…not only those in a chem-fuelled orgy.
I went to the clinic recently for my quarterly HIV check-up. Business as usual. As part of a study, I had to fill in a lifestyle questionnaire. It read as follows:
Question 1. In the past 3 months, have you used any drugs or illicit substances?
Yes: Continue to question 2.
No: Thank you, you have completed this questionnaire.
I ticked No and was done. Needless to say, this was the shortest questionnaire I have answered in my life!
It fitted very well with something I have found grating recently. If you read the Guardian or the Independent, I wouldn’t blame you for believing, consciously or not, that people infected with HIV in this day and age fit the following bill: drug/sex-addicted gay men attending regular orgies.
Of course, these parties do happen, some people do attend. Some people take drugs. Some people become infected with HIV as a result of one or the other or both. But the opposite is also true: some people who do attend or take drugs do not become HIV positive, and some people who are HIV positive did not get infected in such circumstances.
I saw many layers of the story unfold on various blogs and twitter feeds. Guyliner wrote a great post about the negative side effects of such reports, whilst Grumpygay defended cohesion in the community to make these findings a thing of the past to begin with. I can empathise with various points and I may venture on the same territories as I agree with what they had to say on the subject, yet I would like to shift the focus a bit.
Is it just me or what? No, of course it’s not.
Sometimes, timing is perfect. A few days after the Lancet article, FS magazine came out, entitled ‘Bareback Britain – Doing it raw.’ Amongst some brilliant pieces –Matthew Hodson’s piece about coming out of the HIV closet moved me, not an easy thing to do I might add-, I failed to connect with some of the remaining content. Despite having picked it up whilst out and about, many lives ago, FS no longer felt relevant to my life.
Arguably, not everyone is similar. The world would be a boring place if we were all acting the same, listening to the same music, reading the same books and adhering to the same values. But whilst reading an opinion piece entitled « When did you last have sober sex? », nicely written by David Stuart, I couldn’t help thinking « Surely a better question would be ‘when was the last time you had drunk sex ?’ ». Of course, this title wouldn’t be nearly as appealing and I suppose that’s the point. Whilst articles in FS were by no means condoning substance use or bareback sex, it depicted it as being increasingly common. It got me thinking…
Is that what people do?
Is the majority of gay people in this country having drunk, drug-fuelled bareback sex on a week-endly basis? Are they REALLY? Because reading FS magazine, the Guardian, the Independent and quite a few blogs, it starts to feel like it. And that makes me either really naïve, or really annoyed. And I don’t mean annoyed at not getting the invite, ah!
I do not doubt that it does reflect a portion, an increasing one, of the population. Particularly the gay population. Especially in London. Consequently, campaigns and publications must tackle this, investigate and report but, by doing so, I worry that they provide a twisted vision of reality. It is certain that health providers and charities should look into this issue and act accordingly. But are they/we forgetting everyone else? Most people will know by now that HIV can affect anybody, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, location, economical background, etc.
Whatever happens to the non drug/sex crazed people ?
Don’t get me wrong; I don’t really care what people do with/to their body. If they want to take drugs or have bareback sex and they are aware of the possible consequences, each to their own. (Though the ongoing issue is not really ‘do they?’ but ‘why do they?’. Low self-esteem, peer pressure, etc, you name it.)
However, just like I have stopped answering « I’m sorry, I don’t smoke » when asked for a lighter, as if I had anything to apologise for, I don’t feel like apologising either for being arsey (pun intended) about not wanting to fuck people unprotected or snort a line of whatever. I smoked the odd joint at uni and I have been happy ever since without. Boring, maybe. Healthier, likely. Cheaper, definitely!
I have a feeling I might be in the majority here, one that is hidden in the background of sensationalistic headlines. Maybe I feel that way because in my friendship circle, only one occasionally takes drugs whilst partying. If I had a different group of friends, I might be more in contact with drugs and my views would differ. Then again, friends are not family; they are chosen, not inherited.
Here is a story I don’t often tell.
The story of 24 y.o me is probably quite common. The story of someone who had been taught fairly decent sex-ed (albeit slightly hetero-centric) and was reasonably clued up about HIV. I knew less than I do now but more than many 24 y.o seem to nowadays.
During sex with someone I was seeing, the condom slipped off whilst I was fucking him. I didn’t realise immediately. When I did, I stopped. He told me he was ‘clean’ (his term), I took his word for it. I had no reason to doubt him or to believe that I had put him in danger either, as I had tested negative a few weeks earlier.
Back then, I had never heard of PEP (a 28 day course of antiretroviral drugs that may prevent infection after possible exposure to the virus.) As I said, I was clued up, but not all-knowing. Based on what he told me, I probably wouldn’t have sought it anyway. As time went by, the dating fizzled out.
A few weeks later, I had the flu. Or rather, with hindsight, I seroconverted. The rest is history. I wasn’t blaming anyone and still am not to this day, except maybe my own stupidity. Condom failures are usually down to human error. Shit happens, and so it did.
So what’s my point?
My story is not extraordinary. It is sadly very common: 80% of new HIV infections amongst gay men are from people who don’t know they have it. Accidents happen. There are many ways to become infected with HIV and it does not always encompass drugs or sex parties.
Ultimately, it does not make a difference how one was infected.
There is something humbling about being HIV positive. A sense of community, perhaps; a (sadly) not-so-exclusive club you wish you never joined, but a club nonetheless. Brazil’s ‘Listen, kid, we’re all in it together’ comes to mind. It’s true, whether it is as a result of poor choices, stupidity or, more sordidly, (sexual) abuse or being born with it. Once HIV positive, everyone faces the same brush, the stigma attached to the condition; the same fears, the same questions, regardless of your story.
Charities, doctors, nurses and everybody else dealing with HIV do an amazing job. I know there isn’t enough time and money around to publicise all the prevention messages at once on a global scale. Yet there is a message that I don’t feel we hear very often. One I wish I had seen before, in one way or another. Maybe it was out there and I missed it. Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it would not have changed the outcome for me, but it might change the outcome for someone out there:
If you think it can only happen to others, remember you could be one of them.