HIV-Negative, UB2: How to Sero-Sort Without Being a Dick
Months ago, I was having a conversation with a fellow HIV activist and friend of mine. We were discussing the future fantastical “sexploits” that we had planned as we both were in the process of acquiring our prescriptions for PrEP. I mentioned to him that I was excited because that meant I could finally bed the handsome HIV-positive tops who’d expressed sexual interest in me.
I shamefully confessed to him, “I’ve never purposefully had sex with someone living with HIV.”
His reply to me, “Hey, stigma is real.”
I was taken aback. I couldn’t be living with stigma! I was a social media strategist for one of the world’s largest HIV organizations. My very profession is teaching people how to overcome stigma. I was just sero-sorting to maintain my own sexual health.
Again, he said to me, “No judgment. Stigma is real, boo.”
I sat there and thought long and hard, frustrated about what I had just learned about myself.
My friend was right, and we all know it. Stigma, both outright and silent, is real. While I may have veiled my discomfort of having sex with men living with HIV, under the guise of risk reduction, others haven’t been so quiet with their prejudicial views. “HIV-negative, UB2, “clean for clean, DDF” and plenty of other markers of discrimination against people living with HIV can be found across hookup and dating site profiles. We get it; some people just don’t want to have sex with HIV-positive men.
While opinions are changing about magnetic sex with the growing uptake of PrEP usage, and even with resounding scientific evidence proving that HIV-positive people with an undetectable viral load are at near-zero risk of transmitting the virus, biased attitudes still permeate throughout gay culture. If you’re one of the many people who are uncomfortable having sex with someone living with HIV, that’s okay. Yes, I said it. That’s okay.
Cut to me getting tons of hate mail from HIV activists everywhere. But allow me to explain.
As I said earlier, I was once in your shoes. I was timid about sex with HIV-positive men; even as an HIV educator. Even with all the knowledge I had about the virus, I was still scared to do more than make out with or get a blowjob from someone I knew who was HIV-positive. Yet, as a sex educator, I validated my actions through the value I promote most: I moved forward with sexual initiation at my level of comfort.
Yes, that’s right. I’m telling you it’s okay if you’re not having sex with someone living with HIV because you’re not comfortable. It’s your body, so move forward with any sexual act of your choosing and at your ease.
Now that I’ve said that, I’m also going to tell you this: don’t be an ignorant dick about it.
These tips I have for you might not immediately change your mind about jumping into bed with the sexy HIV-positive guy you are feeling so conflicted about, but they are a good starting point to help reduce stigma in our community. An added bonus: they will make you look like less of an asshole.
By honest, I don’t mean tell someone, “I’m not into you sexually because you’re poz.” That’s just rude. I mean, be honest with yourself. You may have some skewed ideas about what living with HIV is like in 2015, or you might not have that much knowledge about the virus at all. Come to terms with that.
Being honest with yourself allows you to see that you may be misinformed about the virus, which in turn allows you to better understand from where your discomfort may stem. Admit to yourself, “I don’t know much about HIV, and that prohibits me from moving forward sexually with this person.” It may be a challenge admitting this to yourself, but doing so opens up your mind to learning how to improve on what you already know. Which leads to my next tip...
As I said before, a basic lack of knowledge about the virus can cause some distress in how you interact with HIV-positive men. Unfortunately, that lack of knowledge is still pretty pervasive in our community almost thirty-four years after the virus was discovered. A recent survey of 431 gay and bisexual men by Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) found that while HIV may have remained a top health priority for the men included in the sample, largely the group was misinformed--or not informed at all--about the virus.
We live in the age of the Internet. Take some time from scrolling the grid on Grindr, to looking up facts about HIV and locations where you can be tested. Speaking of testing for the virus, of those men surveyed by KFF, 30 percent had never been tested. Across the U.S., about one in five gay/bisexual men don’t even know their HIV status. And more than half of young gay and bisexual men who are living with HIV are unaware that they are HIV-positive. Think about it: while you’re rejecting that hot HIV-positive guy to have sex with that guy who says he’s “clean,” you may be putting yourself at an even greater level of risk for contracting the virus.
Speaking of reducing transmission, as I mentioned earlier, those living with HIV and who have an undetectable viral load are at near-zero risk of transmitting the virus. While you may reject someone because you’re fearful you might become infected, that person knowing their positive status and taking care of their health actually puts you at the lowest risk. You’re at even lower level of risk if you’re on PrEP or using condoms with lube correctly and consistently.
Doesn’t knowing all that put you at more ease? If the answer is still no, that is perfectly okay. But you should at least no longer approach the idea of sex with someone living with HIV as a ludicrous and risky notion.
Taking time to understand your discomfort and educating yourself about HIV to help quell your anxiety is great. But it’s also important to understand what negative effects your rejecting actions have on others. What you might see as “stating a personal preference” can actually be quite taxing on someone’s self-esteem and self worth. And you may not even know you are doing it. Your friends may be quietly dealing with stigma or they may be fearful of telling you about their status because of the same rejection you casually state. I’m not telling you to sleep with someone you’re not attracted to; what I am saying, instead, is to be aware that what you’re saying can have a negative impact on other people feel.
Push aside your viewpoints about who you are attracted to, and think about what it would be like to be rejected for a manageable health condition you work to maintain and be honest about. Imagine seeing pre-rejections plastered across numerous dating profiles, all before you even had the chance to introduce yourself. Now, reexamine your attitude.
Stigma is real But when we confront it, we educate ourselves about it and learn about others’ experiences in encountering it. We then diminish our own actions that feed it. You might not be comfortable having sex with someone who is HIV-positive, but I guarantee in time and with help from these tips, you will no longer be comfortable continuing to perpetuate stigma.
Raul Q. is a Los Angeles-based freelance sex-positive communications specialist. Raul speaks publicly on topics related to sexual health and HIV. For more from Raul, follow him on Twitter.