Intimacy Across HIV Statuses

Heather Boerner Apr 7, 2015
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Throughout the history of HIV, the condition has had a profound impact on relationships. But today, we have the science on HIV and prevention to drop the fear of infection, and to love out loud. New treatment options and more choices for effective HIV prevention are bringing partners together -- forging stronger ties, deepening intimacy and, yes, helping sex feel better, too.
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Jeremy Balli, 33, San Francisco, California
Jeremy Balli, 33, San Francisco, California
Jeremy was new to town, recently single and “sexing his feelings away” when a hookup told him about pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). Now, reunited with his ex, PrEP is still making things better -- both take it. Connection is the focus, not HIV. “We have removed the possibility of contracting HIV from the discussion and are able to focus our dialog on negotiating positive and healthy sex,” Balli said, “articulating our comfort levels and understanding the impact of our decisions on our own well-being -- body, mind and soul.”
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Eduardo Flores, 33, Central Coast, California
Eduardo Flores, 33, Central Coast, California
Eduardo* never could have imagined that, four years after meeting Kara* in South America, they’d be married with a child in the U.S. Even less could he have imagined having HIV. When he was first diagnosed, the couple struggled. But now, when he looks in Kara’s eyes, he sees nothing but love. “We enjoy one another again,” explained Eduardo. His viral load is undetectable. “Now, I only think about the condom breaking when I put it on. After that, we can be playful,” he said. *Pseudonyms.
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Martha Lang and Lisa Waldman, Western Massachusetts
Martha Lang and Lisa Waldman, Western Massachusetts
In Quakerism, they talk about the still, small voice of God. Martha, 50, and Lisa, 47, say they heard that voice when they met in 2002. For all those years, Martha has had HIV -- and, for the most part, been undetectable. Knowing there are multiple options to protect Lisa is reassuring. But sex with a barrier is, well, sexy. “We’ve always used barriers and it’s become eroticized now,” said Martha, laughing. “It’s part of the foreplay. For me, it’s one of the ways I show my love, to protect her.”
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Bob Boudreau, 51, Bristol, Connecticut
Bob Boudreau, 51, Bristol, Connecticut
Bob had been in an open triad for nearly 10 years when one partner, Kevin, acquired HIV. But that didn’t change the family’s connection. “I am not afraid of him because of his HIV status,” said Boudreau. “All that changed was that, instead of our sexual intimacy being ‘non’ safer, we switched to safer sex play.” The intimacy remained the same. “Intimacy,” Boudreau explained, “means sharing all facets of our lives and supporting each other through thick and thin.”
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Poppy Morgan, 38, San Francisco, California
Poppy Morgan, 38, San Francisco, California
When Poppy's* parents found out her fiancé, Ted*, was HIV positive, they kicked them out and burned their mattress. Then Macey* happened. Macey, 2, is the result of Ted's undetectable viral load and Poppy's use of PrEP. Poppy and Macey are HIV negative. “I’ll never forget them holding her after she was born,” Poppy said. “They pulled [Ted] aside and said, ‘We are so sorry. Can you ever forgive us?’ They’ve been the best grandparents ever since.” *Pseudonyms.
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Octavia Y. Lewis, 34, New York City
Octavia Y. Lewis, 34, New York City
For Octavia, who is HIV positive, letting her husband care for her and keeping her husband HIV negative are both part of the intimacy. “We believe in protecting the both of us so that we may continue to be healthy and can provide for our family,” said Octavia. “He always tells me that he loves me more today than he did the day we first met, which truly means a lot to me. It confirms that, even though our statuses are different, the love we share is equal.”
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Brittany Best, 23, Oakland, California
Brittany Best, 23, Oakland, California
Brittany* had no idea that 64% of U.S. women with HIV are African American, like her. Then her ex-boyfriend, who was born with HIV, came along. Good thing, she said, that there is Truvada. Today, Brittany is no longer with her ex -- but she's still taking PrEP. It helps her feel closer to herself. Before Truvada, she didn’t even think about safer sex. Now, a whole world of sexual possibility is open to her. “I have been exploring the lesbian/gay community,” she said. “But it does still help me feel secure.” *Pseudonym.
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Olga Irwin, 48, Youngstown, Ohio
Olga Irwin, 48, Youngstown, Ohio
Truvada has changed things for Olga and her husband. But not in the way you might think. Olga is HIV positive and her husband is not. Since she's been on Truvada as part of her HIV treatment, her viral load has plummeted. Now it’s undetectable. And that means, when the couple cozies up, they don’t need to break the mood. “[Treatment as prevention] takes a lot of worry out of me,” she said. “When we’re in the mood, sometimes you forget the protection. Now we don’t get as scared. We can enjoy ourselves a little bit better.”
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Felix and Paula Sirls, Sinclair Shores, Michigan
Felix and Paula Sirls, Sinclair Shores, Michigan
In the old days, Felix sometimes woke to a woman grinding on him. It was intimate but it wasn’t safe. And Felix, who has been HIV positive for years, had to stop it. Now, he's been with his wife, Paula, for 20 years. They’re both positive with undetectable viral loads. And intimacy isn’t just sex. “It can be, ‘Take your meds right now, I don’t care if you’re tired,’” he said. “Intimacy is a state of mind and spirit more than anything else. To be able to connect that with one’s health is really a great form of intimacy.”
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Roger Klorese, 59, Seattle, Washington
Roger Klorese, 59, Seattle, Washington
“Sex shouldn’t feel like a gun to the head,” said Roger. But for many years, his HIV-positive husband David was concerned about infecting him. “That’s strongly not the case now,” he said. In fact, since Roger's been on PrEP, it’s opened up their open marriage in new ways. “We have very good friends who are HIV positive and even with a condom, they have not been comfortable going there with me,” he said. “That’s moved for several of them now, which is great because we do have very intimate friendships in our circle.”
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What Does Intimacy Mean to You?
What Does Intimacy Mean to You?
So, how do you show your love? How do you get close and feel connected when you’re affected by HIV? Share your stories with us.

Heather Boerner is a health care journalist based in San Francisco and author of Positively Negative: Love, Pregnancy and Science's Surprising Victory Over HIV.