When I first was diagnosed as HIV+, I remember being thankful for all the infrastructure in place to help me ensure that I wasn’t going to die of AIDS. Whether it was through Philadelphia’s AIDS Activities Coordination Office or my initial visits to Philadelphia FIGHT, I received a care and attention that, just a decade or two ago, would be considered remarkable. And, thanks to scientific advancements by pharmaceutical companies like Gilead, in part because of the United States government’s tardy, but right, confrontation of HIV/AIDS, my life expectancy is around 70, and I experience mild, if any, side effects. Even more gratifying is the fact that these side effects have seemingly subsided now that I’ve been on medication for several months and am, happily, undetectable. This means that, so long as I keep taking my once-a-day single pill Complera, there exists no measurable amount of HIV in my bloodstream, that I am, effectively, neutered from passing on HIV to anyone else, even if I have bareback sex, and that HIV cannot hurt me, generally.
At the time of my diagnosis, though, I remember thinking, “Now, how am I supposed to have sex?”
Notwithstanding all the tools, helpful professionals, and worthy mission-driven organizations here in Philadelphia, I was still at a loss as to how, exactly, I was supposed to navigate the gay sex and dating world in modern, iPhone hook up app based society. In fact, I effectively tabled this personal discussion I was having with myself in favor of overtly sexual, overtly bareback, and thus only HIV+ majority population, sexual situations. For example, there was a solid year where I would only go to bathhouses and sex parties for sexual gratification; after all, in an environment where everyone is barebacking, where everyone is specifically there to have sex, and where everyone, like it or not, has implicitly offered their informed consent to engage in these behaviors by their very participation in these behaviors, there is no need to say, “Excuse me, sir, but before you put your condomless penis into my anus, I’d like to show you my most recent results from Labcorp in Raritan, NJ, which detail that my CD4 count is a little low but that my HIV viral load is undetectable.”
Frankly, personal health matters are of little relevance or concern in overtly sexual, and bareback, environments, and anyone who claims anything to the contrary either doesn’t participate in these activities, and as such has no stakeholdership in the discussion, or they are complete and utter hypocrites (reformed pigs who hilariously take a “Do as I say, not as I have done” attitude in relation to HIV prevention, and who often make a living offering bad advice that won’t be used by anyone, I’m looking at you. Many of you are HIV+ for a reason, and it isn’t because you had conservative sexual tastes.)
Even so, the longer I’ve been HIV+, the more traditional and, admittedly, boring I have become in relation to my sex and dating. After all, at the end of the day, you can have all the piggish fun you want in a sling, but nobody who happens by your room at the bathhouse is going to want to cuddle or make dinner for you. That isn’t to say these behaviors are bad; in fact, I routinely affirm that these exploits in bathhouses and sex parties are natural, fun, and, if done for the right reasons, perfectly healthy. Yet, I still grapple with the best way to figure out how to easily normalize my relations with monogamy, dating, and more traditional concepts of coupling with my HIV status. This tightrope walk of being honest with potential sex partners and boyfriends while still casting a net wide enough to actually engage in sex and dating is one that, I think, a great many of us who are HIV+ table, like I did, in favour of situations where we don’t even have to address it (like bathhouses.) And, when we do try to be open, honest, and informative with our sex and dating partners, the results are, quite often, disheartening.
For instance, recently, I got a man’s number in a local gay bar. We flirted relentlessly, and we both were obviously sexually attracted to each other. So, just as our later text conversation started delving into matters that were the standard precursor to engaging in naked time together, I disclosed my HIV status. His reaction was, at least in my insecure HIV focused insecurity based mind, predictable. Feigning ambivalence, he, nonetheless, tellingly grew rather cool in the previously hot rapid fire text messaging conversation. Then, he stopped messaging me altogether. And, finally, in an attempt to salvage his politeness, said that he was tired.
Now, as I stated, I could entirely be infusing my own preconceived insecurities onto this man who very may well have been tired and entirely fine with my HIV status. Or, as is the case with a large enough number of potential partners for me to write about it today, situations of which I have literally scores of conversation screenshots that I could chronicle in annoying detail here, he got spooked at the my mentioning of HIV and, in order to play the part of accepting, open-minded progressive, he feigned ambivalence, ran for the hills, and blamed being tired for our 180 away from having sex. This approach, if that’s the case, while well-meaning, is annoying and compounds the difficulty those of us living with HIV already face in relation to sex and dating. Frankly, I would much rather someone say, “Ick, gay plague,” and dismiss me summarily rather than “Oh that’s fine *oh god please no*, I’m okay with it *oh god can you get it from kissing?*” After all, time is a premium for those of us facing death if we don’t continue to have wide, and free, access to antiretroviral medication.
This type of experience, of trying to do the right thing in disclosing and receiving little, if any, benefit to disclosing reinforces my, unfortunately relationship limiting and hostile-to-cuddling, default attraction to overtly sexual, overtly bareback outlets through which to meet men and have sex.
Make no mistake, I am not complaining about this reality, nor am I demanding that the world do something. Instead, I’m simply politely suggesting that we should be a little more candid with each other; I truly would never want to put anyone in a position where they were tolerating having sex with me under the ridiculous notion that they had to prove their compassionate bona fides. Conversely, I would hope that others wouldn’t want to put me in a position where I see little benefit to disclosing my HIV status or where others blatantly lie about their status in order to have sex. This latter group is rampant, based only my anecdotal and admittedly unscientific, personal knowledge, and while I agree with these men in that there is no statistically significant or scientifically probable chance of their transmitting HIV to sexual partners, and thus the idea of HIV status is, essentially, moot, I still cannot very well reconcile my own demands of candor and honesty along with finding sex partners and dates under false, and disrespectful, premises.
Then again, the guys who don’t talk about HIV whatsoever are also the ones who are, seemingly, having a lot more sex than I am. So, what do I know?
This article originally appeared on Josh’s own blog here.