Is the Xtreme Sex Web site a haven for HIV+ gay men or a deadly misstep?
"I don't understand how these people do what they do," Dan Perreten, managing editor of the Windy City Times, a Chicago gay newsweekly, tells me by phone. He calls the site "deeply irresponsible and breathtakingly immoral. How do they look themselves in the mirror, knowing that they are the cause of people dying?"
Xtreme doesn't sugarcoat its mission: to provide a forum for HIV+ gay males interested in unprotected sex. "Pozcum-the Fuck of Death" one banner on the site reads. At a time when everyone is concerned about the spread of AIDS, the 300 or so regulars here revel in condomless fluid exchange and even the risk of infection.
And the site takes heat for it. In the last month two gay newspapers, the Windy City Times and the Dallas Voice, both sharply criticized Xtreme for promoting "bareback" or "raw" sex.
Those frequenting it have a different take, arguing that Xtreme provides a sanctuary in a world in which HIV status can take a personal as well as physical toll. It's a forum in which "HIV status is not considered important," as the site's introduction reads. One HIV+ participant praises the site in its comments section: "You have helped me in showing me that there is LIFE after all this. . . . Thank you for once again giving me back the freedom that I felt had been taken from me."
Xtreme Sex was started by a group of like-minded men who bonded last year on America Online. Webmaster "Pigbotm," a North Dallas software engineer who asks that his real name not be used, tells me by E-mail that he wanted extend the men's newfound sense of community by creating a Web page.
The participants lustfully romp, as if still living in the days before AIDS rubbercoated the party. The personal ads are uninhibited and the storyboards are filled with raunchy tales of bareback sex, all of which adds fuel to the criticism.
"I have no doubt that the site would be praised if the introductions oozed milk and honey with timid, lovelorn, lonely, depressed HIV+ people with flickering candles lighting their way, looking for the love of their sad, shortened little lives," Pigbotm writes. "The queer public doesn't seem to like healthy, sexually active, happy" people with AIDS.
But the site's frankness doesn't sit well with Perreten, who is concerned about the growing return to unsafe sex in the gay community. Maintaining condom use as the norm is difficult enough, he says, without media that glorify unprotected sex. He accuses Xtreme participants of engaging in a "twisted rationalism"-along the lines of, "For us it's too late, so why shouldn't we party?" as one site contributor writes-to promote unsafe sex as a logical choice. Perreten points out that unprotected sex between HIV+ people is dangerous because of potential reinfection which might breed new, drug-resistant strains of the virus. And other diseases could be transmitted-say, syphilis, which could devastate someone with an impaired immune system.
The Dallas Voice article touches on these issues and notes that "unsafe sexual adventures" such as those touted by Xtreme could "destroy the gay community's credibility as a partner in AIDS prevention."
Pigbotm agrees that most of these issues warrant discussion, but he does not feel the Web site should be taken to task over them. "The site provides a forum for all kinds of behavior," he says. "Most of it is not responsible nor irresponsible, it just is. One cannot blame the medium . . . for what people actually do. I would rather err on the side of having the discussions-all sides of them-and letting people sort out what they believe."
As a Webmaster, is Pigbotm abdicating his responsibility to his fellow human beings, as Perreten charges? Or is he acting with an empathy and openness seemingly missing elsewhere? The question becomes particularly pertinent when considering that a small number of people on Xtreme seek HIV infection. "I've tested negative six times. Guess I haven't found the right virulent strain . . . yet," one writes in a personal introduction. He has no lack of potential suitors. Another writes, "Attention neg men! Why stay locked in a boring world of sterile sex when you can join the ranks of the AIDS Freedom Fighters. Let me give you my gift and set you free." Why would anyone want to do such a thing? The titillation of danger? The thrill of giving yourself completely to your partner? A suicide mission? Combatting the feeling of being left out when all your friends are infected? There seems to be no definitive answer.
Pigbotm speculates-based on his contact with some contributors-that most HIV-infection requests come from people who are really already HIV+ and want to experience the fantasy of being infected. But he won't pass judgment, much less censor, those who do wish to actually contract the virus: "I cannot in clear conscience editorialize on the private habits of other people, as long as the participants both give informed consent to the activities. Each person makes his own decisions and lives or dies with the consequences."
Tip o' the hat: Ed Stevenson