"like to show off?" the sign onthe large plexiglas window asks passing bathhouse patrons. "Use this room for free." The "room" has all the privacy of a fishbowl, but the two young men inside making out under the sheets don't seem to mind. For me, a bathhouse virgin, this is like nowhere else on earth. It's like entering an alien ship, where inhibitions, formalities and AIDS don't exist. What's a young guy like me doing here? Curiosity. The media recently splashed the results of a U.S. study by the Centers for Disease Control showing an alarming rise of annual HIV infection -- now up to 4.4 per cent -- among gay and bisexual men between the ages of 23 and 29.
But Canadian officials tell a different story. Youth numbers aren't up but have hit a plateau, they say. So, are AIDS prevention messages working for young guys like me or not?
Some aren't. Men are still getting infected with HIV through sexual contact despite the messages, and Liviana Calzavara, associate professor at the University of Toronto and principal researcher in an ongoing study of gay men with HIV, has some answers.
In her office she presents me with a stack of evidence pointing to some of the reasons why men occasionally get down and dirty without a condom, and most of it, not surprisingly, is psychological.
A "sense of false reassurance" is one. That's when men engage in a high-risk activity, get tested, feel relieved at their negative result and go out and have unsafe sex again.
"It's the same thing with speeding and not getting stopped by the police, so you keep doing it and doing it. Obviously, it's going to catch up to you."
She also suggests that sero-discordant couples -- where one man is HIV-negative and the other is HIV-positive -- have their own issues to deal with in order to make the right choices. A couple may try their best to plan protected sex, but along the way things can happen.
They run out of condoms, or the HIV-negative person wants to feel closer to his positive partner.
"He thinks, "To hell with this! My partner is infected and I don't want to live without him,'" Calzavara says.
Stressful life events, too, can play a huge part in setting the stage for unprotected sex: losing your job, ending -- or starting -- a relationship, arrest, the death of a loved one or getting beaten up, for example.
As well, with the better HIV treatments available today, men with HIV are living, and having sex, longer. That, Calzavara points out, means the odds of coming across an HIV-positive sex partner are much greater today than ever before -- even only six years ago.
Then, of course, there's plain old rebellion. "I knew it was something socially unacceptable, and maybe that's why I felt like doing it," she quotes one other man in the study as saying.
Wanting to know more about the sexual habits of today's gay man and not having ready access to the city's bedrooms, I resort to the collective bedroom of the community -- the gay bathhouse. I'm here to pop the question "Would you have sex with me without a condom?" and to study the results.
Experts say gay bathhouses are positive places for AIDS prevention education, where men -- young and old -- congregate from downtown and the 'burbs. There's a bulletin board plastered with posters, pamphlets and pleas, all boiling down to the same message: AIDS/HIV kills, be careful, here's how. It's so large and well lit, you can't miss it. Yet I've watched men scurry by it, seeming to avoid it.
Younger guys have been subjected to these messages their entire lives, rules and regulations for safer sex that can sometimes pack all the punch of a paper dildo.
AIDS or no AIDS, anal sex certainly hasn't gone out of style. One guy has scrawled his room number in chalk in most of the washroom stalls. "Wide cock and smooth hole, 10-inch plus." There's another one: "Cute arse and great fuck."
I ask a man who says he's 23 but looks much older if he would ever have sex here without wearing a condom.
"Absolutely not," he replies.
What about with someone like me? He pauses, as if I've just extended him an offer.
"Hmm," he smiles. "Uh, no," he finally decides.
But within minutes he invites me to his room, and I accept. After a little idle chit-chat, I repeat my question. Funny -- once in his lair, the story changes.
"I can't really answer if I would or I wouldn't. It all depends on the person I meet. You have to be very careful at these places, but sometimes you can just tell (if someone is HIV-positive)."
One man in his early 30s complains to me how much of a hassle it is to go all the way to the front counter to grab the free condoms and lube.
"You find someone, you think he's attractive, you're in a room, the lights are low and you're making out. It's time, and you think, "Shit, no condoms.' Are you going to stop everything, wrap yourself in a towel and go to the front?"
I move to the wet sauna, which I hear is the popular spot to, uh, hang out. Not knowing what to expect, I open the door to find it pitch black inside.
But I know there are men here. I can hear them -- the unmistakable sound of wet flesh sliding and slapping on wet flesh, like the sound of a big pot of moist macaroni being slowly stirred. When the air is humid and the skin is wet, who needs lube? I don't know if the guys in here are being "safe." In this dark, damp environment where no names or faces means no accountability, if a man promised to use a condom, he could easily slip it off unnoticed.
Later I talk to a young hustler named Brian. Like everybody else I've asked tonight about their willingness to have sex without a condom, his initial reply is an immediate, determined "No way." He tells me of men who will try to take a chance with him unprotected. "When I tell them I'm from Parry Sound, they hear that and think, "OK, he's clean.' There've been a few who have tried (to have sex without a condom), and a few close calls.
"I don't get fucked without a condom and I don't fuck without a condom," Brian says, "unless it's with a female.
"I'm usually a top -- I like to pound. If I'm a bottom, there's a price" (which is higher than when he's the top).
Brian suddenly loses interest in our conversation and, no doubt a busy guy tonight, goes about his business. As he walks away, the by now familiar sound of a door slamming in the distance signals another couple about to get lucky. For their sake -- and ours -- let's hope they're not relying on luck alone.