THE LIVING AND THE DEAD
Aug 28, 1997
Those of us gay men who survived the sex crazed 1960's and 70's without coming down with A.I.D.S. acquired immune deficiency syndrome keep wondering why we escaped unharmed. We repeatedly compare our habits and practices with those dying friends who were not so lucky, to try to find a pattern that let us come away untouched. We ask guys with HIV human immunodeficiency virus whether they got fucked up the ass much... how many times? And we try to remember if we did it that way more or less times. Maybe whether we really enjoyed it or not made the difference. Did those men whose souls were really opened for the pleasure and love of anal intercourse somehow open themselves up for the virus too? I never enjoyed getting fucked that way much, I mostly did it to oblige. (One wishes to please!) So maybe, because I was really always somewhere off to the side -- somehow less engaged -- perhaps I was harder for the virus to find? This is not scientific thinking, but I've run out of scientific ideas, and mere science hasn't saved us yet, has it. Did these infected guys do it with a lot more people than I did? Can I even remember how many sex partners I had? I used to facetiously give "about a thousand" as an answer to the 'how many?' question, and I decided one day recently to try to get a ball park figure on how many guys I really did sleep with. I reconstructed a typical week, then a typical month back in the mid 1970's, the middle of my sex fiend years. I was constantly walking the streets then, or picking up in bars, and though I was 'doing it' just about every night, lots of these guys were repeats. So I settled on 3 as a conservative number for _new_ partners in a week. This really 'bananas' period in my life probably lasted from age 18 to age 32, about 15 years, petering out in early 80's. I was pretty surprised when I punched the numbers into the calculator and came up with a figure well over 2000! My jokey bragging estimate had been less than half the probable number! How could I have escaped, with such a large number of chances to connect with the virus? Was it just the luck of the draw, or was there something about my immune system that resisted attack? If I'd been more active later on through the 1980's, or been less oral before that, would I have a different story to tell? Certainly I know about the A.I.D.S. virus early on, back in 1982, when I read some of the first reports coming out of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, in their _Morbidity and Mortality Weekly_. I had been a nursing student, and you'd expect me then to have practiced 'safe sex', but in fact I didn't change my habits, at least not intentionally. The reality of the matter was that, after sleeping with literally thousands of men, I had come to feel like a mechanical man, just going through the motions. I felt drained and joyless, with nothing left to give. So when I left off jumping on men every night of the week, it was a response to weariness, not prudence. Did despair over the pointlessness of further 'love making' save me from my hellacious habits? Maybe that's all it was. Nowadays, I face people in my age group (late 40's), and even younger men, who are infected with HIV. More pointedly, a lot of my friends have died of A.I.D.S., and some more are dying now. There are even those I slept with when they must have already been infected. I face them, when I can bring myself to do it, and I ask myself, why not me? Why not all of us in the circle into our early graves at the same time? Why are some of us left with vanishing ranks of friends -- our realest families, our comrades in adversity -- these men whose time's run out. And some gone from us even before the last breath, remote in the final process of making their peace... untouchable now, beyond our pathetic bunch of posies, plucked in a hurry from the garden to hide behind when we finally do visit, avoiding their eyes, talking of the weather, of school, of anything but! Those of us surviving in spite of the careless way we've lived our lives feel like we've somehow cheated on this test; that we've gotten away with something. This sense of the unfairness of life, and of death, will haunt us all our days. We are the undead.
Response from Mr. Sowadsky
Hi. Thank you for your comments. The individual who wrote these comments brings up many points that are often not discussed. The most significant here is what is sometimes referred to as "survivors guilt". This term has been often used for Gay men who have lost many of their friends to AIDS, yet themselves never became infected, despite the fact that these men also engaged in high risk activities. People in this situation often ask themselves why their friends became infected, and they, themselves, did not. Simply put, some people are just luckier than others. It's never a guarantee that having sex with an infected person will infect you. But the more times you put yourself at risk, the greater the chances of becoming infected.
In the early years of the AIDS epidemic (early 1980's), there were fewer people infected than there are today. And since HIV did not enter this country until the very late 1970's, any sexual activities prior to this time had no risk for HIV (although other STDs were still common back then). Perhaps this is why this individual "lucked out" and did not become infected. They were most sexually active before the AIDS epidemic began, and when the epidemic was just beginning (when infection with HIV was still relatively uncommon). Had this individual been just as sexually active a few years later, he may have been telling a very different story.
In support groups for friends/families of those with HIV, issues such as survivors guilt, and others brought up by this individual, are often discussed. Just as people with HIV often ask themselves "Why Me?", people who have lived a high risk lifestyle, have outlived their friends, and still not get infected, will sometimes ask themselves, "Why Not Me?" There are no simple answers to questions such as these. But it is important that we realize that it is not just the person with HIV who needs our understanding. It is the survivors of the HIV epidemic who need our understanding as well.
If you have any further questions, please feel free to call the Centers for Disease Control at 1.800.232.4636 (Nationwide).
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