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The Stupid Question: "Are You Clean?"

A Video Blog

June 21, 2012

Credit: The Stigma Project.

Credit: The Stigma Project.

I took a shower this morning. I am clean. I might work out at the gym later, or maybe the trash bag will break on the way outside and I will scoop up coffee grounds and put them back into the bag. I will then be dirty. I will shower again. And I will be clean.

Anyone who questions whether or not HIV stigma is on the rise need look no further than online profiles and hookup sites, in which "Are you clean?" is asked with infuriating regularity. Or perhaps you have suffered the indignity of someone asking you "The Stupid Question" while negotiating a tryst. The sheer ignorance boggles the mind.

Implying that I am somehow "dirty" because I am HIV positive may not be the intention of the person asking the question. Perhaps they are sincerely trying to assess the level of risk they might be taking. But it also implies that they may raise their level of risk-taking should you answer "Yes, I am clean." To place one's trust in this answer, and to base your sexual behavior on it, is precisely how people become infected with HIV.

The person being asked may not have tested recently. Or has been infected since the last test. Or is lying because they're afraid, or ashamed, or nervous, or don't feel safe being honest because of ramifications about which you have no idea. So it's ultimately a fairly useless exercise.

Thus, the ignorance and danger of The Stupid Question. And, because it is asked fairly exclusively by people who believe themselves to be HIV negative, it sets up an "Us vs. Them" mentality. Positive vs. Negative. Clean vs. Dirty.

Credit: The Stigma Project.

Credit: The Stigma Project.

"They don't mean any harm," you may be thinking. Well, words have meaning, my friend. The ignorance evident in The Stupid Question makes it no less offensive. While the intent may be harmless, is does do harm to people with HIV by increasing stigma and driving a further wedge between HIV positive and negative people. Like it or not, it is an assessment of the sexual viability of someone, and by extension, their "worthiness" as a human being.

In my more hedonistic days -- which admittedly were not exactly long ago in a galaxy far, far away -- I was dumbstruck by the conversations I would have in gay public sex venues, even the most anonymous ones. "Are you clean?" would come the question by the gentleman who was fully prepared to engage in unsafe sex should my answer please him. "Really?" I would answer, "I mean, are you serious? You're going to take the word of someone in a dark room that you couldn't pick out of a lineup?" I would then explain, spoken at times through a three-inch hole in the wall, that if this question was his sole criteria, then he really needed to leave this place and go directly to an HIV and STD testing center. Post haste.

Can we please remove this insulting, dangerous and unproductive question from our lexicon?

There is an alternative to The Stupid Question. You can simply offer your HIV status and see if your partner does the same. If he does not or you don't like the answer, it is your right to decline having sex. It is not your right to berate them for their response. Whatever the case, if you are trying to remain negative then sex with someone you don't know well should only include low-risk activities. If the relationship progresses, you can offer to get tested together and be present for the test results of one another. And that is the alternative to The Stupid Question.

An interesting social marketing campaign has been created by a new organization known as The Stigma Project, which aims to reduce stigma by calling out questions like "Are You Clean?" I appreciate its mission "... to lower the HIV infection rate by defeating the stigma that strengthens it." If nothing else, it has instigated a dialogue by addressing some of the misconceptions and clumsy thinking that stigmatizes people with HIV.

Credit: The Stigma Project.

Credit: The Stigma Project.

The environment we have created with questions like this one has implications beyond mere social awkwardness. It has bled into our criminal justice system. Laws now on the books are being used against people with HIV who don't disclose their status to sex partners -- even when they are engaged in safe sex, used a condom, and no transmission occurred. The prosecutions are being conducted in a world in which disclosing your status -- admitting you are "not clean" -- has become increasingly difficult to do because of the very stigma generated by things like The Stupid Question.

To learn more about how criminalization has become a Kafkaesque nightmare for many people, check out some new addictions to the video library for the new organization The SERO Project, the brainchild of activist Sean Strub that is directly addressing HIV criminalization.

If you really want to be heard and make a contribution to this dialogue, I strongly urge you to take a few minutes and answer The SERO Project's new survey that gauges your attitudes about when and whether people should disclose their HIV status. Even (and perhaps especially) if your views run counter to mine, your input is most welcome and extremely valuable.

