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Adventures in Online Cruising

Spring/Summer 2012

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Adventures in Online Cruising

Today, over 30 states in the U.S. make it a crime not to disclose one's HIV-positive status in certain sexual situations. In some of these states, a conviction will also place that person on a sex offender registry -- sometimes for life. This requires people to disclose their status as sex offenders every time they look for housing or employment or move into a new neighborhood. Legal scholar J.J. Prescott once noted that requiring people to disclose their sex offender status for the rest of their lives feels a lot like prison, and may actually make them more secretive than open.

Despite what you may have heard, laws requiring HIV disclosure during a sexual encounter are not enacted with the goals of sharing facts and promoting safer sex. They are designed to confuse facts and make it almost impossible that any sex act will happen at all, be it safe, unsafe, or unsure. Legally requiring HIV disclosure in laws ignores the facts about actual risks of transmission. And because it is almost impossible to become or stay friends with someone who has rejected you, these laws also ruin chances for some very creative kinds of relationships that might happen after sex, or even after just talking about sex.


One Man's Story

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I once had an exchange of emails with a guy in Los Angeles whose online profile looked interesting. The conversation was going well, and we were about to make dinner plans to see if we would also click in person. Prior to this, we talked about what we were "into", as the phrase goes. We agreed that there would be no unsafe stuff and then made a list of fun things to do if we hit it off. This sort of "letter to Santa" may sound like the typical gay, cut-to-the-chase attitude that so many straight people pretend to find disgusting (but secretly want). In my case, though, coming up with a plan of action is also a way to make sure that I will have no legal responsibility to disclose my HIV status if I don't want to. Or, if I do want to disclose, to increase the chances that the other guy will still want to play.

This time, though, I was hoping for something more than just a hook-up. Maybe a little dating and hanging out, too. And I didn't want to risk any future possibilities by seeming less than honest at the start. This is one of the cruelest things about HIV disclosure. Either you say something and run the risk of killing a sexual encounter, or you keep quiet and just get together with the guy, probably killing the chances of turning a one-time thing into a more lasting relationship or even a friendship.

Anyway, this guy didn't sound all that great, so I told myself I wouldn't be losing that much if I told him that I had HIV. Plus, he told me he had attended medical school. So before we even met, I told him. I reminded him that we had decided to be safe and just to be, well, safe, I explained what having an undetectable viral load means in terms of risk. His reply was, "Hey David, thanks for your honesty. Unfortunately, I have to say that I would be uncomfortable playing. I know that safe play would most likely prevent anything. However, being a healthcare professional, I know that anything is possible. I apologize for being very shallow about this, but it's not something I am willing to risk. I hope you understand."

In all fairness, it is true that no matter what you list in your "letter to Santa" you can always end up with a surprise in your stocking. I found myself so hurt by this guy's rejection! It felt like intense discrimination against me, my body, my life, and my ... everything! It killed my cruising (and more) for a long and painful time. Although he didn't use the phrase, his need to be on the safe side actually separated us into two sides, placing himself on the safe side and me on the unsafe, automatically.


Understanding?

Especially irritating is that people who reject you on a completely irrational basis will often ask for your understanding. Clearly, they use the word to mean something like compassion or sympathy, as if they were the victims of your intolerance. But they hope nonetheless to capitalize on the rational sense of the term, and apply its legitimatizing power beyond the realm of reason. To describe an emotion as "understandable" seeks to make it reasonable. In the end, I replied "No, I can't say that I understand, but I'm getting used to people's unfounded fears." Even more passive- aggressively, I added, "If anything, I appreciate the fact that you bothered to reply. Most people don't." Talk about a back-handed compliment. And because I really couldn't let him off so easily, I finished with the rather devious send-off, "Good luck trusting future partners who tell you they're not HIV positive."

Most people who claim that they will not have sex with HIV-positive people have actually done so. This is because some people choose not to, or are afraid to, disclose their status. Or, as is the case with many people who are HIV positive, they just don't know. About 21% of people with HIV in the U.S. are unaware of their infection, and a 2006 study estimated that 54% of all new infections come from that group.

Often, the topic isn't discussed at all. For example, in online ads the shorthand DDF, for "drug and disease-free", may be used to show that someone claims to be HIV negative and expects others to be as well. More and more online profiles now include the date of the person's last negative test results. It would be interesting to ask if the date refers to the day the blood was drawn or when they received the results. I guess they have all decided to trust each other to know their status and tell the truth.

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This article was provided by ACRIA and GMHC. It is a part of the publication Achieve. Visit ACRIA's website and GMHC's website to find out more about their activities, publications and services.
 
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