I’ve probably written and been questioned/interviewed more about my HIV diagnosis than any other topic related to my life with the virus. It’s that time of year where you look at the calendar and think “how the **** is it June already?” – But the past couple of days I’ve also been thinking about something else, not my diagnosis but my ‘infection’.
I will never be 100% sure but I’m pretty certain that I acquired HIV in June 2009, five years ago this month.
At the time I was single, hadn’t been in any successful relationships and my self-esteem wasn’t awful but not amazing either. I’d slept with a guy without protection and the following week spent seven days in France, on the way home I became ill and was in bed with flu-like symptoms for around a fortnight: I now suspect I was seroconverting but at the time wondered if it was sunstroke or swine flu.
As I’ve mentioned before I had an initial HIV test but this came back negative, it was too early to detect the HIV antibodies in my blood.
Looking for ‘love’ through instant sexual gratification is probably one of the most commonly seen things within the gay male population – and we can become really defensive about it. I’m not saying we can’t enjoy sex – but I don’t think we always think about the consequences of our actions, especially in the heat of the moment.
Sleeping around gets you a reputation, not a boyfriend, and going ‘bare’ can give you the feeling of more than just a good sensation.
I don’t believe I slept with many more people than the average 20-something guy but I do think I had issues of being too eager to please, and not being confident enough to say no. I wasn’t having unprotected sex all the time and with every man I met, but it was becoming more common and I found myself having the conversation more often.
I’ve always been tested regularly, and everything had always been OK – so why would that stop being the case? STIs didn’t happen to people like me because I was smart, educated and I only met up with men who were the same, or who told me they were OK. Why shouldn’t I believe them?
"I''m wondering how effective I am – passing on a message I disregarded myself five years ago."
And then there was the flip side; I avoided men who might be "dangerous".
A friend of mine told me what I now tell people on a regular basis – you’re safer sleeping with an undetectable HIV-positive man whilst using a condom than you would be having unprotected sex with someone who doesn’t know their status. I refused to have anal sex with him out of fear, and simply couldn’t get my head around what he was trying to tell me – some part of me felt he was obviously just saying random stuff because he was horny and wanted to convince me to sleep with him and it must have been garbage.
I now know that this isn’t the case, and in fact between 20 and 25% of people living with HIV don’t realise they have acquired it, and furthermore because these people don’t know their status the virus is left unchecked and they are more likely to pass it on before diagnosis. It is estimated that as many as 50% of new infections can be attributed to an infection from someone who did not know they were HIV positive.
So back in June 2009 likely due to a combination of all of the above I had unprotected sex with a man, who I believe did not know his status and I became HIV positive. Five years later I’m far past judging myself for that mistake but I’m trying to educate others about it. I’m wondering how effective I am – passing on a message I disregarded myself five years ago: but the only mistake I could make now is to give up trying.
This article previously appeared in Alex’s own blog HIV & Me in June 2014 here.