Finally, National HIV Testing Day is next week on June 27th. If you're reading this after that day, please replace it with any date in the next month. Because the funny thing about HIV-negative test results is that they have a very short shelf life.

Last year I produced a short video, "In Praise of HIV Negative Gay Men," because as an HIV positive man I feel more of a license to say things freely, such as what an accomplishment it is for a sexually active gay man to remain negative. And it was meant with all sincerity (as with all my videos, be my guest to re-post). Alas, it's awfully tough to heap praise toward one side of the "viral divide" without offending the other, and the video was received with decidedly mixed reviews. Some people thought my delivery was deliberately sarcastic. Or demeaning to those who were positive.

While I admit my theatrical presentation could possibly be misconstrued, I do find it interesting how people project their own attitudes onto what they view, particularly when it comes to HIV status. People are touchy. You know, like when they get asked The Stupid Question. At any rate, check out the video, clear your mind, remember I'm actually a totally sweet guy, and see how the message strikes you.

"Are You Clean?" meanwhile, isn't a message with value in any context. As a matter of fact, it's downright filthy.

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Adapted from:
My Fabulous Disease

More From This Resource Center

Undetectable Viral Load and HIV Prevention: What Do Gay and Bi Men Need to Know?

Do HIV-Negative Gay Men Need Condoms if They're on PrEP? Here's What I Tell My Patients

This article was provided by TheBody.
See Also
More Viewpoints Related to HIV/AIDS Among Gay Men

Reader Comments:

Comment by: Anonymous Mon., Nov. 5, 2012 at 4:20 pm UTC
I'm gay and have hiv, I wish I were dead.
Reply to this comment

Comment by: jim (boston) Sun., Sep. 30, 2012 at 1:55 pm UTC
Amazing isn't it. After all these years there is actually more discrimination and ignorance regarding HIV then there was 10 or 15 years ago. Much to my surprise I find that gay people are much more likely to shun me because of my status than straights are.
Reply to this comment

Comment by: Phil K (West Orange, New Jersey) Thu., Sep. 27, 2012 at 8:51 am UTC
"are you clean" is a baffling question that annoys me since it is so imprecise and insulting. Equally as offensive is "drug and disease free" implying that if you smoke pot your an addict and if you are HIV+ you are diseased. Such moral certitude is offensive and bad for my immune system.
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Comment by: David S (Jackson Heights, NY) Wed., Sep. 26, 2012 at 4:58 pm UTC
I love looking at Craigslist with no inclination to join in the fun... I've been positive for over 20 and I swear I thought for a while that "Being Clean" meant you had a enema before you showed up... Oh silly me and the scary comformation that saying your "clean" means your negative
Reply to this comment

Comment by: Chris (Indianapolis, IN) Wed., Sep. 26, 2012 at 4:02 pm UTC
Finally nice to see a commentary on this topic. My close friend and I have been talking about this very issue for a long time.
Reply to this comment

