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A history of gay sex: from ancient Rome to the tragic AIDS crisis

Hadley Stewart April 24, 2018

Sex between two men should be about pleasure, but sadly it has been defined by politics.

Although in the UK gay men are now able to have sex legally, and at the same age as their heterosexual peers, this hasn’t always been the case and nor is this true everywhere in the world.

There are lots of myths circulating about sex between gay men, perhaps fueled by societal homophobia and a lack of information and awareness of sex within the LGBT+ community.

The UK government are currently introducing an inclusive LGBT+ sex and relationship education curriculum, to enable a new conversation about sex between gay men to empower them to make informed choices about their sex lives.

However, many gay men are still attempting to navigate their sex lives with very little guidance at all.

People are calling for queer sex education to reach wider audiences (rawpixel)

A brief history

Gay men and gay sex have been around since the start of civilisation.

We know that, for example, man-on-man sex certainly existed in ancient Rome, and there is also evidence of same-sex acts being discussed in ancient Greek plays.

But when relating to more relevant, more recent sexual history, physical relationships between men have been the subject of political and societal criticism.

In the 1950s, the police in the United Kingdom arrested over one thousand gay men for simply having sex.

At the time, the law stated that sex between men was illegal.

Change would come in the form of a partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK in 1967, when a change in the law meant that gay men could have sex without being arrested.

There were three conditions to this law: same-sex acts had to be consensual, they should take place in private, and only people aged 21 or above could have sex.

Change regarding the age of consent for gay men would be slow, initially being lowered to 18 years of age and then finally to 16 years of age in 2001.

The Sexual Offenses Act 2003 would bridge a previous divide in the law between same-sex and opposite-sex sexual offenses, treating offenses in either context as neutral or the same.

Related: Men convicted of gay sex offences in New Zealand to have convictions erased

Politics continues to dictate gay sex even today (Creative Commons)

Don’t die of ignorance

In 1981, five previously healthy gay men living in Los Angeles developed a rare lung infection called PCP (Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia).

At the same time, groups of gay men living in New York and California had been diagnosed with Kaposi’s Sarcoma, a particularly aggressive cancer.

By the end of that year, 121 men had died.

It wasn’t clear to doctors what was causing this unusual immune deficiency among gay men.

The following year, doctors believed the condition to be linked solely to gay men and coined the term “GRID” or gay-related immune deficiency.

Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister during the AIDS crisis (Hulton Archive/Getty)

The term was later changed to AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome), but despite the change in name the condition would still be viewed as a “gay disease.”

An increasing number of gay men were dying each year, as the virus that we now know to be HIV spread across the world.

Initially there was very little understanding of how the virus was passed on between individuals, and it was only when cases were being seen in the heterosexual population did governments decide to act.

In the United Kingdom, a controversial campaign called ‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’ was launched by the Conservative government in the late 80s and sparked somewhat of a panic among the general population.

Although the campaign went: “Gay or straight, male or female, anyone can get aids from sexual intercourse,” Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was condemned for not wanting the ads to be widespread.

She once wrote: “I remain against certain parts of this advertisement.

“I think the anxiety on the part of parents and many teenagers who would never be in danger from AIDS exceeds the good it may do… adverts where every young person will read and hear of practices they never knew about will do harm.”

Turning point

Related: Internet pastor: Don’t masturbate because it’s gay sex

Change would come in the form of both medical innovation and heterosexual allies.

Today people living with HIV can live healthy and happy lives, as a result of significant medical innovation.

The condition can be managed with medication, known as antiretroviral therapy (ART), and a better understanding of how the virus is passed on between people has meant a reduction in the number of new cases.

Diana, Princess of Wales, who held the hand of a man dying of AIDS, changed the world’s view of people living with HIV.

She continued to advocate for improved medical treatments, encouraging clinicians, politicians and wider society to take this condition seriously and treat those living with it with compassion.

In one of her most famous addresses, Diana said: “HIV does not make people dangerous to know, so you can shake their hands and give them a hug: Heaven knows they need it.”

Her work, along with the work of other activists, has allowed a change in the way wider society views sex between men.

A couple kiss as one of them holds a rainbow flag the WorldPride 2017 parade in Madrid on July 1, 2017. Revellers took to the rainbow streets of Madrid today in the world's biggest march for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights. Carried along by the slogan "Viva la vida!" (Live life!), the parade of 52 floats started partying its way through the centre later afternoon in celebration of sexual diversity, under high security. / AFP PHOTO / OSCAR DEL POZO (Photo credit should read OSCAR DEL POZO/AFP/Getty Images)
Attitudes towards sex between men are changing (Getty)

A celebration

Gay men are now able to make choices about their sex lives and engage in legal sexual activities (at least, in the UK) to fulfil their sexual wants and needs.

Perhaps anal sex remains at the forefront of people’s minds when they think of sex between men, but some gay men would argue that oral sex is an equally pleasurable experience – be it giving their partner a blowjob or rimming.

Sex toys are also a way to experiment in the bedroom, with your partner or alone, in order to find out what turns you on (or off) sexually.

While it’s important to say that not all gay men may feel able to navigate a happy and healthy sex life, many gay men are able to do so.

Sexually transmitted infections

Gay men are more ‘at risk’ of getting certain sexually transmitted infections.

Men who have sex with men are an ‘at risk group’ of getting HIV and that’s for a number of reasons.

There’s still poor education about how to practice safer sex amongst gay men, which means that men aren’t always empowered to make these decisions.

You can read more about how the inclusive hashtag #sexedforall has been campaigning for inclusive sex education for queer people by clicking here.

In practical terms, the lining of the anus is also quite thin, which means there is a risk of it tearing during penetrative sex and that could put you at an increased risk of HIV.

Preventative measures

Condoms, PrEP and PEP greatly reduce the risk of somebody becoming HIV positive.

Condoms also prevent the transmission of other STIs, as do dental dams for preventing sexually transmitted infections being passed on during rimming.

Some STIs don’t always cause symptoms, which is why it’s advised that you go for regular sexual health check-ups at your local sexual health clinic.

For example, people with a gonorrhoea infection don’t always experience symptoms and this is why we might be seeing higher numbers within the gay community.

Currently it’s recommended that gay men who are having sex without a condom to test for HIV at least once a year.

If you’re having condomless sex with more than one regular partner, or with casual partners, you should get tested every three months and always discuss your sex life with each potential new partner before intercourse.

Where else can I get some information?

GMFA is a gay men’s health charity, based in London.

The charity provides information on everything you need to know about gay sex, and publishes FS, the gay and bisexual men’s health and life magazine.

If you want to know a bit more about HIV, organisations such as Avert, NAT and the Terrence Higgins Trust are worth looking at.

You can access health information and sexual health screenings from your local sexual health clinic.

Related: Gay men in Tasmania can now get their historical gay sex convictions expunged

Education about gay sex is increasing and allowing gay men to make informed choices (NHS)

The future of gay sex

Sex between gay men remains illegal in certain countries, with others having laws that restrict the rights of gay men significantly.

It’s clear that for gay men to enjoy their sex lives and to be able to access the right information and sexual health care, the shift that has happened in the UK most spread to all international territories.

Societal change remains slow on a global scale when it comes to gay men having sex, which is why visibility and education remain such integral tools in this new conversation about gay sex.

Sexually transmitted infections are no longer the only focus of sex among gay men, and we’re now seeing more discussion around sexual pleasure, discovering and well-being.

The advent of drugs like PrEP are paving the way in enabling gay men to take even more control over their sex lives.

More: consensual sex, gay sex, HIV, sexual health, sexually transmitted infections

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