“So you know, I am HIV positive.”
It was the first thing I said to him on our first date. It’s just easier, a quick first date maneuver to get what I had found to be a dating deal breaker, out of the way. Why waste their time, and more importantly why waste mine. Even in 2014, HIV status was still a deal breaker, I suspect because of lingering fear, lack of education, and the stigma we can’t seem to shake.
I get it. It’s why when I was diagnosed in 2007 I felt that a part of me died. It was life changing, not because of the physical, but the emotional. The reality that my future intimate relationships would be influenced by something I, for right or wrong, felt so ashamed of. As much as I have worked over the past seven years to shift my thinking and leave that baggage at the proverbial door, sex has been redefined. An act too often accompanied by caution, remorse and shame. I say too often, because sex is supposed to be fun, enjoyable and while not carefree, definitely not burdened.
But this date would signal a personal shift in this experience. It was with Michael Lucas, the controversial porn entrepreneur and more importantly public advocate of PrEP, the now FDA approved and World Health Organization endorsed preventative for HIV infection. His response to my HIV disclosure was “Ok, I’m on PrEP, now tell me about you.” And just like that, HIV was not a determining issue, it was just a piece of the dating puzzle that was quickly placed into the bigger, better picture.
But I wasn’t so quick to adjust. For the first time, I was entering into a relationship with someone who was HIV-negative and being proactive to remain that way. Not because he felt burdened to, but because like most men, including me, he enjoys sex and all that comes with it. From kissing, to foreplay, to intercourse and even the exchange of fluids. The latter being something we often don’t discuss, despite the fact many of us like it. And to be in a committed relationship and avoid it, is both difficult not always enjoyable and ultimately the crux of our fear of HIV.
As an HIV-positive man, I had grown accustomed to three options when it came to sex: dating someone who was HIV-positive, using a condom, or mutually agreeing to “be careful” and take a risk. Overtime I found each of these approaches disproportionally impacted a budding relationship and ultimately took away a bit of joy from a joyful act.
The reality is, I don’t like all men who are positive. I have never been comfortable with agreeing to take a risk of that scale. And I don’t like condoms. Sure, we say we don’t mind them and we might attest to always using them, but if given the option, most men would opt out, and far too often do. A decision that should not be confused with the desire to be protected. It’s just the reality of what is a complicated decision making process.
With PrEP and our new understanding of HIV transmission, that decision making process has more options. For Michael and I, we do not consider the sex we have as un-safe. I would argue it’s more safe than most and far more healthy. But we don’t use condoms, a decision we made understanding that my viral load is undetectable and he would be on PrEP. Two factors proven to make the risk of transmission virtually non-existent. He and I both see a doctor every 3 months, me for HIV treatment and he because that comes with PrEP prescriptions. It’s a healthy regiment that is frankly a welcomed new normal.
I guess I got lucky, the decision Michael made to be on PrEP, happened before me, not because of me. That would be another layer, another burden perhaps. But he was also educated enough to understand the importance of an undetectable viral load and open minded enough to know HIV is what someone has, not who someone is. This takes effort; it takes investment, and a desire to be healthy about your sex life. It takes more than just asking “have you been tested?” and it requires you to do more than just “know your status”; you must be willing to act on that knowledge.
To me, PrEP is not a debate, it’s a decision. Viral load impact on transmission rates is not a myth; it’s a reason to get tested and seek treatment early. And before everyone freaks out, condoms still have their place. But its time we grow up and remember that HIV is still very real, and very present. Its time to take responsibility for our sexual health, knowing that sex is something to enjoy, not fear. Understanding that by holding on to only old methods, and shaming new ones, we are missing an opportunity to mitigate the stigma HIV has held on our sex lives and community for far too long.
I should acknowledge that I have learned the mere mention of Michael’s name welcomes a slew of colorful commentary. (Cue the unfounded opinions on porn, his politics and his lips — lips that I love mind you). But to be clear, this is not a piece about a porn star and it’s not even a piece about me. Rather its one part of a larger conversation around how we navigate a world with HIV. A conversation I have for the past seven years, relentlessly joined.
My relationship with Michael is not unique, there are others facing these same decisions. Whats right for us, does not have to work for you. But as you make these choices, be real about who you are, what you stand for and honest about why you stand for it. And be open minded enough to know the ground we are standing on, is shifting in a direction where two people — one positive, the other negative, can navigate their sexual relationship with protective options that are more powerful than ever before.
Powerful because while I have no doubt that PrEP is one of the most critical advances in the fight against HIV/AIDS in the last 32 years, I also know first hand that this along with other advances, is allowing serodiscordant couples like us, to have sex without shame, without fear and yes, even without condoms. And perhaps best of all, empowering us to disclose our status on a first date with renewed hope it just might not be a deal-breaker.
Tyler Helms is a Senior Vice President at Deutsch Advertising and is an HIV/AIDS advocate serving on the board of directors for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York City.