I have done it.
At least once.
I know it's not uncommon. I hear it from friends, clients, strangers and it's even discussed in the media. So I'm pretty sure plenty of people reading this have done it, too. Or at least know someone who's done it.
I've had sex without discussing my HIV status or that of my partner.
This is not one of my prouder admissions. In fact, I'm imagining hate mail and hundreds of electronic voices screaming "How could you?" from my inbox, even though I know I'm not alone. But I think we need to have the conversation, because shame and fear aren't going to change certain facts.
I was reading a post on another blog entitled, "Refusing to have sex with HIV+ people: Why it's not a prevention strategy and why it's harming our communities." The author was making some excellent points about the reality and possible repercussions of gay men dismissing HIV+ men as potential partners. Seems like a good strategy on the surface, but I have to say, it's not easy to be a Poz guy who's single. Demeaning, in fact. All one has to do is look online through a few personal ads to find phrases like "disease free only," "clean, U B 2," and "Neg only" to see that many men who have sex with men are actively recruiting or demanding negative men as sex partners. There's just one problem, though.
I was leading a group of HIV+ men once and the subject of status disclosure came up. I asked the group, "At what point do you tell your partner that you're positive?" I will never forget one response: "If it's just a trick, I almost never tell. Otherwise I'd never get laid."
Now, I know a lot of HIV+ people, and there are not very many who would admit to doing that, and some who certainly never have. I also have spent a lot of time studying the human head and heart, and I know there aren't very many things that people won't do for love, or even for affection, not to mention sex. I am not saying that every HIV+ person out there is an irresponsible liar, hell-bent on infecting the world because of internalized shame and self-loathing. I don't believe that.
What I do believe is that we're afraid to talk about safe sex. We're afraid to talk about HIV or other STD's because it "kills the mood". We're too afraid (and maybe too tired of the topic) to consider the difficulties of having relationships that negotiation implies, even with a trick.
I work with young gay men in Montana, talking about safe sex, HIV, STD's and general health issues. Once at a retreat, one kid asked me "Isn't it okay to have sex with someone you know is negative?"
"You mean unprotected sex?", I asked.
"How do you know he's negative?"
"Well, he told me."
I just wonder if we've created a false sexual culture, one based on the flimsiest kind of trust. I wonder if we've created an environment that promotes lying as a defense against rejection. I wonder if we're adding to the stigma, guilt and shame Poz people carry, which can lead to depression and even poorer choices. I wonder if we're so caught up in getting laid that we're willing to wear our avoidance like a badge of honor.
And avoidance is just another form of denial.
The truth is, HIV is part of our community, our culture. Someone in the CDC recently said MSM are 50 times more infected as a community than any other statistical group. It's also part of the world's culture, and it's not going to go away anytime soon.
But another truth is, safe sex is extremely effective. Negative guys have a miniscule risk of exposure when correctly practicing safe sex with a positive partner. In short, safe sex works.
As a therapist, I am trained to withhold judgments and work toward understanding. As an HIV+ gay man, I want to do what I can to keep others from becoming infected, because having HIV is difficult, scary, demoralizing and eventually debilitating. And the more people we have in our community unwilling to talk about it, the more infections we're going to have.
So, let's talk.
Have you done it?