This week, I noticed the above question was used to react to my post on magnetic dating. I found it fascinating.
Firstly, because I thought the notion of looking for romance advice on a computer had died with Carrie Bradshaw’s self-respect. Secondly, because I did not have an instant, well-formulated answer. I was in between two minds, weighing both sides of the argument.
The short answer: no, it isn’t wrong.
What would be wrong would be for me to preach and be all self-righteous. I could easily flip the table and go “UN-BE-LIE-VABLE. It’s 2014! Medicine, medicine, science! People with HIV need love too, you know!”, or something.
It isn’t wrong, inherently, to want to protect oneself. It is, however, reflecting a lack of information on the subject.
I say it isn’t wrong because it would be hypocritical for me to say otherwise: once upon a time, I was HIV negative and I did not know that much about living with the condition. I knew how to reduce the risks of being infected (yeah, that served me well!) but I shun away from everything else. Simply because it didn’t affect me, therefore I didn’t care much.
Back then, had you asked me "would you date someone who’s HIV positive?" my initial gut reaction would have been No. I would have been mortified to put myself at risk with each act of sexual intercourse.
I made it through the first 25 years of my life with this mind-set. Then, everything changed. I didn’t flip a table, it was flipped upon me and banged me right on the head.
My head now cracked open, information could pour in. All of a sudden, I could see the light!
Knowledge is power.
What they tell you in Sex Ed lessons is, at best, how to protect yourself. Usually, it’s divided in two: boys should always wear a condom; girls should take the pill. “Any questions?" Everyone blushes, looking at the ceiling. "Alright then, class dismissed!”
Hopefully, one would seek information on their own, not wanting to be spoonfed everything. Back then, encyclopedia and sciences manuals. Today, the internet.
What manuals, encyclopedia and the internet can give you: facts. Information. Knowledge.
What you should do with it: educate yourself and make your own decision.
HIV transmission 101.
I will not even remotely pretend to be an expert on HIV transmission. Duh!
I knew some before my diagnosis, I’ve learnt more since.
The original question not being about how HIV is transmitted, I shall not bore with this, simply point towards this AIDSMaps fact page.
What interests me in trying to answer is not so much HOW one can be infected, but more WILL one be infected. And that’s where misinformation lies, pun intended.
Back in the days, when the first cases of HIV and AIDS occurred, not all transmission factors were known. People were dying from the disease. Health officials were shouting and screaming for people to change their ways. If you had AIDS, you would die. And if you had HIV, you were bound to have AIDS, right? So you would die. It stuck.
People getting HIV and AIDS mixed up are, still to this day, many; scarred by the adverts of the time and the lack of information. Run for the hills, he’s got AIDS!
Retroviral medication changed the outcome, not the mindsets. For once you think you know something, but it had since changed, how do you update your knowledge?
So what’s the risk then?
It depends. On what you’re doing. Who you’re doing it with. When you’re doing it.
Some activities are obviously more dangerous than others. If Bella had been HIV+, Edward may not be so happy these days (mind, what does he care, he’s dead anyway. Or is he? I didn’t watch past the first one.)
If I were to pour my blood into your veins, yeah you should be scared. But, practically speaking, even though it sounds like a hell of an evening, when do relationship/sex EVER involve smearing blood? (I’ll happily admit I haven’t lived if your answer is ‘always!’)
Back to AIDSmap. These figures need to be read with caution, statistics can be misleading, but, let’s face it, it’s pretty damn hard to become infected, especially in first-world countries, especially between men/women, especially when on medication or using protection.
HPTN 052 is the Bible of sero-discordant relationships. Whilst it involved men/women in stable relationships, it has been used to validate sero-discordant relationships of all kinds. (And possibly misused to defend unprotected casual sex, too.)
Of the 1,763 couples involved in the study, only 1 new infection was recorded in the branch of people under treatment (27 in the other branch – not taking medication), at the very beginning of the retroviral therapy.
As a result of an earlier study, The Swiss Statement, the following statement was produced: "A HIV+ person with no other STD and following a successful retroviral treatment with undetectable viral load does not transmit the virus via sexual contact". (translated from the French)
Can I get an amen? Anyway, what was I trying to answer here?
Oh, yes, is your (potential) partner HIV+?
Shit happens, keep reading.
Are they on medication?
At least they know their status. Unlike 25% of the HIV+ people in the UK who continue to have all sorts of sex, unaware of the risks.
Are they undetectable?
Good on them. Are you heterosexual (or homosexual, many experts would add), with no other STD? You can breathe!
Are you using condoms anyway?
Yes, you can DEFINITELY relax. The odds are on your side. (The Swiss Statement does not suggest dropping condoms.)
So what if they aren’t undetectable? Yes, what if?
What if you got run over by a car on the way to work?
What if your date tonight had five other girls on the go, three of which had herpes?
I guess, don’t have sex, you might get a STD. Oh and don’t live your life, you might die.
Being undetectable is less risky than having a high viral load, by definition. But it’s not the holy grail that all are in a position to attain. That’s what condoms are for. Provided you don’t re-enact Twilight or Saw, you’re most likely than not to be fine.
If the links above don’t convince you, I’ll just throw in my own story. Since my diagnosis in 2010, I have been long-term dating 2 people, for an combined duration of 18 months. During the first 6 months, I was not even aware that I had HIV. We had sex very regularly. Fluids were involved, no protection was worn for oral sex, condoms were always used to anal sex.
Despite the many occasions they could have been infected, they did not.
My story is, obviously, just that. It’s not research, it proves nothing, except that it can be done. If you are sensible, look after yourself and your partner(s), HIV transmission is not automatic. Not all forms of sex pose a risk. Not all risk are a definite danger.
Is it wrong to not date someone because of HIV?
No. It still isn’t. Do whatever you have to do. What is wrong, maybe, is not to know truths from fictions; perpetuated by others. Laziness of the mind is wrong.
But if you’ve made it to this stage, you have demonstrated that you can seek, analyse, explore and use what science knows on the subject so far.
You can date someone with HIV and remain healthy. For life.You can have a child with that person without being infected or your child being HIV+.
Or don’t. They may well be better off if all you worry about is your own self.
Chill, just kidding… Or am I? Reflection time! Time to think on what you want in life and whether or not what someone happens to carry in their blood would affect that or not.
PS: in this web of facts and figures, if I have misread anything or misinterpreted, please feel free to comment and I shall update accordingly.
This article previously appeared in Tom’s own blog here.
Editor's note: You can read more about HPTN 052 here. For more on the risk of transmission when on treatment go here.