Readers' Submissions

Why DO Men Bareback?

  • Written by Pan
  • February 15th, 2014
  • 6 min read




Spending my youth as part of an expatriate community in Hong Kong, I was introduced into the idea of sex tourism fairly early on, although it was never called that by anyone that I knew. Surrounded by the friends of my father, himself a long-term expat, I soon learnt that many of their ‘business trips’ to other parts of Southeast Asia rarely involved any business at all. Most of these men were married and needed to gain what was rather euphemistically called a ‘pink ticket’ from their wives – permission to briefly travel overseas on their own; what their wives thought or how they felt was never discussed.

It was the early 1990s and government messages around HIV / AIDS awareness had been circulating for many years. For me, these messages had a very chastening effect (something similar to what Frank Cormia referred to as ‘syphilophobia’) as I honestly believed that every sexual encounter might lead to HIV infection and a lingering death to AIDS. It was in this mindset that, while sitting in a bar with my father and some of his male friends, one of them pulled out and passed around some photos that he had taken during a recent trip to Bangkok. These photos showed him engaged in various sexual acts with a Thai woman he had met during his holiday. What struck me most were not the acts themselves, nor that these very intimate images had been so openly shared, but that he wasn’t wearing a condom. The reality of what I was seeing did not compute in my mind and so I asked him directly, without thinking how he might respond to being asked. He replied matter-of-factly that he knew that the woman was a ‘good girl’ so he hadn’t needed to wear a condom. That was it and nothing more was said. The photos were put away and the evening continued, but for me the experience left so many questions unanswered; why did he share these photographs with us? Why didn’t he use a condom (the risks of HIV and AIDS had been drilled into us all for years)? How did he think that he could tell that this particular woman was ‘clean’? Did he care either way? It was all so illogical.

Thailand can appear to westerners as a paradise on earth but it is something beyond the culture, the climate and the beaches that attract many men to visit the country. As most of us know, the tourist areas of Bangkok (Patpong, Soi Cowboy), Phuket (Patong) and Pattaya (err, pretty much everywhere) throng with bars and clubs in which western men congregate at night to drink and socialise. For most the night will end the same way – they will pick a woman, pay her fine and then go back to his hotel and have sex. This story plays out each night as men returning home are perpetually replaced by others arriving. Although the majority of men will use condoms for sex, there is plenty of evidence that many others will not. A study by Manieri et al. (2013) on Swedish sex tourists in Thailand found that 20% of those men planning to engage in sex with sex workers were going to do so without using a condom – that’s one in five men making the premeditated choice to expose themselves the risk of acquiring an STI.

Almost twenty years have passed since I was in that Hong Kong bar and felt the overwhelming sense of astonishment at those photographs. Although somewhat more jaded by my years, I finally find myself in the position to try to understand what makes some men go bareback with Thai sex workers by being able to focus my current PhD research on that question. I know the stock answers, as we all do (Korski wrote a great piece on the subject back in 2006) – sex feels better without a condom, it’s easier to come (especially if you’ve been drinking, have taken Viagra or have had a lot of sex), most STIs are curable and HIV transmission rates are low (although this depends on which data you look at!), and so on – but it can’t be as simple as that, can it? What about the risks? What about the potential consequences of contracting an incurable STI like herpes or HIV? What about the consequences of passing it on to wives or girlfriends back home? I can understand mistakes that occur in the heat of the moment – we’ve all made them – but if Manieri’s findings are accurate then a lot of men are taking premeditated risks with potentially dire results.

A few researchers have already had a go at trying to explain this behaviour. I’ve heard the suggestion that following the advent of effective treatments for HIV, infection with this virus is increasingly being viewed as a chronic but non-lethal condition, like diabetes, that some are happy to live with. Others turn this idea on its head by suggesting than men enjoy sexual risk-taking as a direct consequence of the very fact that they could acquire an infection – think bug chasing here. Stephen Lyng has a theory that he calls ‘Edgework’ which discusses the ‘intoxicating’ and addictive effects that risk-taking behaviours can produce. And yet, for me at least, none of these ideas provide a complete answer – they are conflicting and mutually exclusive guesses – and so in May 2014 I’m going to Thailand in an attempt to talk to men, ideally men who choose to bareback and are willing to discuss it with me, about why they do what they do and how they conceptualise and process ideas about risk and consequence.

Once I’ve finished, and with Stickman’s consent, I’ll post up what I find; it may be a single unifying theory or it may be that it just depends who you ask…



Pure Bangkok Escorts


Stickman's thoughts.

I can't explain why so many Western men in Thailand engage in sex with prostitutes without a condom. All I can say is that you are right and that it is widespread. Let's not forget that HIV is far from the only issue. There are plenty of other STDs more easily caught as well as the pregnancy issue.

Failure, or should we call it what it is, often refusal to use a condom is one of those topics that those who engage in it will happily talk to fellow users of prostitutes with, but they never talk with people in mainstream society about it. Shame, perhaps? Do they know, deep down, that it is not just reckless, but endangering someone else?

Research on the men who choose not to use condoms would be very interesting. I'd hypothesise that the average age is probably on the higher side of average. It's been my experience observing the industry that it is more likely older guys, especially guys aged 55 up. That's not to say there aren't plenty of younger guys who suffer a "lapse" too – but it seems to be more a lapse i.e. a single instance with younger guys, whereas with older guys it can be habitual.

By the way, I really like the analogy with diabetes. Like HIV, it is (in most cases) self-inflicted.