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"They're peddling death": profiting from unsafe sex--an Advocate investigation.

The promoter of the Raw Dukes sex party in Harlem in May banned safer sex, hoping to maximize his profits. A loud protest shut him down, but the underground industry of largely condom-free parties aimed at men of color is still thriving in New York City. AIDS educators have barely begun to fight back, while health advocates fear the trend could spread across the country

It's a warm Saturday night in July and about two dozen men clad only in boxers and T-shirts are in various stages of sex as "thug-style" hip-hop music plays in a ground-floor apartment in New York City. It's hard to make out anyone's features in the pitch-black darkness, and no one is talking.

A young man with a do-rag tightly wrapped around the top of his head enters the room. He pushes another young man over on a makeshift bed and penetrates him--without a condom--for a good 10 minutes. When the guy is finished, he pulls up his boxers and slinks away into another room, disappearing as quickly as he arrived. Neither he nor his partner look older than 20.

Similar barebacking action is happening at private sex parties around the country all the time--a quick search on CraigsList yields dozens of listings at any given moment--but this sex party is different. It costs $10 to get in, and it's located in a gritty Brooklyn neighborhood. When I visit it with Terry Evans, an outreach worker with New York's Positive Health Project, we have to stop around a woman passed out on a sidewalk grate; a few desolate blocks later, we feel the gaze of four cops standing beside a police van, waiting for something bad to happen.

Once at the apartment building, we hit the buzzer for 1A, and a 20-something black man ushers us into the apartment's kitchen, where we pay the admission fee and quickly stow most of our clothes in drawstring bags. "Don't--you might get cold from the air conditioner," says another man, looking up from a computer at a nearby table, as I begin to shed my shirt. (I later learn he is the party's copromoter.) I walk with Evans into two adjoining rooms. Inside, I spy a box of condoms by the door--and the occasional Magnum wrapper on the floor--but clearly not everyone is using them.

Every week in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, such as East New York, Crown Heights, and Spanish Harlem, promoters throw for-profit sex parties like this one, where condom use is left up to the participants. Attracting a largely black and Latino clientele with private e-mails and postings at sex hookup sites like Adam4Adam.com and Web groups like Nubian Muscle, these savvy, albeit ethically challenged self-made entrepreneurs cash in on admission fees ranging from $5 to $25 while taking a decidedly laissez-faire attitude toward safe sex. Trading on the appeal of thug-life fantasies and questionable notions of "down low" identity politics, they turn their apartments into commercial pleasure domes, knowing that many gay men, regardless of ethnicity, will play unsafe if given the chance--and if no one's looking.

"This is a business enterprise that's exploiting our community and putting people at risk," says veteran AIDS activist Phill Wilson, executive director of the Black AIDS Institute in Los Angeles. "They're peddling death."

While you would think this trend would be at the top of the agenda for prevention activists from major AIDS service organizations, most groups in fact remain unprepared to deal with this burgeoning industry. Outreach staffers at Gay Men's Health Crisis, the leading AIDS service organization in New York, for example, didn't even know about their existence until quite recently.

The raw-sex party scene made headlines in May when a 24-year-old college-educated black man announced that condoms would be banned at a party called Raw Dukes, which he was hosting at his Harlem apartment. "Anyone caught using jimmies will be asked to leave with no refund given" warned the Evite, which listed an entry fee of $5 to $10 and boasted of 54 satisfied customers at a previous event. "Had a ball," one former patron was quoted as saying in the invitation. "I swallowed so much nutt ... that there was no need for breakfast at IHOP."

The Raw Dukes invitation wound up in the in-boxes of several prominent local black gay leaders, including Keith Boykin, former board president of the National Black Justice Coalition, and Tokes Osubu, executive director of Gay Men of African Descent. They organized a protest outside the promoter's Eighth Avenue apartment. "About 18 of us, mostly black gay men but also some women, marched in circles in front of the building for about three hours, during which time we answered neighbors' questions and did HIV prevention and education," says Osubu, who initially sent a letter to the party's promoter urging him to change the no-condom policy. "The word is," adds Osubu, "that the party was canceled as a result of the fuss made by GMAD."

