On Eric Rofes and Pro-Sex HIV Prevention

On Eric Rofes and Pro-Sex HIV Prevention
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Nearly a decade ago, when I first started to get involved politically and the discussions were just taking shape that would give form and direction to the discussions we are witnessing today, I first met Eric Rofes.

Aspiring to be neither a bureaucrat nor an activist but someone who had a few skills, a lot of energy, and a huge commitment to gay and bisexual men, I sought a place to locate myself and do my work, a platform that could provide a critical space so that I could think through and make sense of both the political landscape of gay men's sexual practices and sexual health. I found in Eric's vision a blueprint and a model for how to be thoughtful, interested in culture, and rooted in HIV/AIDS prevention efforts.

Eric's stunning vision -- he understood that healthy communities produce healthy people better than most -- I initially encountered through his writings. I found a series of articles he had written online, which led me to his magnificent books Reviving the Tribe and Dry Bones Breath.

His project, one of the most radical projects for gay men, if ever there was one, was about not only survival but post-survival for gay men, about daring to imagine a future for us, a way forward, in the aftermath of war. But it wasn't science fiction or utopia; rather, Rofes advocated for pragmatic and deliberate planning and community rebuilding, which would anticipate the clinical turn in HIV prevention and the behavioral turn in HIV treatment, a historical marker as much as a scientific one.

Eric spoke about the possibilities of sexuality and pleasure when even thinking of such things in a public way and a political way, let alone a moral way, was heresy. He wanted us to explore how gay men attach and produce meanings through anal sex, and the role of masculinity and power in attaining sexual pleasure. He wrote again and again about how any impactful approach to HIV prevention needed to consider those issues. He was also, among many things, a moralist and a sex radical, which is an awkward but extremely necessary critical space for an intellectual of any variety to situate their work.

His influences, just to name three, were the brilliant sociologist Gary Dowsett, feminist theory, and Paulo Freire, a trinity of sorts that animated his ideas and provided the canvas for him to paint his dreams upon, fueling his fresh and iconoclastic approach to thinking about not only sexual health but sexuality.

Rofes was a white gay man who had spent much of his life in California, so his sensibilities left much to be desired. He referenced gay men of color in his work and often challenged racist exclusions of gay men of color in the HIV prevention universe, but there were limitations to his very expansive imagination. His lack of robust engagement with black queer intellectuals impoverished some of his thinking around race and desire. Certainly he interviewed some black gay men for his books, but he did not extensively engage the more prominent writers and activists of that time, who were the leading voices on those issues. For example, the influence of black lesbian feminism on the first wave of black gay men's HIV/AIDS activism in the '80s would have provided models for resilience and restoration in his work. Essex Hemphill's poetry, in particular, and his masterpiece "Now We Think" is the perfect model and text to engage with in order to understand the complicated and ambivalent relationship between fear, desire, and pleasure that colors the sexual experiences of black gay men. The Craig G. Harris essay "I'm Going Out Like a F-cking Meteor" is one of the defining works of HIV resilience and defiance.

To his credit, Rofes did seem open to being challenged around racism and even talked about what it meant to be a kind of big, butch white man moving through the world, and certainly in his later writing about his college classroom work. But to be an anti-racist of any variety, no matter how skilled or well-meaning, is to ultimately fail at being an anti-racist. Being anti-racist in this culture is like being anti-oxygen. You can talk about how problematic oxygen is all day long, but at the end of the day, you still and will continue to breathe, no matter how long you hold your breath. The goal is less political ideology and more ethical practice. If one isn't careful, ideology can become a substitute for integrity. This, of course, is not to suggest that this was the case for Eric; he seemed to be more skilled than many other white men of his generation in thinking through race in an ethical way. But no one, no matter how well-meaning or how skilled, can be let completely off the hook.

More about Rofes: The Rofesian bedroom was a theater of sorts, pregnant with the possibilities of meaning. He artfully resisted pathologizing any aspect of gay men's sexuality, even the most abject. He was the public health incarnation of Jean Genet.

Moving forward, particularly in HIV/AIDS prevention, and gay men's health overall, we must not reduce members of our community to problems that need to be solved and thus rush to establish prevention strategies without any genuine grasp of our desires and sexuality. There is still much space in which to explore the meanings that we attach to anal sex and the complex relationship between masculinity, meaning, and pleasure. Most critically, we should also move toward popular education models in sexual health education. There is still a tendency to resist more democratic models of knowledge sharing around gay men's health and HIV prevention in particular. Behavior change, when it was still central (now we are in a more bio-behavioral moment), failed to replicate educational models that were participatory, which rendered it marginal and left biomedical science to do the heavy lifting around grappling with sexuality in a complex way. The PrEP advocates are kind of the pro-sex wing of HIV prevention now, and the more strictly behavioral-oriented condomcentrists seem antiquated.

These are all issues that Eric began to raise in his work, issues that we must continue to grapple with, if we are to ever evolve in our understanding about HIV risk and sexual practices.

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