HIV Aids

How BDSM and Leather Communities Helped These Gay Men Confront Their HIV Diagnoses


When most folks think of the BDSM community, they think leather, chains, whips, and a leashed slave being led on all fours by his master. Undoubtedly, these are major parts of the BDSM scene, which stands for bondage, discipline, sadism, and masochism. BDSM spaces and sex parties have historically been a way for sex-positive individuals to embrace societally deemed taboos. But what’s often overlooked in these spaces are the numerous benefits they can have to one’s psychological wellbeing, especially for recently HIV-positive queer men.

Like many people, after his HIV diagnosis, Matty Lalime felt sorry for himself. He was afraid of getting sick, and unsure of how friends and family would react. Luckily, he worked at a leather shop in San Francisco and was already active in the BDSM, leather, and sex-party communities.

“The guys in the BDSM community were not fazed by my status at all,” recalls Lalime, 38. “It was automatic acceptance.”

But he quickly noticed that not only was he embraced with love and kindness, but also the men in these communities would go above and beyond to help him every way they could. He had an employer at the leather shop who jumped through hoops to make sure his new insurance would continue seamlessly with his new job. When he experienced side effects from new antiretroviral medications, a friend in the community coached him through the adverse effects and how to cope.

Daniel Herrick, 43, was diagnosed in 2003, when he was just 26 years old. He wasn’t out to his family and friends at the time, and he remembers being painfully uneducated and “pretty fucking naive” about how having HIV would impact the rest of his life.

“I thought the whole world was ending, that I would die soon — ‘How could he have done this to me?’ — and so on,” Herrick recalls. He also remembers feeling so “dumb” for contracting HIV, and thinking that he should have known better. Later, he realized, “I was worried about both the heteronormative societal stigma about being poz and also the stigma within the gay male community about being poz.”

Herrick found the BDSM community over time. His ex-partner had an interest in leather, and together, they bought some leather boots. Looking for a place to wear them out, he found himself going to more BDSM and sex parties in Boston. At first, however, he didn’t see these communities as more accepting of his HIV status. After a little while, he did. Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) becoming mainstream was how “a lot, a lot, a lot” of perceptions changed towards men living with HIV, both in and outside of BDSM sex spaces, he says.

Online sex and BDSM sites were initially what helped Herrick embrace his status. In particular, he remembers the website BBRT (Bareback Real Time), which still exists today. “That was the first place I saw options for ‘status’ that included ‘Poz; Poz OK; Undetectable; Don’t Know; Don’t Care; Negative.'” Later, BBRT added “Negative on PrEP,” Herrick says. “That was so fucking freeing for me, because I just thought, ‘Oh my God. Now I can be completely open and honest about being undetectable, and everyone who clicks on my profile will know that about me, without me having to say anything. And if that’s a deal-breaker for them, they just won’t message me. I don’t really have to deal with the rejection or negative comments, they just won’t talk to me!'”

He was shocked that not only would HIV-negative men have sex with him, they also felt comfortable having condomless anal sex. Empowered, he attended BDSM sex parties in real life and remembers how great it felt to not feel shamed for being HIV positive and still wanting to have sex.

“I think the leather, sex party, and BDSM communities are used to being a subset of a subset — a ‘weird community’ within a ‘weird community.’ The ‘sex freaks’ in LGBT-land who were looked down upon by everyone for being slutty or looking ridiculous or whatever. So when some new ‘sex freak’ found this particular ‘weird community,’ then the people in the community already were more likely to reach out to the new person and say, ‘You are welcome here.'”

Herrick’s sex-positivity, a term he clarifies did not exist widely among gay men at the time of his diagnosis in 2003, went hand in hand with his acceptance of his status and his body. All three were facilitated by BDSM and sex-party spaces. He remembers feeling desired when he weighed 60 pounds more than he does currently. At the time, Herrick felt poorly about himself, and his positive status didn’t help. Nonetheless, these spaces embraced his body, his status, and his desire for kinkier sex.

“These communities made me sex-positive, which was hard for me for a long time because of HIV stigma and disclosure and stuff like that,” he says.

“It makes sense that kink and fetish communities are more accepting of HIV-positive people,” says Alexander Cheves, 27, an HIV-positive writer and activist. “We are default sex educators. Indoctrination into any kink scene requires a degree of sex ed.”