Indeed, according to an invitation sent by the same promoter advertising another party in June, the Raw Dukes event didn't happen. "Our apologies for cancellin the last jumpoff," the invite, obtained exclusively by The Advocate, reads. "Some unexpected ish came up at the last minute. But we're back." And he was, having changed the event's name to Harlem Dukes. This time there was no admission charge advertised---and no mention of banning condoms, presumably a calculated political gesture. "Please DO NOT FORWARD because we wanna KEEP THE PARTY ON THA LOW," the promoter warned.

The Raw Dukes affair may have been the first time key activists had heard of a sex party catering to men of color where condoms were officially banned, but most for-profit sex parties openly allow unsafe sex. The promoters may pay lip service to condom use--and may even provide condoms--in order to get their parties listed in local gay nightlife weeklies, but behind the doors of their private apartments, anything goes, including a lot of unsafe sex and illegal drug use.

"I've been to at least 16 different parties in the past year," says Evans, the Positive Health Project staffer who accompanied me to the sex party in Brooklyn. Working under an unrestricted Stonewall Community Foundation grant subsidizing outreach and education concerning crystal meth abuse, Evans first heard about the black gay sex party scene from men online at Adam4Adam. "It came to a point where every single guy who contacted me, even the guys that you wouldn't think would even fit a gay profile, were saying what they wanted was unprotected sex," he says. "Then they started inviting me to parties. I've been to white parties, but I had no clue what to expect at a black sex party. I was completely blown away by the attitudes of the people at these parties--and the guys who came in here and tested positive."

Evans first went to a party called Black Nubian in a Harlem brownstone. The entrance fee was $20, and it had a different sex area on each of its three levels. "I just didn't see condoms anywhere. That automatically disturbed me," recalls Evans, a 34-year-old black man who got involved in outreach work after a bad relationship with a boyfriend who was dealing crystal. "So you pretty much know as a given that safe play isn't really part of what people are doing there."

A few of the subsequent black sex parties Evans has attended have provided condoms, "but I see the same amount when I walk in as when I leave," he says. "For me, that's a good sign that they weren't being used. I've been approached by guys to have sex, and I question them. They tell me this is what they're looking for. If I talk to them about condoms, it turns them off, so I see how hard it would be for some of the guys to negotiate safe sex."

Barebacking is certainly nothing new, and it's certainly not limited to men of color. Since the early days of the AIDS epidemic, some gay men of all stripes have shunned condoms, whether at "conversion" parties as chronicled in the 2003 documentary The Gift, or simply because they don't like the feeling of wearing them. While some AIDS advocates disagree, Evans says many of the men who attend these parties are on the down low and shun condoms because they associate using them with being unmasculine.

And the promoters of these raw sex parties are capitalizing on that, he says. "I'm hearing about more and more parties, because people are seeing how lucrative they are," Evans says, adding that it was only a matter of time before a crafty promoter decided to up the ante and ban condoms altogether. "You're getting promoters that are having competitions between each other. Each promoter is trying to see how scandalous their party can be. They've figured out a way to hustle people out of money by giving them something they think they want--and I guess they do want it, because they are going."

It's a lot like the drug trade, Evans and others say. Like crack dealers who preyed on their inner-city peers in the late 1980s, offering them a potent and addictive high for a relatively cheap price, the promoters in New York's raw-sex scene have found an easy way to make a living--or just some extra cash--by taking advantage of their customers' carnal desires.

Like many AIDS advocates with whom I spoke for this story, Wilson of L.A.'s Black AIDS Institute wasn't aware of the extent of the raw-sex scene in New York. But he was among those who protested the Raw Dukes event. "We had an obligation to speak up," he says. "We wouldn't allow folks to put a toxic dump site next door. It's the same thing."

The promoters themselves are coolly impervious to such criticism. A promoter named Shewn, who hosts sex parties in his Jersey City apartment with a $20 "donation," told me he has thrown bareback-only parties in the past but doesn't anymore, even though the "rules and regulations" he e-mails to prospective partygoers suggests otherwise. "Is it a safe sex party?" he asks rhetorically near the end of the four-page list of guidelines. "If my posting and e-mails stating condoms and lube are provided isn't enough for you, then I don't know what to say. In turn I am not the safe sex police. I don't go around making sure everyone is being safe. What two consenting adults decide to do at my party is entirely up to them. Barebacking is most welcomed between consenting men."

