So much of the conversation about pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) has been reduced to labeling the people taking PrEP (“Truvada whore,” and more) instead of listening to them. Queerty wanted to get past those labels, so we spoke to five gay men on PrEP about why they chose to take a pill to prevent HIV infection — and their thoughts on the debate about it and the changes in their sexual lives that it inspired.
We came away with a broader, more human perspective on why this choice works for so many gay men.
Read their candid views and tell us if you agree in the comments section.
Blake Rowley, 28
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“My likelihood of having a sex partner who is positive, knowingly or unknowingly, is astronomical,” Blake told us, pointing out that young gay black men account for much of the increase in new HIV infections. Studies indicate that, although black men are more likely to use condoms during sex, the high incidence infection among black men who have sex with black men means they are more likely to come into contact with the virus than white men.
“I had to confront realities about myself,” said Blake, who serves as chair of the Young Black Gay Men’s Leadership Initiative, “including my race, my age, my risks for HIV and how I like to have sex. Particularly if I want to keep having what I define as great, fully satisfying, roll-over-and-smoke-a-cigarette unencumbered sex.”
Blake chose PrEP two years ago because he was “exhausted” from the mental gymnastics of sero-sorting (having sex only with those who share your status), and adds that “even as a top, that’s not foolproof.”
“PrEP allows me to have the sex I want to have without the risk of contracting HIV. I can, with almost 100 percent assuredness, put behind me the fear of contracting HIV due to a casual hookup or a long term relationship gone sour.”
Blake has no interest in fanning the flames of the condom debate. “Condoms still work and if they work for you, get on with your life,” he said. “But PrEP is another option to prevent HIV, and it’s the one I choose.”
Damon Jacobs, 43
If you google PrEP and gay men, chances are you will end up with an article by Damon Jacobs, and probably a photo of him wearing a “Truvada Whore” or “PrEP Warrior” T-shirt — or less (see above). The New York City therapist embraces his role as one of the most visible PrEP advocates on the scene even if it means talking about his most intimate habits.
“I started PrEP in 2011 because I wanted to maximize pleasure,” Damon told us. “The experience has resulted in feeling more peace of mind and sexual confidence than before.”
Damon isn’t afraid to speak up about the importance of pleasurable sex for gay men and our right to have it. “Most of us are seeking ways to experience maximum pleasure with minimal risk,” he said. “If we ignore pleasure, we are doing our community a huge disservice. Why do we still have new HIV infections in 2015? Because fucking feels good.”
Just acknowledging that we want sex to feel great is something Damon believe can move us forward. “When we start from there,” he said, “then we can discuss ways that sex can also be healthy, responsible, and empowering.”
Mathew Rodriguez, 26
Mathew has been on PrEP for the last year. He started because he was in a non-monogamous relationship with someone who began PrEP himself. When they broke up, Mathew continued using the drug.
Just don’t mention the whole “Truvada Whore” meme to Mathew, who isn’t having it. “I don’t identify with the term,” he said, “but I do wish gay men in general had more open conversations around pleasure and the ways we make love to each other.” He believe that PrEP has at least started a conversation about how gay men want to have sex and why.
“Fucking is fun. It is a tactile experience that carries spiritual, mental and emotional weight. I say it’s tactile because it’s skin on skin, plus fluids. PrEP has allowed people to return to cum as a meaningful part of sexuality, not an alien substance to be feared. PrEP has allowed me to have someone look into my eyes as he was on top of me, inside me, and for us to connect in a way that carried emotional, intergenerational weight. PrEP has meant that I don’t have to live what I’ve called ‘the life of the gay statistician.’ What’s the chance that the semen permeated the skin of the condom? What’s the chance I contracted something? What’s the chance that my cough is seroconversion flu?”
Tom Butcher, 53
Starting PrEP just one ago, Tom was initially nervous about the drug and reached out to online PrEP groups for information and support. After a few days of side effects (“I was dizzy and kind of foggy,” he told us), Tom feels fine and is headed for a follow-up visit this week.
“I came out in 1984 and lived through the very darkest days of the epidemic,” Tom said. “It scarred my soul.” His trauma from those early years also kept Tom from getting tested very often, something being on PrEP will change. Getting regular blood work to check for side effects, HIV and other STI’s is a part of being on the drug.
Tom works in New Haven, CT, as a project director for HIV support services, and his friend and colleagues have been completely supportive. He is aware of the personal criticisms that occur online, though, and he is braced for it.
“I am human,” Tom said. “I am a sexual being. I make mistakes in all other realms of my life. Now I am empowered to take control of my life and my health. My fear has been replaced by being empowered to take care of myself no matter what a lab test shows. With PrEP the likelihood of infection is drastically reduced.”
Ney Enrique, 36
Ney started using PrEP six months ago, and came to the prevention strategy by way of his art. The multi-media storyteller from Wilton Manors, FL, was producing a documentary abut PrEP and found the evidence so compelling that he started taking it himself.
“Of course, I studied up on it beyond the documentary,” Ney told us. What he found out has made Ney an outspoken fan. “I think everyone who is sexually active should be on it if they are not monogamous. It should be a global strategy but we, as PrEP users, have to advocate for it.”
The fact that doctors themselves are often not educated about PrEP frustrates Ney. “Medical providers are the first ones to ignore what PrEP is about,” he said, “so it is logical that patients don’t know about it or they feel afraid about it.”
Ney adds that, while some gay men he knows are curious to find out more about PrEP, “others put us under the same HIV stigma umbrella,” as if being on PrEP makes him more of a risk to them instead of less.
For more personal stories from gay men on PrEP, check out My PrEP Experience