Comment: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell about HIV status
Michael Lucas, the gay porn producer, offers a new solution to cutting HIV rates and stigma around the condition.
Here’s a sentence I never thought I would write: I’m in favour of a ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy. Not in the military, of course — those days are behind us — but in the bedroom. What I’m talking about, specifically, is HIV. And my point is that, at least when it comes to sex, we should talk about it less.
It amazes me that in 2011, so many people still won’t sleep with HIV-positive guys. But it’s true. Many HIV-negative friends have told me they won’t have sex with anyone they know to be positive. And I’ve heard from the other side too: from positive friends with horror stories about the difficulties they face in dating or even hooking up. For them, the quest for love and sex can be an obstacle course of thoughtless discrimination and rejection.
Don’t get me wrong. I understand that negative guys might get turned off when they hear that a hookup is HIV-positive. For most people, disease isn’t sexy. But there’s an easy solution to that problem: Just don’t talk about it. It might also ruin the mood if Mr Right Now revealed that he had liver cancer, diabetes, sickle-cell anemia, or a family history of mental illness. But why would he tell you those things on a first date? And why would you ask?
The answer, some might say, has to do with managing the risk of contagion. But many people still seem to have outdated ideas about HIV transmission. One friend says that guys often get mad at him if they’ve kissed before he tells them he’s positive — lashing out as if he has put their lives in danger. Is this 1983? Do they also think they can get AIDS from toilet seats?
You can’t get HIV from kissing. In fact, it’s hard to get HIV even from sex — as long as you use a condom. I dated a positive guy for two years in the 1990s; we had safe sex almost every day, and I never seroconverted. Today, it is even more difficult to become infected through protected sex. Recent studies suggest that HIV-positive men who are taking their medications pose a vastly reduced risk of transmitting the virus.
But shunning HIV-positive people is not just phobic and unkind — it is also dangerous. Paradoxically, a supposed open discussion about HIV actually leads to a culture of HIV secrecy; it punishes men who are honest about their status, rewards those who lie, and discourages guys from getting tested (and treated).
What’s more, it perpetuates a growing trend toward barebacking by men who think that they can stay negative as long as they only hook up with other negative guys. I don’t know anyone who has seroconverted from safe sex with an HIV-positive partner — but I know several who have gotten HIV from boyfriends who were barebacking on the side.
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The problem is, an honest guy may tell you he’s positive, but you can never reliably know who’s negative. A guy you meet on Manhunt may tell you he got tested last month — but are you really going to take the word of a guy whom you met under a pseudonym and whose profile probably shaves four years off his age and adds two inches to his dick? Even if he thinks he’s telling the truth, he may have been infected since.
It boils down to this: The real way to avoid HIV is not by avoiding people with HIV; it’s by avoiding practices that make HIV communicable. If you want to stay negative, assume that everyone you hook up with is positive, and wear a condom to protect yourself.
If the relationship moves beyond sex, there will be a time when it’s appropriate to talk about your medical histories. That may mean continuing to practice safe sex — but if you love a guy, a thin layer of rubber shouldn’t be enough to keep you apart.
Until then, it’s none of your business. Leave HIV status off your hookup checklists and Manhunt profiles and pre-sex chatter. In this case, ignorance really can be bliss: There are a huge number of super-hot, HIV-positive guys out there that HIV-negative men are losing out on.
It’s time to rid the gay community of the irrational fears and discrimination that have held us back for far too long. Positive men don’t deserve to be second-class sexual citizens. When it comes to HIV, the baseline rules should be simple: Don’t ask. Don’t tell. Stay smart. And enjoy the hell out of each other.
This article was first published on Advocate.com.