Everything you ever wanted to know about barebacking, including what it means and what the risks are

Two men kissing

Like riding a horse without a saddle, barebacking is when someone with a penis penetrates a sexual partner without using a condom.

Many people who have any kind of penetrative sex report that going at it without a condom is a more pleasurable experience, and lots of barebacking fans see the act as more intimate.

While barebacking can be practiced relatively safely, it’s important that both partners go into it aware of the risks involved.

Historically, one of the biggest fears around bareback sex, especially for for gay and bisexual men, has been HIV transmission.

The use of the term “barebacking” became widespread in the LGBT+ community in the 1990s, when HIV-positive queer men began openly discussing having sex with other HIV-positive people without using a condom.

More recently, with huge progress in HIV prevention, the fear of transmission has reduced.

Antiretroviral treatment brings a person’s viral load down to an undetectable level, meaning that the amount of the virus in their blood is so low that it cannot be detected in the body, and the virus becomes untransmittable, even through condomless sex. The development and more widespread availability of PrEP, a medication to prevent someone from contracting HIV, has also reduced fear around barebacking.

But this doesn’t mean that bareback sex is safe.

According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, around one in seven Americans with HIV are not aware of their status. Also, only way to avoid contracting other STIs, like gonorrhoea and syphilis, is by using a condom.

Aside from the risk of STIs, unplanned pregnancy is also a risk if the partner being penetrated is able to get pregnant and is not using other forms of birth control.

The safest way to practice barebacking is in a monogamous relationship, where both partners are aware of their HIV and STI status, and where birth control is used if necessary.