The promoter of the party in Brooklyn sounds a similar exculpatory note. "When they walk in, we give them rules and regulations, and we tell them this is a safe-sex party," Raheem tells me a few days before I attend his party, which was marketed to blacks and Latinos but allowed me--a white guy--in the door. But does he enforce condom use among his guests? "What you guys do--it's your business. It takes two, so if you feel that you're not comfortable with that, then you tell the person to stop. You can't go in there and enforce it and say 'put it on!' We provide them, we give you a little consultation before the party starts, so if you've chosen to do it without one, that's on you." Despite Raheem's claim, I am given no "safe-sex consultation" upon arrival that night.

Raheem also makes a point of telling me that sometimes he will let a van from the New York City department of health (also the source of his condoms) park in front of his building so that guys at his party can get tested for HIV--a claim Evans found baffling. "I just can't believe he would allow that," he says the night we go to the party, especially since Raheem had rebuffed Evans's earlier efforts to drop off condoms and discuss safe sex with him.

Osubu, Evans, and Gary English, executive director of the Brooklyn-based gay men of color advocacy group People of Color in Crisis, each tell me they contacted the promoter of Raw Dukes. Evans describes him as "indignant." But he has since changed his contact info and I was unable to solicit a comment for this story. I did, however, speak to a friend of his--ironically, a staffer at POCC--who wasn't aware what his pal was up to until the controversy erupted. "I put two and two together when I saw the address for the e-mail," he says, asking The Advocate not to publish his name. "I haven't spoken to him since the whole protest thing happened. I think he thinks I tried to set him up or something like that. That's how that goes."

"I think he was trying to send out a message," says English of the promoter, who told English he was college-educated (and asked him not to call the police). "People do weird things if they're trying to catch people's attention, and I think he was trying to say something--and I think we need to listen."

To be sure, these promoters are not the first businessmen to try and profit from unsafe gay sex. The porn industry stepped to the plate years ago when producers began making videos depicting unsafe sex for the mass market, earning a level of revenue that dwarfs the collective income generated by New York City's commercial raw-sex scene. And despite the continuing outcry of the gay community, the bareback porn scene is still going strong, with whole companies dedicated to the genre. One outfit, Rawloads.com, films raw sex parties it throws in cities around the country, which are open to anyone who fills out the registration form on its Web site. Another online sex site recently caught flak for streaming footage of young black men having sex without condoms in a dorm-style setting.

But while any financial gain from sexual activity that puts its participants' health in jeopardy is always morally reprehensible, the porn actors have arguably consented to the risk, and many are protected to some degree by regular testing. The risk remains real and the message dangerous, but porn actors are informed participants in situations that may reduce their exposure.

Not so for the men who attend raw sex parties. Although most are surely aware that HIV may be transmitted through unprotected anal sex, many lack specific knowledge of how prevalent the virus may be in their community, taking false comfort in the belief that AIDS is something that mostly affects IV drug users and Chelsea gay boys. And that misinformation makes the actions of the promoters all the more dubious.

"One of the pieces of information that folks don't have is HIV rates," says Wilson. According to recent figures released by the CDC, New York City's public-health department, and other agencies, the rate of new HIV infection among African-American men is significantly higher than for men belonging to other ethnic groups--and two to three times the rate of new infection among white men. Putting the contrast in starker terms, Wilson uses a theoretical example of two 22-year-old men, one black, one white, both virgins. "If the white 22-year-old only socializes in the context of other white men, he is going to encounter HIV let's say one out of 10 encounters. The black gay man, if all his sexual encounters are in a black gay context, he's going to encounter HIV 50% of the time. So even if they both have only one sexual encounter and they do the exact same thing, the black gay man is more likely to get infected than the white gay man."

Given the differing risks, Wilson says, "our tolerance for promoting unsafe sex has to be much, much lower if we are going to try to fight and stop this epidemic in black America."

