Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Group Sex

 Queer and Questioning Men as Pleasure-Seeking Harm-Reduction Experts

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.  -Charles Stephens

Group sex events (GSE) have been a social, albeit mostly secretive, phenomenon throughout history. From ancient Dionysian mystery cults to today’s commercial sex clubs, intense communal sex-capades have attracted segments of the populace. GSE may involve anywhere from five to many lovers in a variety of private and public settings. According to early data drawn from the Vancouver’s 2014 Momentum Health Study, a Canadian Institute of Health Research and National Institute of Health funded longitudinal study of Vancouver gay men’s health, nearly a quarter of gay/bisexual/question (GBQ) men participate in GSE. Of these, 74 percent of participants used anywhere from one to a combination of 12 substances with the intention to disinhibit, prolong and/or enhance pleasure; while the same number of participants of the same study expressed interest in safer sex parties. How do queer and questioning men negotiate seemingly competing needs between sexual pleasure and health?

Few would deny the known risks to GBQ men associated with group sex. Nearly 60 percent of all new HIV diagnoses here in BC are from within this population. Do we know enough about the potential rewards of sexual exploration? More nuanced, culturally sensitive information is needed to provide a richer understanding of what constitutes both “risk and reward” in areas of queer and questioning men’s health.

Resiliency Theory advocates for strength-based HIV programs for men who lust for men. A new study of GSE out of Vancouver in partnership with community organizations including Health Initiative for Men suggests such programs should be internally navigated from within the specific contexts of GSE.  Momentum Health Study data indicates a subculture of intensive sex partying associated with GSE, and importantly reveals evidence of personal harm reduction practices (e.g. always being the top in anal intercourse to reduce HIV transmission). The Momentum study seeks to determine what other indigenous prevention tactics are associated within this subculture. The mixed-methods study will gather more information about who attends GSE, what motivates participant’s risk-taking/reward-making choices, and their harm-reducing and pleasure-amplifying practices. Between 20 and 30 participants, interviewed twice over a three-month period will inform researchers and community practitioners about the cultural characteristics and intrinsic values GSE offer participants. Project participants will ideally recommend potential customized event-level sexual health concepts for implementation.

Researchers also intend to meet with sex party hosts to better understand their needs and strategies for offering higher quality, safer and sounder sexual experiences to their guests. By engaging queer and questioning men in conversations about their chosen sexual practices and culturally explicit erotic spaces, future health strategies may more successfully evolve by both honouring men’s need for sexual adventurism while supporting their efforts for self and communal care. Your thoughts are most welcome.

robert birch

Robert Birch, MA is a doctoral student with the Social Dimensions of Health program at the University of Victoria, a new qualitative researcher with the B.C. Centre for Excellence Momentum Health Study for gay/bi men, and writes for the award winning national HIV/AIDS blog www.positivelite.com

**Please note that the material presented here does not necessarily imply endorsement or agreement by individuals at the Centre for Addictions Research of BC

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