There's a yardstick of health safety that is never mentioned in the LGBT sex world...which is surprising, because this yardstick is one that measures our lives every day. It's about food. No fewer than 120 animal diseases can be transmitted to humans, including some whose symptoms make for grisly reading. Today many Americans take for granted the firewall of food-safety regulations that has been built around us. We buy those attractively packaged steaks, eggs, bacon, etc. in the supermarket, or we feast on the beautifully presented entrée in the four-star restaurant. Or we drive up to the fast-food window and confidently grab a sack of burgers -- trusting blindly that those edibles are clean and safe to eat.
But many Americans also operate on this same MO of blind faith when they're going in search of sex - whether it's to a church social or online dating service, or just hooking up on the street or at a sex party. This includes many in the LGBT world.
Unfortunately, there's little in our social system to help an individual know beforehand whether he or she is about to "bite" into a person who has HIV, syphilis, herpes, gonorrhea, HPV or chlamydia, to mention just a few. A newer addition to the list is the MRSA "super bug." It's all over the news because of a UCSF-led study's appalling effort to stigmatize gay men as a major vector of this flesh-eating staph infection. Actually MRSA is out there in the general population, and it should concern everyone. But a human body doesn't come with a U.S. Dept. of Agriculture stamp on it, the way a side of beef does. Indeed, in the interests of constitutional privacy, the United States could never have a system that would require an individual to carry an updated and comprehensive health-test ID - unless it planned to become a totalitarian regime.
So the person looking for a sex meal is pretty much on his/her own. Sure, there are STD tests required for marriage licenses, the military, Foreign Service, Job Corps, blood and organ donations. But this limited testing system does little to help the hopeful mate-seeker or hooker-upper to know if that gorgeous person across the room is a heavenly dish...or a human hamburger loaded with food poisoning.
I grew up in the livestock business in Montana. When I was a kid, there was a short list of diseases that cattle raisers had to worry about -- mostly tuberculosis, brucellosis and anthrax. Brucella-infected cattle can transmit this bacteria to humans through raw milk. Trust me -- if you're a natural-products fan, you don't want to drink infected milk. In humans, brucella causes undulant fever, which is as nasty as malaria, and requires long-term heavy-duty antibiotics treatment. Bovine TB can also be transmitted to humans through raw milk. Both diseases used to be way more common in our country before pasteurizing milk and testing of cattle was introduced in the 1930s.
Today the list of dangerous-to-people animal diseases is hair-raisingly long. Many of them weren't even identified by science yet when I was a kid. Example: bovine spongiform encephalopathy, aka mad cow disease. BSE is proven transmissible to humans, which is why the FDA put it on their list of reportable diseases. But cattle aren't the only vectors of disease. Chickens can carry salmonella and avian flu, to name a few. Pigs can hit us with swine flu and trichinellosis. The latter is a parasitic worm you get from eating infected pork; it can invade your upper respiratory system and nervous system, even kill you. It used to be common in the U.S. before health control of the pork industry.
So today there is a vast network of state, federal and international regulations, including strict requirements for testing and vaccinating, that is supposed to keep these animal diseases away from us. Most of the time -- considering the enormity of the logistics presented by global agribusiness and global trade - this complicated system works fairly well. You and I can eat a tin of fois gras from France, or cheddar cheese from Canada, and we probably won't get sick as hell. But the system is far from perfect, as battles rage over safety of Chinese food imports. And here at home, things can sometimes go terribly wrong. As I wrote this, a California meat-packing facility is hitting the headlines for allegedly processing sick cattle on a routine basis.
Sometimes a food producer is guilty of real criminal intent. When I was living in rural New York State in the 1970s, a big dairy farm in my county bred replacement heifers that were sold to milking dairies. When the owner realized he had brucellosis in his herd, he didn't cull the infected animals. Instead he figured out a way to dupe his veterinarian and submit fraudulent blood samples to state authorities for testing. Finally he got caught. I never learned how many New Yorkers got sick, or how many other farms went under because of the infected heifers they'd been sold. But the farm owner was convicted of a felony and went to state prison. And nobody felt sorry for him.
When I was in the animal-breeding business myself, I went by the book. Nobody else's animals came near my animals without the requisite tests. In fact my own veterinarian did the tests and had them processed at his own lab. Why? Because I'd learned that you can't take somebody else's word for it on a test result. It's better to be safe than sorry.
My point is, we'd all be a lot sicker, and the mortality rate in the U.S. would be higher, if the present food-safety system wasn't there at all.
Because of these hard life-lessons I got in the food business, I always feel shaken when I listen to debates around "safer sex" in the LGBT community. Some of our citizens would run screaming into the night at the thought they might eat a salmonella-laced salad or a steak infected with BSE -- yet they will run, not walk, to have unprotected sex with somebody whose disease status they know nothing about. This disconnect from reality on a single area of personal health is something that still baffles me after years of the AIDS epidemic. It means accepting "high risk" for sex, yet demanding "zero risk" for food.
Some of us are made to feel apologetic if we dare to ask a pre-sex question about the other person's status. Worse yet, some of us are even willing to take somebody else's word about an HIV or syphilis test - especially if that somebody is cute and both parties are in the heat of the moment. Because we all know that some people lie in their teeth about their status.
Amid our community's fight for the legal liberty to enjoy same-gender sex, some of us have gone a step farther. Some are willing to risk their health in order to enjoy what they define as absolute sexual liberty. This can even translate as, "Nobody has the right to stop me from deliberately infecting myself with HIV if I want." As an activist, I stand for everybody's right to do with their personal lives whatever they choose, as long as they don't hurt somebody else while doing it. That ranges from the right to stand in front of a speeding train, to the right to cut loose at a barebacking party. In 2008, seroconversion seems like less of a death sentence than 20 years ago. So some risk-takers comfort themselves with the thought that "people with AIDS can now live many years because of drug treatment."
But on another plane, speaking as a writer, I've had enough private conversations with HIV+ gay men to know that some of them regret a risk they took 10 or 15 years ago. One guy told me, "Patricia, I would give anything - ANYTHING -- to get out from under the symptoms and drug side-effects that I live with now. I'd give anything to recover my health, and the wonderful career that I lost because my health isn't up to the corporate battles any more. And I traded it all away for 15 minutes at a bathhouse with a guy whose status I didn't know."
Since sex is almost as much of a basic need as food, life has to find a way. So some HIV positives have a different kind of yardstick -- they limit relationships to others who are also positive. Many others follow the party line on using condoms. It's true that condoms may protect against HIV transmission (if they're used properly and they don't break). And let's face it -- condoms are better than nothing. But they don't necessarily protect against herpes, HPV and MRSA, which may be transmitted during intimacy by simple body contact (hands, etc.).
At the age of 71, I'm not out there walking the mine-fields of dating and relationships any longer. But if I was, I'd be measuring those mine-fields with the agriculture yardstick that I was handed at an early age. To me, it doesn't make sense to take less care of myself than I would of that global herd of food animals out there.
Maybe if more of us started thinking of sex as "food," we'd be more careful about what we "consumed." If more of us -- especially young people -- had the courage to stand our ground on asking questions first and wanting to see tests, it would have a positive effect on community health. Unromantic? Sure. Life-saving? Definitely. Maybe this is a point that has been missing from all those "safer sex" PR campaigns that are said to be not working.
The phrase "I am what I eat" can be rewritten as "I am what I fuck." But both contain that all-important word "I."