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We recently conducted a survey about porn  –  we asked 341 gay men a lot of personal questions.

It was a survey, not a scientific study, but it did give us lots of interesting insights and things to think about and explore.

One of the key themes that seemed to emerge from the men that we spoke with, was some differing points of view regarding the use of condoms in gay porn.

A lot of the porn that we see now doesn’t involve condoms, and some porn deliberately celebrates that  -  using the terms ‘bareback’ or ‘raw’ to promote that they are condom-free. Our survey indicated that a lot of guys want that, they don’t want to see condoms in porn, and that good porn is bareback porn. However there was a definite percentage of our respondents who felt that not using condoms in porn was irresponsible, that it sent ‘harmful’ messages about safer sex, and undermined health campaigns about condoms preventing the transmission of HIV and other STIs.

I caught up with health specialist Matthew Hodson of NAM Aidsmap to try and understand what the survey results might be telling us about gay men and condoms.

Why do you think condoms are such a big deal when it comes to porn?

Porn is fantasy sex. It’s not surprising that many people don’t want to grapple with the realities of sexual health in their fantasies.

Fairly early on in the HIV epidemic, most of the porn industry adopted condoms as standard, not least to protect the actors. Often the condom use was not commented upon, with the condoms magically appearing mid-scene. Some of the major porn producers reissued old movies as ‘pre-condom classics’ to meet the demand for condomless movies.

Increasing access to porn online changed viewing habits and helped pave the way for a massive rise in the consumption of bareback porn. Some of the new titles not only portrayed condomless sex, but actively celebrated the potential for transmission, selling the fantasy of ‘breeding’ and ‘seeding’  -  often irrespective of the actual HIV status of the performers.

It’s impossible to say with certainty what the relationship between bareback porn and rising rates of bareback sex was exactly. Gay men certainly didn’t need bareback porn to inform them of the possibility of bareback sex. A GMFA porn survey did find that a lot of gay men felt that watching porn influenced their own sexual behaviour, including the sexual risks that they were taking.

With HIV medication making guys with HIV undetectable, and the availability and effectiveness of PrEP, are condoms now superfluous for gay men?

The idea that safer sex begins and ends with using condoms is out of date. Someone who is HIV-positive and undetectable on treatment doesn’t pose any transmission risk to sexual partners. PrEP, when used correctly, is almost 100 percent effective, and certainly offers greater protection against HIV than condom use alone.

Condoms still play a role in safer-sex. Condoms also prevent the transmission of other STIs, and for some men they’re preferable to the prospect of taking drugs to prevent acquiring HIV.

Are some gay men not hearing the information that’s currently available regarding PrEP and Undetectable=Untransmittable?

It can be difficult for some gay men, who lost friends and lovers during the worst days of the epidemic, to accept that the safer sex message has evolved. PrEP, when taken as prescribed, is almost 100 percent effective. There are no recorded cases of someone with an undetectable viral load passing the virus on sexually. Both offer greater protection against HIV acquisition than condoms do.

Before effective treatment came along, when we had lost thousands of lives to AIDS, I’m sure the idea of a pill that could prevent infection would have been hailed as little short of a miraculous gift. Now, with a greatly reduced death toll, just such a treatment has been tested and found to be effective. PrEP should be embraced and celebrated.

Different safer sex strategies will suit different people. The important thing is that individuals are supported to adopt a strategy that they can keep to and that will be effective for them.

Is it accurate to suggest that some gay men are struggling with moral judgements regarding sex and condom use?

For many gay and bisexual men, condom use has become intertwined with morality and notions of being a good gay man. That notion has caused harm. Telling someone that they’re wrong or disordered because they prefer to have sex without condoms, only serves to alienate them from sexual health messaging.

Condoms are good for gay and bi men because they prevent transmission of infections - but that doesn’t make condom use morally superior to other methods of preventing HIV acquisition.

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What role does porn play in conveying sexual health messages to gay men?

Some performers have actively used the platform that porn has given them to promote sexual health. Jason Domino has made promotion of PrEP central to his work, and also has been helping to share the message that people who are undetectable on HIV treatment can’t pass the virus on to sexual partners. Kayden Gray is very open about living with HIV, and has also spoken out about sexual exploitation, chemsex, and issues relating to consent.

Our survey indicates that gay men are watching a lot of porn. Is porn a good way for younger gay guys to learn about sex?

There are a number of ways that you can argue that porn can give people a distorted image of what sex is like. Not least among porn’s problems, as a guide to sex for the inexperienced, is the high level of racial stereotyping or the virtual exclusion of some ethnic groups from porn, the additional pressure it puts on people to conform to particular body-types, the expectation that all men have large cocks which can be easily accommodated, or the commonplace absence of any discussion about HIV status or sexual safety.

But it would be naive to think that it’s porn’s role to educate. The ease of accessing porn makes it all the more vital that LGBTQ-inclusive sex and relationships education is taught in schools, to counter some of the myths and misinformation that porn fantasy might support.

If you were talking to a young gay guy about sex, how would you explain how to try and protect yourself against STIs?

Even though biomedical HIV prevention methods, such as PrEP, doesn’t stop STIs, it doesn’t mean that their use is going to increase STIs. People who get their PrEP use monitored will also get regular STI screens. In one major London clinic, they’ve seen a 24 percent decline in cases of gonorrhoea among their PrEP users because more gay men are getting screened regularly. Plus, if they’re found to have the infection, they get treated and cured before they pass it on.

