Barebacking is the practice of having unprotected sex. More specifically, it is a phrase, primarily used by men who have sex with men, that describes unprotected anal intercourse. Although heterosexual couples also engage in this highly risky form of sex, they do not generally refer to it as barebacking.
Unprotected anal intercourse, or barebacking, is a particularly dangerous type of unprotected sex. It is associated with a high risk of a number of infections, including HIV. These risks are present in both heterosexual couples and MSM.
Some researchers distinguish between unprotected anal sex and barebacking by saying that men who engage in barebacking are actively seeking out unprotected sex. If this definition is used, then not all unprotected anal intercourse is bareback sex. Some men engage in unprotected anal sex because they don't have the resources to do otherwise, or because they don't realize that they should be playing safe.
Some men privilege bareback sex. They may see it either as more pleasurable or as a sign of trust between partners. These men may explicitly seek out partners who are interested in bareback sex using Internet dating services and other hook-up services. Other men may have bareback sex because they lack the skills to negotiate condom use or are unaware of the risk.
Men who prefer bareback sex sometimes engage in sero-sorting as part of their sexual practice. This means that they only have bareback sex — sex without condoms — when their partner has the same HIV status as they do. They practice safer sex when they are in sero-discordant relationships. However, there are numerous problems with the practice of sero-sorting. Not only do inaccurate test results make people vulnerable, there are also concerns about superinfection with additional HIV strains. Therefore, even accurate sero-sorting does not make sex risk-free.
There is some research that suggests that barebacking is less about individual choice and more about community effects. Homophobia, social norms, and other factors have all been linked to an individual's likelihood of engaging in bareback sex. These factors have also been implicated in gay men's particularly high risk of HIV infection.
The Problem with "Barebacking" as a Term
Bareback sex is explicitly unsafe sex. It puts both partners at risk of numerous infections, and the receptive partner is at highest risk. (The receptive partner during anal sex is sometimes known as the bottom, while the penetrative partner is referred to as the top.) However, with respect to HIV, "bareback" sex between men is not inherently riskier than unprotected anal sex in heterosexual couples - except in as much as the overall HIV prevalence is higher in MSM. Unprotected sex is unprotected sex. It's just that "barebacking" is more stigmatized because it is associated with a stigmatized group - gay men.
Also Known As: unprotected anal intercourse, unsafe sex
Examples: The use of the term "barebacking" to refer to unprotected anal intercourse between two men is thought to primarily be the domain of white, gay men in the U.S. — and the researchers who study those men. Although the risks of unprotected anal intercourse have been well studied in a number of communities, the particular practice of choosing barebacking has not. Scientists do not yet have a good understanding of why other types of MSM make the decision to have unprotected anal sex, or if they even make such decisions actively at all. Scientists expect, and research supports the idea, that much of the time unprotected sex is not an active choice- it's the default.
Berg RC. Barebacking: a review of the literature. Arch Sex Behav. 2009 Oct;38(5):754-64. doi: 10.1007/s10508-008-9462-6.
Blackwell CW. Men who have sex with men and recruit bareback sex partners on the internet: implications for STI and HIV prevention and client education. Am J Mens Health. 2008 Dec;2(4):306-13.