By Matthew Hodson | @Matthew_Hodson

How safe is safe enough?

In the 1980s and 1990s, gay men wrestled with this question pretty much whenever we had sex. We didn’t have PrEP. We didn’t have HIV treatment that also prevented transmission. Every time we had sex, we did so in the shadow of HIV.

Despite the messaging, it wasn’t as simple as saying ‘use a condom every time’. Condoms tore, condoms came off during sex. Condoms were ‘safer sex’ not ‘safe sex’, they were still on the spectrum of risk. If gay men had been fully confident about condoms, no man with HIV would have been rejected for his status.

Selecting a partner on the basis of their presumed negative status was a riskier proposition, although it was widely adopted, by men both inside and outside of relationships. Even when both tested negative (and often men assumed their status rather than test) it didn’t mean they would both stay negative.

How safe is ‘safe enough’? We played with our strategies, adapting them to the circumstance of who we were with, what we were into, what felt right and good at the time. We sought ways to maximise our pleasure and minimise our risk. Both were on a spectrum. Was it safe enough if you were only the top? What if he pulled out before cumming? Was oral sex safe enough?

We made our choices. We decided this was ‘safe enough’ - although what ‘this’ was varied considerably from person to person. Condoms were the default strategy of public health guidance, and in many people’s lives, although actual adherence was always variable. The sex we actually had sometimes failed to match the promise of whatever personal safer sex strategy we had adopted.

Our heads told us to be safe, but it wasn’t always enough. What seemed ‘safe enough’ in the heat of the moment often seemed foolhardy and reckless in the cold light of the morning.

‘I always use condoms…’, except sometimes when I’m drunk, or when I’m high, or when he’s really hot and I’m terrified to break the moment in case he changes his mind. ‘I’m always safe…’ unless I’m feeling down, or out of control or like I scarcely care about myself anymore. ‘I only have safer sex…’ unless I’m in love and committed and know that this guy is the one who will always be there for me. This is what I heard from my friends, my loves and sometimes this was how it felt for me.

And now, in the midst of my second pandemic, I find myself asking the same question. How safe is ‘safe enough’? The Government’s COVID guidelines (which change with dizzying frequency) are, like condoms, enough to reduce but not eliminate risk. I’m made acutely aware that my own appetite for risk differs from that of a friend, who’s had sex with four different men in the last month. His appetite differs from another’s, who’s had many more partners.

Sexual morality, judgement, recrimination and shaming rear their heads. This time though it’s not fucking which carries the greatest risk but kissing. You are safer having sex with a stranger at a glory hole than sharing a kiss with that sweet guy you’ve just had dinner with.

How safe is ‘safe enough’? In the absence of a vaccine against COVID we are all going to have to get used to working out what our personal rules are - and working out our strategies for sticking to them.

This isn’t my first pandemic. I know I can’t expect my friends and contacts to have made the exact same risk assessment as I have. I know that shaming others doesn’t help. I know that I will sometimes struggle to stick to my own rules. I know that any risk I take may also affect others. I know that if I take a greater risk than I would hope for, I may well be lucky, I may well be fine. I know also that I may not be.

We are all living on a spectrum of safety. We can all point to people whose risk taking is greater than ours, and equally we all know those who are far more cautious than we are. Abstinence doesn’t work. Risk elimination is nigh on impossible. Overly draconian measures will only drive risky behaviours underground. We might judge others whose behaviour seems reckless – but this is not helpful. People who are informed, equipped and empowered are more likely to avoid infection and transmission than those who are shamed, patronised and vilified. HIV taught us that lesson.

This isn’t safer sex. This is safer breathing. People will take risks, it’s what we do every day. It’s tough for everyone.

Be kind.