I take responsibility for my HIV status, I don’t blame myself (or anyone else); accidents happen and unfortunately the consequences of some are more severe than others. Living the rest of my life with a long-term condition is a slightly bigger deal than a slap on the wrist but I’m lucky to have handled my diagnosis relatively well and with a level head.
It’s hard to explain what growing up queer or gay is like, identifying when you first had thoughts about the same sex, trying to ascertain what was and wasn’t sexual, and does this even matter? I came out at the age of 18 and didn’t become sexually active until after this time. Exploring my sexuality consisted of surfing the internet in an attempt to try and find tiny, pixelated images of naked men on the preview pages of pay-to-view sites, or speaking to people on ancestral social networking platforms, logging into the chatrooms of websites like Faceparty.
Moving away from home a few months later didn’t make things any easier or less complicated. I soon found the Gaydar chat rooms and with it the competition of trying to hook-up with other guys alongside many other young students, the ‘fresh meat’, as we were described in the city of Lancaster.
Unlike many of my straight peers I hadn’t received sex education that I could identify with. There had been no ‘practice runs’ of either relationships or sexual encounters, I was essentially blind to what I was getting myself into, striving to feel wanted and loved.
Imagine a runner trying to catch up with the leaders of the pack whilst wearing a blindfold. And then contemplate that race finishing without a single accident along the way – let alone several. It is easy to look back now and see how naive I was to think that jumping into bed with men, often a fair bit older than myself, would amount to a meaningful relationship, but teenage Alex didn’t have any other plan in place.
"Imagine a runner trying to catch up with the leaders of the pack whilst wearing a blindfold. And then contemplate that race finishing without a single accident along the way – let alone several."
I’ll never forget waking up one morning in October 2003 next to a guy from the second-year. Reaching down to the floor he picked up a sticky tube of KY and turned to me and said “oh, did we do something last night?”
I still don’t remember exactly what my reply was, I was in shock, I’d lost my virginity to this man a few hours earlier. My confidence wasn’t great already but I’m pretty sure this experience did nothing to improve it.
And I think it was my lack of self-esteem that was the contributing factor to most of my mistakes during my time at university and the first couple of years in Manchester prior to my diagnosis in 2009 when I was 24. Ultimately it led to the bad choices and the wrong decisions.
Issues with confidence and self worth can cloud your judgement, and so can a drink or two. Decisions can be made in the heat of the moment, we’re only human after all. If you’re not the ‘top’ or insertive partner during sex then ensuring a condom is used is not always something you can have control over.
I can’t undo the past and I can’t change my diagnosis. We can preach about the benefits of condom use until we’re blue in the face, but condoms don’t work for everyone and condom use isn’t always a choice,. It’s not that simple.
This article by Alex Sparrowhawk previously appeared on Alex' own blog, HIV and Me here.