“What do you like about your body?”
That’s typically one of the first questions that therapist, life coach, author, PrEP promoter, and longtime HIV activist Damon L. Jacobs asks his guests on his YouTube show, “Tub Talks With Damon L. Jacobs.” This query is posed while Jacobs and his guests (mostly men, but sometimes women, too) are naked and sitting inches from each other in a sudsy bathtub.
The series allows people like a U=U proponent (Randy Davis), a sex writer (Alexander Cheves), a “thickfluencer” (Alex Borsa), a journalist and ACT UP legend (Liz Highleyman), and even one of President Obama’s HIV experts (Greg Millett) to talk about everything from self-esteem to self-care to substance abuse to sex positivity. “Tub Talks,” now with dozens of episodes available, is the latest feather in Jacobs’ cap, a New York-based marriage and family therapist who first became known in HIV circles for his early support of PrEP and U=U knowledge. Jacobs spoke to us recently about the origin of “Tub Talks” and why so many people let loose when their clothes come off.
Tell us about your work as a therapist and the kind of folks you specialize in helping.
I have been proudly serving the LGBT community as a psychotherapist since 1996, in private practice in New York City in 2010. My work utilizes facets of cognitive behavioral therapy, Buddhism and a little bit of Cher, to help people experience peace, power and pleasure in their daily lives.
How did you get connected with the HIV-positive community?
I came out as a teenager in the 1980s, at a time when AIDS was devastating our community. I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1990 where I loved and lost several friends, coworkers, lovers, clients, roommates, to AIDS. It seemed incumbent on me to challenge my training as a traditional “therapist” i.e., the kind that sits on their ass in an office all day. If I was going to take my role seriously as a healer, it means standing up, getting out, acting up, fighting back, doing something, anything, to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS. I started volunteering facilitating “Rubberward Parties” on college campuses in 1991, and have just continued to work/volunteer in HIV prevention in some capacity ever since.
Your “Tub Talks” series is incredible. Where did the idea spring from?
Thank you! I originally got the idea from a friend of mine in San Francisco, Mike Enders, who did his own bathtub series in the early 2010s. I got to be a guest on one of his last shows and it was the most fun interview I ever had. I thought — what a wonderful way to talk about ideas, hopes, dreams, struggles, by sitting naked in a bathtub with another person! Around that same time, I was talking with my friend Matt about his work as an escort, how often most of his sessions centered around a naked man telling him his inner thoughts and fears. I realized that as a sex worker Matt’s clients were often more open and trusting with him than many of my clients were being with me — that people in general are so much more honest and vulnerable when they are naked than when they have their clothed defenses on.
When I turned 50-years-old in 2021 I wrote an online series about the 50 Lessons that helped me to get older with power, purpose and pleasure (https://50lessonsof50.com/). It was while writing this series that Covid vaccines became widely accessible, rates were coming down, and I was reminded that New York City is home to some of the most interesting individuals in the world. Actors, activists, healers, leaders, educators, entertainers, AIDS historians — wouldn’t it be interesting to capture their experiences and words of wisdom on video? Wouldn’t it be fun to listen to their experiences of aging, healing, grieving, celebrating sexual empowerment, creative expression, while taking a bath together? In the summer of 2021 I asked a few friends if they would be willing to come take a bath with me and almost all said yes. I started airing these interviews on September 13, 2021, and from there the momentum went forward.
Yet another source of inspiration was the fact that I continuously go to HIV conferences where people sit around and say, “Why can’t we get people to use PrEP? How do we get people to learn about U=U?” And I’m like — maybe it’s time to try to not do the same thing over and over again and expect different results! What if we communicated and taught about sexual health and pleasure in creative ways that aren’t being done by hundreds of other people? That was part of it as well — could I deliver education and information in a way that is innovative and entertaining? I’m trying!
Have to ask: Have all your guests actually been naked?
Yes. Except for one.
Do conversations flow easier while folks are squeezed together with little to no clothes on? Conversations flow so much more naturally when we are naked! Whether it’s in a bathtub, on a beach, by a pool, in a bed. People’s minds and thoughts are so much freer when they are not being encumbered by clothes. I have done so many bullshit interviews in my time — I used to do some red carpet stuff at the Daytime Emmys and at the GLAAD awards. Those are absolute piffle — they rarely contain any meaning or depth. It’s three minutes of me asking people how they’re feeling and who they are wearing. So I reevaluated during Covid — if I ever was to do interviews again they have to be real, not fake. They have to contain sustenance, not verbal masturbation. When people are naked, they are real. When people are open they are able to share words of insight and wisdom that can help change people’s lives. Those are the only kinds of interviews I want to do anymore.
Talk a little about how different life is now than two years ago — you’re hosting a bathtub series now and in 2020 we couldn’t even be in the same room as strangers.
Right, so this is one of the reasons I waited until 2021 to start filming. I really wanted to start the series back in 2018 but at the time I was too busy with my private practice and traveling/teaching about PrEP to commit adequate time to the tub. Then Covid hit — and that clearly was not an ideal time either. But by the time I started shooting the first episodes in the summer of 2021, everyone had access to the vaccines. So shooting interviews in 2022 is delightfully different from anything we could have done safely in 2020, and I’m just so grateful that science and technology made it possible for us to connect and take baths together again. “No masks, no underwear.”
Do you think the worst of monkeypox is behind the LGBTQ+ and HIV+ community?
The data suggests that the worst of monkeypox is behind us. And to me that makes sense — it’s not like we had to reinvent the wheel here. Effective vaccines were already developed, the science was already available. It was just a matter of the government and health departments using them — and that has been the biggest disappointment for me. In NYC the MPX vaccine distribution is a complete embarrassment, especially because they just did the same thing with Covid vaccines. They created a system that perpetuates racial disparities in vaccine access. It’s not like we didn’t see this one year earlier with Covid. And I’m skeptical anyone learned their lesson from MPX either. But yes, I do think that thanks to the eventual vaccine distribution happening now we are on the other side of what could have been so much more painful and traumatic.
How are you feeling about the state of HIV right now, especially with World AIDS Day this month? Are you hopeful with some of the advances, like injectables and Covid research, or discouraged that we’re not yet at a vaccine or cure stage?
I don’t get discouraged so much as I’m a realist. I’ve been working in this field for 31 years. It was dubious then that we would ever have a vaccine or a cure for HIV, and it’s pretty dubious now. Are there strides forward? Yes. Are there incredible people working their asses off to make that happen, yes. Is there sufficient money and funding to make it happen — as far as I know, yes. But HIV is a very tricky virus to cure and I’m not sure I’ll see a cure or an effective vaccine in my lifetime. Meanwhile — injectable PrEP allows you to reduce your risk of acquiring HIV by nearly 100 percent and all you have to do is get a shot every eight weeks. What is the effective difference between that and a vaccine?
My hope rests more in people understanding and utilizing biomedical interventions to embrace sexual health and pleasure. We have three FDA-approved ways of using PrEP now, and more than 50 FDA-approved medications that help someone living with HIV become undetectable. Some of those drugs only have to be taken once a day. When someone is undetectable they are untransmittable, meaning they cannot give HIV to their sexual partners (“U=U”). When I see people organizing, celebrating, and connecting around their joy of sexual empowerment, that is where I feel hope, that is where I’ve witnessed substantial change.
This interview originally appeared in Plus magazine.