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Question about HIV Fear

Nov 15, 1999

Dear Michael Sernoff,

Is the fear of contracting HIV unique to HIV? I had a low risk exposure about 8 weeks ago, and I was concerned, but no where near the degree that some of the people who write in.

There is risk to everything in life. There is a “low risk” that the next time you get in a car you’ll have an accident, it could disfigure or kill you. There is even a risk taking a shower, working out, you may even choke while eating. There’s a low risk that your apartment will catch fire while you sleep. My point or question is how come people relate to all of these low risks and don’t walk around worrying about them?

I’m an example, I was the recipient of unprotected oral sex, this was from a stripper I had met, enjoyed her sense of humor, and had talked with for many weeks. We went out for coffee after her shift and started making out. (There was no money for sex exchange.). Within a couple of days I started considering the riskyness of my escapade. Despite being told that this is Low/essentially no risk, it still troubled me in the back of my mind that I was an idiot for putting myself “at risk.”

I’ve been a smoker for 10 years, I never think that I have cancer, though smoking is more risky than getting a blowjob. So I think the concern is rooted in my being subconsciously sexually judgmental about the stripper, and maybe on myself for choosing to be in such a "sleazy" little journey?

Maybe part of the problem is that the way these risks are defined. It seems when most people are told they are at “low” risk, they only see the word risk. And they fail to put that in perspective, they’re interpreting LOW risk as still being at some level of significant risk.

The way I dealt with it is this way: I compared the low risk to all of the other low risks we take everyday in life. And that worked for me. I also learned that I’m not all that comfortable even taking low risks when it comes to HIV. But I’m a low risk guy in other areas of my life: I wear a seat-belt; I invest conservatively; and feel more comfortable when I have a few months cash handy in case business goes bad. Risk taking is not in my personality.

So since my romp bothered me, I learned to be even more careful in the future so as not to cause myself anxiety. And to be proud with myself for being low risk in my journey; and to move on with my life.

Does my approach to this make sense? Or is the HIV fear different than other risks we take in life? I think it helped me from falling into the same trap that the guy who wrote “My Story” fell into. I wanted to share my thoughts hoping maybe this will help some of your readers; and get your opinion about whether this is a healthy approach?

Response from Mr. Shernoff

Each person responds in his or her own idiosyncratic way to stress and fear inducing realities. There is not any one predictible way. PArt of the dynamic accompanying fears of contracting HIV have to do with a convergence of a potentially life threatening illness, guilt about sex and risk taking.

Michael Shernoff, MSW

Information on Ethical Issues concerning Euthanasia and HIV patients
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