Comment by: tomchicago01 (Chicago IL) Wed., Sep. 26, 2012 at 1:51 pm UTC
another offensive designation is DDF. Disease and Drug Free. Why are they linked? It is a phobic term that serves only to stigmatize the respondent.
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Comment by: jack (washington, DC) Wed., Sep. 26, 2012 at 1:34 pm UTC
this is the kind of stuff that needs to be published to mainstream media. the "are you clean?" question is excessively prevalent in online hook up sites. and I have seen MANY people be ok with barebacking once someone say yes, even if the person has lied and actually have some STD. reason being is barebacking can get addictive...the more primal the sex, the better the kick. eventually people stop asking at all...
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Comment by: Rob V (East Hartford, CT) Wed., Sep. 26, 2012 at 1:05 pm UTC
While I completely understand and agree with the viewpoint expressed here, as a man who tested poz march 2005... We need to encourage more open dialogue between people regarding their status, we need to encourage information exchange to help lesson the stigma associated with bring positive but we also NEED to make sure that we don't persecute those who use the terms "dirty" or "clean". While those terms may be offensive considering that they are so commonplace we can't do anything but educate them. The safest thing I've seen is the prejudice in the gay community as well as the sometimes blasť attitude I've encountered due to the illness being "manageable". It is an interesting dichotomy and contrast in current attitudes. I for one am one of those who hides my status (at work) due to fear of mistreatment and I'm looking forward to the day when I don't have to be afraid.
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Comment by: Anonymous Wed., Sep. 26, 2012 at 12:59 pm UTC
Thank you, Thank you ! My answer to that ? I wiped my ass last week ,does that define clean for you, then walk away ( Betty Davis like ) Hugs to you
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Comment by: Roy (South Carolina) Wed., Sep. 26, 2012 at 12:39 pm UTC
Asking "are you clean?" means "are you used up yet?"
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Comment by: John James (Philadelphia) Wed., Sep. 26, 2012 at 12:20 pm UTC
The Gay community is the most hypocritical in the world. While we march and demand equality with the straight world, we have divided outselves into 2 camps: poz and neg. The negative group wants nothing to do with the poz group. They shun us sexually when they know, yet will have undafe sex when told a person is neg. They spend and inordinate amount of time dishing those they know are positive. You can't be in a gay environment today without hearing someone say "did you hear about so and so...." This is disgusting and makes me want nothing to do with these people. Their nasty attitude also gives me the ability to lie about my status because I have no respect for them just as they have no respect for me. We want respect from the straight world yet have no respect for each other. What a hypocritical joke the gay "community" is.
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Comment by: Dave (New York) Wed., Sep. 26, 2012 at 11:42 am UTC
KUDOS to you Mark...I hate that question, and I generally Reply with one of your suggestions.
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Comment by: Juan (Spain) Mon., Jul. 9, 2012 at 8:10 pm UTC
Thank you, thank you, and thank you, I missed you.
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Comment by: arlene (new bedford ma) Mon., Jul. 2, 2012 at 10:37 pm UTC
i had 2 brothers who died from was horrific for my family..on my facebook page i always gather info on hiv and aids so that others such as teenagers can learn. i have a 15 yr old son and explain to him about hiv and isnt over..some people think so...i admire you all and thank you
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Comment by: Barry (CA) Mon., Jul. 2, 2012 at 11:31 am UTC
Hilarious Mark! But very true!
Aren't we all "dirty" "unclean" "sinful" in some form or fashion? I hate when others like to point it out and remind me of it though... :(
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Comment by: Methe (Cologne, Germany) Mon., Jul. 2, 2012 at 9:56 am UTC
You missed mentioning one simple obvious answer to the Stupid Question: the truth. If I am clean I answer yes, if i am not I answer no. If THEY mistake a "yes" for "I am HIV-negative" and thus dont insist on a condom, THEY BROUGHT IT TO THEMSELVES. It's called "natural selection".
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Replies to this comment:
Comment by: John James (Philadelphia) Wed., Sep. 26, 2012 at 12:23 pm UTC
I couldn't agree more and I act as you do.
Comment by: jim (boston) Sun., Sep. 30, 2012 at 1:41 pm UTC
Are you kidding me? I'm sorry to be trite about this, but two wrongs have never made a right. I have been living with HIV since 1988 and my number one rule is that the virus stops with me. I love sex and I love to play, but it is my responsibility to use a condom unless the other person is also poz and we have mutually agreed on it. Your attitude that if someone asks you the wrong question it's alright to bareback and potentially infect them is vile and simply makes life difficult for every other person who is trying to live responsibly with HIV. If anyone asks me if I'm clean I feel justified in climbing up on my soapbox and giving them my lecture on the ugliness of their question, but there is no justification for intentionally putting another person at such risk of contracting this disease.

