“If anyone had told me when I was first diagnosed with HIV 25 years ago that I’d not only survive, but mostly thrive, I’d have thought they were joking,” says one 50-year-old-man. “But here I am.”
The onset of the AIDS epidemic changed the ways that many gay guys live…and have sex. Condoms—once limited to fetish status among queer men—became an indispensable accessory for anal sex. Kink came to serve as an increasingly popular substitute for “fluid exchange.” And plenty of people became cautious, even fearful. Some guys chose celibacy, while others started “sero-sorting” the men they met. One young fellow who’s on the dating circuit says, “Maybe I’m being overly cautious, but I’m hesitant to get involved with HIV-positive men. I know all about safe sex, but I don’t need the anxiety. And I don’t want to fall for someone who might get sick down the road.”
While such caution may be understandable, it can irritate the infected—some have complained of “sexual apartheid.” And a sense of proportion is important. As viruses go, HIV is a tough one to catch. Sure, unprotected anal sex is very risky, especially to the bottom. But that’s about it; even having an infected guy come in your mouth, while not totally safe, is, from everything we know, very low risk. Says one man who’s been positive for almost a decade, “HIV isn’t easy to transmit, and I’m extremely careful not to pass it on. Even so, there are guys out there who treat me like a pariah.”
Not everyone is so conscientious. As new treatments make HIV more treatable, and so-called prevention fatigue has set in, there’s been an upsurge in unprotected anal sex, also known as “barebacking.” Poz guys who bareback often assume that they can’t be reinfected with another, perhaps drug-resistant, strain of the virus—a hope that’s yet to be scientifically proven. If anything, there are indications to the contrary. And in any case, barebackers leave themselves open to other sexually transmitted diseases, which might accelerate the progression of HIV. But one positive barebacker says, “I only have unprotected sex with other infected men, and I wouldn’t do anything risky with someone who might be negative. Drugs have kept my viral load undetectable, and my partners and I are adults making informed choices. I wish the moralists would butt out of what I do with my life.”
That kind of attitude, reckless or not, is certainly much more foolhardy when negative guys are involved. Our barebacker continues, “What gets me is that there are men out there who are advertising for unprotected anal sex and specifying ‘negative partners only.’ That’s stupid. Lots of men don’t know for sure whether they’re infected, and others are just plain liars.”
Of course, a poz fellow can successfully maintain a relationship with a negative guy. Says one middle-aged man, “My partner and I have been together for almost 20 years, and he’s still uninfected. We always use rubbers for anal and I don’t come in his mouth, though we understand the risk from that would be near zero. Do we always have to be a little careful? Well, yeah, but being with him is worth it.”
Not every case is so cheery. Our 50-year-old says, “When I began showing signs of Kaposi’s sarcoma, some folks started avoiding me like the…well, the plague. In my hometown, there used to be more social events especially for positive men. I miss those. Fortunately, websites are taking up some of the slack. It’s not that I wouldn’t get together with uninfected men. It’s just easier to hang out with other positive guys.”
We’ve come a long way from the days when having HIV was widely regarded as a virtual death sentence. Still, remaining healthy when you’re poz is no picnic—it requires monitoring, and potentially taking meds with strict dosing requirements and possibly awful side effects. If you know you’re negative, there’s no excuse for letting your guard down. If you don’t know your antibody status, you should. And if you’re positive, you might as well plan on living a long, full life, chockablock with hot sex.
Sure, young guys tend to think they’re immortal. And men with erections tend to not think very much at all. But in the age of the epidemic, it’s vitally important to take responsibility for both yourself and others. Because with a bit of care, and maybe a condom, men, whether positive or not, can remain healthy, happy, and humpable.
Simon Sheppard is the editor of Leathermen and Homosex: Sixty Years of Gay Erotica, and the author of Sex Parties 101, Kinkorama, and In Deep: Erotic Stories, and can be reached at [email protected] Visit Simon at www.simonsheppard.com