One can’t simply walk into a BDSM sex party and expect to play with zero knowledge of how to conduct oneself. There are things you must be aware of. When you spank and whip, you make sure to hit the fleshier parts of the body — like the butt, chest, and thighs — and make sure not to smack places directly above important internal organs. When you tie someone up, it’s necessary to be familiar with the Shibari (Japanese bondage) to not numb, choke, or even kill the rope bottom. And never let anyone near a sounding needle if they haven’t seen one before.

The same people who familiarize themselves with all the safety rules of BDSM are the people who also know about sexually transmitted infections, undetectable equals untransmittable (U=U), and other sexual health information that would make them more welcoming of men living with HIV.

Then, of course, there’s the actual sex that occurs in these spaces. After fearing that no one will ever sleep with you again after becoming positive, BDSM and leather sex parties prove that isn’t the case. In these spaces, (close to) everyone will have sex with men who are positive, especially now with PrEP and greater knoweldge of U=U. They’ll also have no problem taking you on a date afterward. “Guys weren’t so brash and open about it, since PrEP did not come into vogue until about two years [after I was diagnosed],” says Cheves. “Once the message of PrEP really started to spread, you started to see a new surge of outspoken barebackers who felt like we were reigniting a pre-AIDS culture of condomless bacchanalia.”

Cheves continues, “Leathermen and kinksters were not afraid of my status, but it was the pigs — the re-emerging bareback culture, the guys who fuck dozens of people a night at a dance party or spend their weekends in bathhouses — who really showed me that I was still sexy and deserving of pleasure with my status.”

They even showed him how he could become more liberated than folks who are HIV negative, “because we are finally able to discard that crippling fear of HIV, which is something I think a lot of HIV-negative people, even the ones on PrEP, still live with.” The poz “pigs” helped Cheves become completely liberated from paranoia and worry, so he could finally start enjoying sex.

There can be, however, a darker side that comes with these kinky sex-party communities. While Richard Schieffer, who started attending queer BDSM and sex parties following his diagnosis in 2011, felt accepted in these spaces, he also experienced “a lot of heavy drug use in my sexual encounters,” which only worsened his overall mental health. He was forced into a particular predicament of finally feeling part of a community that accepted his status, but feeling he needed to be using drugs to exist in that space.

“I felt like I was a part of something greater than me, but it was also ruining me. It wasn’t until I stopped drugs and got sober that I could accept my status.” Schieffer, who’s now 30 years old, just celebrated his four-year sobriety anniversary this September.

Sergi de la Rua Castilla, 21, sees the rampant drug use in parts of the sex communities, but he doesn’t see it as an insurmountable obstacle. Rather, he considers it a fine line to walk. He said point blank, “Sex parties are fine as long as you can control them.” He goes to them sporadically and believes that it’s not just HIV that unites many of the men there, but “most of us shared an undiagnosed depression.”

“Here in Spain we have an expression,” he continued. “Dios los cría y ellos se juntan. It means that everyone who shares common conditions, personalities, and hobbies ends up gathering together.”

Still, he notes that sex parties and BDSM spaces do have a positive impact on his life; however, now, he’s starting to feel some shame surrounding his sex-positive lifestyle.

“Throughout these years of attending and hosting sex parties with BDSM sex involved, I discovered one part of myself. Nowadays, though, I’m still struggling with that, because somehow I still have in my head that this kind of stuff is stigmatized by society,” Castilla says. “So yes, it’s helped me embrace my status and sexuality, but I am still struggling with feelings of insecurity due to social stigma.”

For Schieffer, on the other hand, the cons of BDSM far outweigh the pros, which is why he’s removed himself from the scene entirely. He believes, “When you’re in a group of addicts that feel like outcasts, they would love to induct more outcasts.” He then noted that this was his personal experience. Other men haven’t felt pressured to have chemsex the same way that he did. In fact, Cheves loves existing in the space while now being sober.

Like any community, there are pros and cons. For some, the kink-positive, leather sex community can empathize and support you following a positive diagnosis, whereas for others, it can lead you down a rabbit hole of chemsex and depression.

Perhaps it’s all about finding the right men within the community.

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