THE QUEERTY INTERVIEW

Porn Star Owen Hawk On Condom-Free Sex, HIV And Gay Vs. Straight Films

The news that a straight adult film production company shut down after a performer tested HIV-positive came as no surprise to gay adult film star Owen Hawk, who tested positive in 2005 and has been making bareback films ever since, first as an actor and then as a producer and director.

In 2005, he founded Dark Alley Media (NSFW) with fellow adult film actor Matthias von Fistenberg. The company focuses on the “grittier underground of gay sexuality” and has produced more than 100 adult films. Later, Hawk launched an NSFW site. He is one of the first major gay porn stars to be completely open about his status.

Critics have long contended bareback porn sets bad example for men struggling to adhere to safe sex practices, but the outspoken and extraordinarily articulate Hawk strongly disagrees.

In an email exchange with Queerty, Hawk, who resides just outside of New York City with his partner of four years and their two dogs, shared with us some of his thoughts on the matter.

Another “straight” porn performer tested HIV-positive, resulting in the fourth production stoppage at some adult companies in Los Angeles. The question over whether or not condoms should be required on set has once again been raised.

While I am not much of an expert in straight porn, I am aware that every once in a while a straight performer tests positive and this leads to a production shut down and quarantine. I have not been following the latest development, but I do understand that all of the previous three cases involved performers who contracted HIV in their private lives and that there was no on-set transmission.

Now, as you may or may not know, gay porn is entirely different as there is no standardized testing and quarantine program. Gay companies that film with condoms — with a few exceptions — do not test models or even ask about their HIV status at all during the casting and hiring process.

So there’s no regulation whatsoever?

In my performing career I worked with most of the popular condom-only studios and HIV status was never asked of me or anyone else.

That was five to ten years ago. Today, I understand there are a few condom companies who do ask about status and who will not work with models that are positive.

It seems many gay performers turn to bareback porn after testing HIV-positive.

It may seem that way, but in my experience, a much bigger factor for performers, HIV-positive or otherwise, in deciding to make bareback porn or not, is concern over their career. Many performers I have talked to that are HIV-positive have expressed that they would prefer to make bareback because they enjoy bareback more, they have bareback sex in their private lives, but won’t do it in porn because of their fear that they would be blacklisted by certain condom-only studios. Many of these same performers have returned in subsequent years telling me that they are no longer concerned about blacklisting and are now ready to make bareback.

Do they get paid more for doing bareback?

From what I know of the industry’s pay scale, bareback porn pays less or equal to the condom-only studios. In the formative years of bareback porn the blacklisting policy was very prevalent, so the performers who choose to do bareback were not guys that wanted porn careers, they were guys living a fantasy and doing something because they thought it was hot, so low fees of $150 to $250 or even no pay were common.

But, ultimately, going bareback is a choice?

Yes, it is a choice, not a necessity that one comes to because sero-conversion has eliminated their options.

What about the message it sends?

You are alluding to is this argument that bareback porn glamorizes risky behavior and that it encourages people to have unsafe sex.

There is nothing about bareback porn that takes away a person’s free will or compels them to act in a way that they otherwise would not. I don’t think HIV prevention should hinge on the message that barebacking is shameful and wrong. It is an activity that humans have been doing and enjoying for millions of years, and for which there is deep evolutionary conditioning.

People are going to fuck raw regardless of if they see it in porn or not. Given that the desire to bareback is literally written into our DNA, safer-sex education should acknowledge that the desire to bareback is real and normal, and then say “but here are all the reasons that you might choose to use condoms.”

There are people who wouldn’t agree.

I’ve learned not to bother to argue this with some people, as I would have more luck convincing the Pope to approve abortion then I would have convincing some gay men that bareback porn was okay.

But for the people who are not cemented into their self-righteousness, I would ask them to take a moment and try to understand me as a person who has tried to live a life that is truthful to myself, my desires, and my own sense of right and wrong.

What impact has your HIV status had on your career?

