"Before I have sex with anyone -- and I think I can speak for so many gay men, some of my friends -- I always think of the consequences," began one gay man, describing to me his mental approach to meeting people online for offline sexual encounters. He continued, "I would say HIV is, like, at the top of my head every single time I meet someone. It's, like, something I think about. I actually have, like, an anxiety about it. Maybe [in] a couple years I will be able to let go of [it], but, yeah, it was something that was always on my mind when I thought about having sex with someone."
Since the HIV/AIDS crisis, it has become almost impossible for many gay men, men who have sex with men, and transgender women to think about their sex lives without thinking about risks and consequences. This risk framework can generate a great deal of fear and anxiety as men and transgender women navigate their sexual encounters with men. However, in my research on self-identified gay men and their use of an online personal website, online foreplay emerged as a pleasurable way to discuss sexual interests and practices. The Internet and online personal dating and hookup websites have transformed how gay men, other men seeking men, and transgender women explore, negotiate, and imagine sex before meeting for their actual offline sexual encounters. Through flirting and talking to each other online, users can explicitly discuss how they want the sexual interactions to unfold before they engage in certain sexual behaviors during the offline rendezvous. These conversations can be erotic, where talking about condom use, sexual positioning, fetishes, HIV status, and other sexual aspects of one's life can be flirtatious and fun.
For example, one gay man told me that discussing sexual practices online before meeting is "kind of like Internet foreplay or something like that: 'Even though I know you are interested in this, let's talk about it before we do it,' or something like that. Yeah, I guess it's sort of like online foreplay in that aspect."
Likewise, another gay man elaborated, "First of all, it's not that formal, like scheduling. It's more like you talk about it, and you like try to turn him on as well. At the same time you let him know what you want. And he turns you on too, and at the same time he lets you know what he wants."
This online foreplay is a conversation that allows individuals to mutually share their fantasies and sexual wants. Users can erotically turn each other on while trying to express their desires and sexual practices. This online foreplay becomes a way to negotiate one's sex life, where people are foregrounding pleasure and interpersonal communication instead of constant anxiety and fear over one's sexual encounters.
Similarly, another gay man told me, "You might say it's one of my pickup lines. I usually tell guys that I use the highest quality of both condoms and lube. ... So, yes, I do discuss safe sex practices. I tell them pretty much what they are getting into."
Discussing "safe sex practices" can be a pickup line, where having these discussions does not have to be seen as something unsexy but as a frisky way to introduce oneself. Because of what is called the "online disinhibition effect," where the Internet allows for a loosening of social restrictions compared to face-to-face interactions, online spaces can allow people to be flirtatiously frank about their sexual desires and practices while also trying to find the best means to discuss HIV and other matters related to sex.
Although the actual offline sexual encounters may not go according to the ways people discuss online, online foreplay can help lessen some of the fear or embarrassment of discussing sexuality, HIV, sexual practices and other aspects of one's sex life. In a time of managing sexual risks, finding pleasurable and sexy approaches to discussing and experiencing one's sexuality is important in order to counterbalance the now-common fear-driven approach to thinking and talking about sex. Discovering new ways to bring pleasure back to discussions of sexuality may be crucial for allowing gay men, men who have sex with men, and transgender women to have fuller sex lives. Truly making sexual intercourse sexy again should be an added approach to the fight against HIV and to helping alleviate the mental-health anxieties that gay men, other men who have sex with men, and transgender women experience today.