Comment by: Steve (New Jersey) Sun., Jul. 1, 2012 at 9:48 pm UTC
the reason they ask "are you clean" is because they want to have un-protective just helps them justify their "raw fantasy"
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Comment by: Anonymous (Puerto Rico) Fri., Jun. 29, 2012 at 11:57 am UTC
Guess I understand it, even if I do not like it, it is human nature to be scared, why risk having to live with HIV and all the destruction it brings along to the life of a person, when you can avoid it and there are so many HIV negative options out there? But of course, the logic is flawed as the writer states in that the question and the answer just provide the self perceived negative person with a false sense of security. And the term is a real destroyer for the already weakened self esteem of the HIV positive person. I no longer enter dating or meeting places in the internet. It is hard enough as it is to have to organize your daily life around pills to stay alive and the necessity in making any decision, professional in particular, of making the pills and the access to them come first, even topping professional satisfaction or self realization. In that scenario, I do not need to be reminded too that the prevailing perception that I am "damaged goods" or "dangerous" or "undesirable" as evidenced by the "stay out" signs posted on so many of the profiles in dating places and the lack of response to the profile of the openly HIV positive. My plate is overflowing already. Going willingly to get hit in the face with my illness by another guy is like looking for someone to batter you. No way.
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Comment by: Philip M. K. (West Orange, New Jersey) Fri., Jun. 29, 2012 at 10:00 am UTC
I couldn't agree more! Clean is not even the right question. Of course, we are clean, but as you suggest the opposite is what is implied....dirty ='s Poz. Worse is disease free. So hurtful. We are now diseased as well. d/d free. If we smoke pot are we druggies? Are we diseased if Poz? I don't really think so.
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Comment by: Rosetta M. (Buffalo, NY) Fri., Jun. 29, 2012 at 9:05 am UTC
I feel the same and it applies to recovery also...I always hated the if a person is in recovery they have "clean time" or they have are clean just for today....not encouraging to those struggling and you know we internalize this becomes self fulfilling...the power of life and death is in the tounge...stop killin people.....
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Comment by: Yewie (Perth, W. Australia) Fri., Jun. 29, 2012 at 12:13 am UTC
Great article. I see it quite a lot here and get on my soapbox with some frequency.
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Comment by: Brian (Toronto, Canada) Thu., Jun. 28, 2012 at 7:37 pm UTC
So far, I have not been asked that -- although I've been given "dirty" looks by people (usually righteous religious types) who assume that because I'm HIV+, I must be disgusting. But, the actual words have not been delivered, yet!
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Comment by: RR (FTL FLA) Thu., Jun. 28, 2012 at 7:07 pm UTC
I always thought "are you clean" meant they wanted to know if my rectum has been properly cleaned for anal intercourse, and "are you poz or neg" meant they wanted to know my status.
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Comment by: Phillip (Myrtle Beach) Thu., Jun. 28, 2012 at 4:44 pm UTC
As much as you can say, if someone is HIV +, and they are on a web-stie, a hook-up site, then they have every obligation to say or state that they are poz....a lot of people either ignore the fact that they are poz, or they are willing to fool people trying to pretend that they are negative, when in fact, they are poz. Say what you will, who wants to become poz....from stupid jerk that will not admit, or pretend that they are poz. Am I suppposed to guess, take the chances....damn you.....when someone says like...." Anything goes". So I say: A poz. person has every obligation to state the facts.....and go from there.
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Replies to this comment:
Comment by: arlene (new bedford ma) Mon., Jul. 2, 2012 at 10:51 pm UTC
i feel that anyone who is hiv-neg should also be responsible for themselves...ive had 2 brothers who died w/aids when the epedemic broke in 80s...i wish they were here now w/all the advancement now in health care..god bless!
Comment by: jim (boston) Sun., Sep. 30, 2012 at 1:48 pm UTC
You're right those of us who are poz have a duty to inform anyone we are going to have sex with. However, those who are negative also need to be responsible for their own behavior and ask the question and if you are too frightened to engage in safer sex with someone who is poz then you certainly shouldn't be barebacking with strangers. However, this article wasn't about disclosure. It was about the terminology being used to divide us up and label some of us as clean and others as unclean.

Comment by: eric (san francisco) Thu., Jun. 28, 2012 at 2:39 pm UTC
great article!
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Comment by: David S. (Jackson Heights, NY) Thu., Jun. 28, 2012 at 2:20 pm UTC
Silly me... Not to make light of the subject... At first seeing the "are you clean" reference I thought they meant "make sure you have an enema" before you arrive... Excellent article and comments on the subject...
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Comment by: Johan (Maryland) Thu., Jun. 28, 2012 at 1:09 pm UTC
Thanks for this video. I think you are right. There is so much ignorance about HIV. The stupid questions has been come only part of the etiquette, when it comes to having sex, dating or friendships. I feel like it is demeaning and you are being categorized by the clean vs. dirty gay men. The cycle continues to build. Its a human karma. We are discriminated within a society because we are gay and continue to discriminate among ourselves for being dirty, or unworthy. Aren't we all of us already at some point considered unworthy? Then we project and place unworthiness onto other people. How sad. When will we learn?
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Comment by: Penny A. (New York) Tue., Jun. 26, 2012 at 1:38 pm UTC
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