None. I have mostly stopped performing in porn in the last year or so, but this has to do with aging out of it versus anything to do with HIV. I’ve been doing this for 10 years, and after that much time its not so exciting anymore.

What about on a personal level? How has HIV affected you?

Finding out I was positive was not a momentous turning point in my life. I fully expected it to happen and was not shocked when it did. I wanted to have these wild, intense, raw sex experiences and I understood that this probably meant getting HIV, and that when that happened I would be responsible about it and take care of myself medically.

Do you regret that attitude?

At the time, the demand that my sex drive was putting on me was something that was very hard to ignore, and I was in my 20s and under the impression that I was invincible. I don’t particularly regret it, but I don’t think I would have made the same decision in my 30s when I am much less driven to act out and experience every one of my fantasies.

Presently, I am very healthy, athletic, I don’t use drugs and I tolerate my once daily medications without any side effects. I am in a long-term relationship of four years with an awesome man, so I don’t have the fear of being rejected or that no one will love me.  Every day I am extremely grateful for these things and I remain very optimistic about the future of HIV treatment and the possibility of a cure in my lifetime.

That seems so different than your life on the set.

Personally, I see myself as an entertainer and not a bareback-advocate. I created this character, Owen Hawk, and I never intended him to be a role model. He’s foul-mouthed, aggressive, and doesn’t give a shit what people think about him. But Owen Hawk is not a real person; he is a fictional character — my own creation for public consumption, my avatar actor in a world of fantasy that is not real.

The things I like about Owen Hawk are that he’s not there saying HIV is not real, he knows HIV is real, but he’d rather be positive and fuck raw than be negative and wear a rubber. He’s a creature of animus, driven by his own pleasure yet possessing of a conscious understanding of consent. And I think this is a very interesting and different perspective, one that should be heard and considered, as opposed to silenced.

But it’s one thing to lead your own life that way, but another to show it to men who might emulate the behavior. 

That’s the same argument that some folks make against homosexuality in general – that it is okay in the private sphere, but not okay in the public one. I flat out reject this idea.

In making bareback porn, I have not set out to be a good or bad person, responsible or irresponsible. I’ve only tried to express myself honestly and create something true to my own sexual fantasies and experiences. If people want to put the mantel of villain on me, fine. I made a decision a long time ago to live life according to my own sense of right and wrong.

Of course there’s the flip side, too. When porn stars and other sexually active men are stigmatized for having HIV. Look at what happened to one of your performers, Mason Wyler [pictured, below]. He was outed as being HIV-positive on social media and then subjected to all kinds of hatred for doing nothing more than what a lot of people have done — engaging in unprotected sex and then testing positive. 

HIV stigma is a real problem and one that discourages people from knowing their status. When people see someone like Mason, or myself even, tarred and feathered in comments sections or on Twitter, it reinforces this fear that guys who may be HIV-positive but haven’t gotten tested have: that knowing their status will result in similar condemnation from the community.

Getting HIV is no more a moral failure than getting the flu. Both are transmitted through totally normal and natural human behaviors that we have been engaging in for millions of years.

Personally, I think these “haters” are judgmental people with limited imaginations — folks who conflate being HIV-positive with being dead, as if there was no difference between a living human with a treatable disease and a corpse. These are the same people for whom the only acceptable narrative for HIV-positive people is one of apology: “I made a mistake and here is how my life should be a cautionary tale for you who still have hope.”

You refuse to apologize.

The fact is, HIV-positive people have active, fun sex lives. We’re sexy, we’re funny, and some of us are actually happier since we’ve become positive. Some of us are even healthier because we have been forced to become more responsible – you know, cut out the drugs and partying, see the doctor regularly.

Furthermore, while I know not all HIV-positive people like or approve of bareback porn, there are some for whom it is the only instance of media, gay or otherwise, portraying HIV-positive guys as not depressed or dying. I can’t think of any media realm other than bareback porn where HIV-positive men are considered sexy, strong, powerful, and active. For this audience, the message that bareback porn sends is an empowering one.