the ones that address the subcultural practices as well pornographic depictions of those practices that are important. In other words, there is more to this topic than methodology and ethics. To discuss this relevancy, I am going to pivot to a current cultural touchstone.
The recent film adaptation of André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name has caused quite a stir in the last few months. However, discussions of the film remain largely tethered to nostalgic laments, to the quality of the performances, and to personal grievances couched in popular catchphrases. The narrative is set at the cusp of the AIDS crisis in 1983, a time when ejaculate was a less costly substance. In one seminal scene, seventeen-year-old Elio masturbates and climaxes into a peach. In the novel, after his twenty-four-year-old lover Oliver discovers it, the salty and sweet harvest is sampled by both of them and an emotionally cathartic moment ensues. In the film, Oliver’s reaching out to touch the peach is enough to trigger a cathartic moment. I have only seen the film once, so I don’t remember if the finger makes contact or not. In ann+1 article, Richard Kaye expresses a certain amount of crankiness about many aspects of the film, the peach scene certainly being one. He complains that “the scene has already garnered what can only be called a Talmudic discussion on the internet as film goers struggle to extract its meaning.” But Kaye’s real concern lies with the substance of the scene: “But the real, galvanizing nectar in the optics of the film is semen. Oliver and Eliot [sic] shoot it, share it, taste, [sic] it, spread it, and the dutiful female servants pick up the semen-stained clothes that are tossed from the carnal beds.” Though the sex scenes are not particularly explicit, I do remember the aftermath of those scenes as decidedly cum soaked (you know, as they should be).
However, Dean’s work helps explain the significance of this scene: “Whether gay or straight, men, like women, can fake the representation of an orgasm, but we cannot fake orgasm itself.” Elio masks his nonrational proclivities in deeply-rational academic pursuits. He’s smart, too smart for his own good. He even pursues his musical interests with a rigorous academic approach. It is the non-negotiable fact of the semen, a fact that Oliver can see and touch, that proves the nonrational sexual aspect of their relationship. It is the moment that Elio’s artifice collapses. It is not the initial sexual contact that causes this transformative moment, it is the fact of the semen—the substance that cannot be denied or even negotiated—that brings about the transformation.
When David Halperin asks, “What do gay men want?” Tim Dean may well offer the best and most accurate response. We want Unlimited Intimacy, the thing that has been lost to so many of us (mine, of course, being the first generation of gay men raised to fear bodily fluids)—that, and the knowledge of the self (and of the other) that comes with it.
Dean, Tim. Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections of the Subculture of Barebacking. U of Chicago P, 2009.
Halperin, David. What Do Gay Men Want? An Essay on Sex, Risk, and Subjectivity. U of Michigan P, 2009.