Getting people into clinics is vital. It’s easy to have infectious gonorrhoea, particularly in the throat or arse, without any symptoms. This is why it’s so important that PrEP is available, free of charge, through our NHS services.
You can be vaccinated against HPV, Hepatitis A, and Hepatitis B. You can reduce your risk of acquiring STIs by using condoms, by avoiding penetrative sex, or by having fewer partners.

If you’re sexually active, you should get a full sexual health screen at least once a year, more often if you have had several sexual partners. The more regularly people are screened for STIs, the earlier that they’re diagnosed and cured, and the less opportunity there is for them to pass on the infection.

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Fitness

Meet the vegan body-builder

Alexander Kosztowny is building mass without harm.

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Alexander Kosztowny (image supplied)
Alexander Kosztowny (image supplied)

I caught up with aspiring bodybuilder Alexander Kosztowny to talk fitness, food, and life as a vegan body-builder.

Were you into sports at school?

No. Growing up, I was a heavy-set kid, and not very active at all. In school, I was very academic, and focused mainly on my studies rather than athletics. I didn’t dread gym class, and always worked hard and enjoyed certain sports like tennis and volleyball, but the lack of variety of activities in gym class limited my view on the variety of types of activities out there. If I’d tried a weight lifting class, or yoga, or karate, my attitude may have changed earlier in life. My sister was always active, but I come from a family who are not very big on physical activity or sports. Of course, like most, I wish I’d started earlier, but better late than never.

Can you remember what your first experience of a gym was?

I lost a lot of weight in high school with the onset of puberty, and with the gaining knowledge of nutrition, portion control, and cardiovascular activity. When I went to college, I found myself putting a lot of the weight back on, and knew I had to prevent that. I joined a gym, and hired a personal trainer for the first time to help me get back on track.

I absolutely fell in love with pumping iron. I was able to coordinate working out into being a part of my schedule, as opposed to limiting it only to ‘when I have time’ and having a trainer not only motivated me and taught me technique, but also kept me accountable for my actions. He helped me with adding strength while paying attention to form, and meal planning, The excess weight fell off, and I became addicted.

Now I’m in the gym every day, pushing my body and transforming both my health, my appearance, and my outlook.

When did you decide to get serious about your fitness and bodybuilding?

About four years ago. But I’ve only been super-serious for about a year, and I’ve only been extremely strict in terms of diet for about six months. I’m still a beginner.

What’s your aspiration as a bodybuilder?

To get huge. That’s it.

As someone who’s plant-based, I’d also like to show others what’s possible on a non-traditional diet. That there are other forms of nutrition and protein, and you can build muscle, look great, and have tons of energy without harm.

What’s the difference between your body as it is now and the way that you want your body to look?

I’d still call my self thick or chubby-muscular. The interesting thing about bodybuilding is that there never really is an end goal. You just lift and grow bigger and you’re never quite big or strong enough. I’m just trying to push myself as far as I possibly can. It’s exciting to see the changes you can make that way.

What’s your work-out regime like?

I’m in the gym six or seven times a week. This seems excessive to some people, and I know others who only go three or four times a week, and that works for them. For me, the gym is therapeutic and a stress reliever, as well as a hobby.

I usually spend about one hour doing weight lifting — machines and free weights — and then I wrap up with about 35 minutes of cardio. I focus on one body part per day. It’s a traditional bodybuilding split, so muscles have a chance to rest. This routine works for me — I know some people have luck doing high-intensity, full body workouts, but I like the focus of working each muscle group in isolation.

Do you have a work-out buddy?

Not currently, but I’ve always enjoyed it when I do. It really is vital for really heavy spotting, and the dependability is nice if they’re as motivated as you. If anyone is in Los Angeles and wants to train with me, hit me up!

How important is controlling your diet?

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Controlling diet is extremely important. It makes or breaks your progress in the gym. if you lift but don’t eat right, you won’t get anywhere. I’ve seen this happen both for myself and others. When I finally got on the right meal plan, the results happened in no time at all — abs are made in the kitchen, not the gym.

I eat about five times a day, and I’m plant-based, just like Tom Brady. My diet consists of lots of legumes, lentils, tofu, peas, broccoli, peanut butter, protein shakes, and other natural, nutrient-rich foods that contain protein without resorting to animal products.

Besides the ethical and environmental sides of going vegan, I find I have more energy, need less time to recover, and am less sore, as well as having clearer skin. I count my macros — calories, carbs, proteins, and fats — and eat the same foods every day to stay on track. I’ve pretty much eliminated bread, gluten, alcohol, refined sugars, and beverages besides water from my diet, except for special occasions. I’m super-strict, but do let myself enjoy food.

Are your friends and family supportive of your bodybuilding aspirations?

For the most part. They’re always impressed at my progress and dedication, but I need a lot of willpower when I have a family who loves to cook, bake, and tempt me with treats. That’s why having a partner or workout buddy who is on a similar plan is helpful, if you’re lucky enough to find one. It keeps you on track.

Are you competing?

Nope, and no plans to either. But that may change as I grow bigger.

What are some of your priorities for the months ahead?

I’m currently in the best shape I’ve ever been in, so I want to just keep on progressing. It’s a slow process, and takes a lot of time, so you have to be patient.

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