The widely reported phenomenon of black men having sex on the down low may lead some to believe that they tend to be a lot less safe than white gay men, Wilson says. But the opposite may in fact be true. According to several studies, Wilson says, "the behaviors of black gay men as a whole are no worse and sometimes slightly better than the behaviors of white gay men."

So what's to be done about the troubling scene in New York City? The protest outside the Raw Dukes' promoter's apartment building, which received widespread coverage both in and out of the mainstream media, was a good start, says Wilson. "Public speech, mobilization where folks say that you will not do this in my name, is critically important, because it provides us with an opportunity to define ourselves and to ask what community means," he says. "Black gay men have taken action against this kind of behavior in our community, and quite frankly, I don't recall the white gay community taking a stand on barebacking in this nature. The white gay community has taken a stand against crystal meth, but this kind of in-your-face on barebacking I don't recall happening."

But, concedes GMAD's Osubu, "in terms of the effect on other parties like [Raw Dukes], it is hard to determine what effect the pretest had. One result of this is that there is increased dialogue in the black gay community about what this whole issue represents. Across the nation black gay men are talking about safe sex again in a way that hasn't happened in a long time. That is a good thing."

Although English certainly agrees that increased dialogue is key, he disagrees that public protests--he didn't endorse GMAD's action--are a viable solution, pointing out an inherent risk of that strategy. "You can't shoot the messenger," he says. "The train has left the station. People are still going to have raw sex, so how do we work with them to not do this without sending them further underground?"

To that end, POCC has been developing initiatives to reach out to both the promoters and the men who attend their parties by trying to cultivate a sense of community. And Evans, who alone among HIV outreach workers interviewed for this story has actually been inside many of the parties, has been trying to sway promoters directly. "With enough agencies getting involved and developing partnerships with these promoters, hopefully a change can be brought," he says. For him, that means providing condoms--including the female condom, which partygoers can insert anally before arriving so they don't have to worry about negotiating for safe sex--and discussing with the promoters the consequences of what they're doing.

So far, the raw-sex party industry appears to be primarily a New York City phenomenon. While private sex parties may happen anywhere and everywhere, as any denizen of CraigsList can attest, for-profit parties that squeeze money out of ill-informed strangers so far appear to be a New York phenomenon. Calls to outreach workers around the country and a thorough examination of the party listings on Adam4Adam turn up few for-profit parties, and none premising exclusively unsafe sex. But that doesn't mean the scene couldn't quickly spread to other major American cities, especially if demand is spurred by visitors to New York.

"Trends often start on one of the coasts and move inland, which happened with syphilis and crystal meth--it usually takes about a year or two," says Eric Roland, director of education at the gay-oriented Legacy Community Health Services in Houston. He is unaware of any commercial sex parties targeting men of color in that city. "If they're happening, they're so underground that no one's heard about them yet."

Meanwhile, in New York the pressure cooker is heating up. "As the months go by I'm hearing more and more about this, to where it's on the brink of getting completely out of hand," says Evans of the parties. "A couple of infected people go to them, and everyone's going to get infected, and that's the horror story of it all. For someone to consciously know this drives me crazy. The promoters are part of the community; they know what's going on. There is definitely the potential for disaster."

Welcoming Atripla

When the first antiretroviral HIV/AIDS drugs were approved by the Food and Drug Administration 10 years ago, many patients were taking more than 20 pills just to stay alive. Now people with HIV and their doctors across the country are celebrating the FDA's approval of Atripla, the first single daily pill for the treatment of the disease. (Find The Advocate's previous reporting on Atripla, from our April 11 and January 17 issues, by clicking on ISSUE ARCHIVES at Advocate.com.)

'The availability of Atripla marks the culmination of 10 years of efforts," said John G. Bartlett, MD, of Johns Hopkins University, in July upon the pill's approval in July.

Atripla is the result of a unique partnership between Bristol-Myers Squibb and Gilead Sciences, two leading pharmaceutical companies. It combines Gilead's Emtriva and Viread with Bristo-Myers Squibb's Sustiva.--Mike McManus

Additional reporting by Dan Allen and Michael McManus.
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Article Details
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Author:Kennedy, Sean
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Cover story
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 29, 2006
Words:3504
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