Adventures in Online Cruising
HIV- UB 2
The practice of announcing and dating negative test results may have started because it makes it seem as if the claim can be backed up by evidence. Yet it is just as pointless as claiming to be DDF. We know that HIV transmission is most likely when the viral load is especially high. This happens twice in the entire course of the disease -- when one is nearing death (and unlikely to be sexually active) and immediately after infection (when one is sexually active) and when the commonly used test (which measures antibodies to the virus rather than the virus itself) will come out negative. So when people tell you that they are HIV negative as of this morning, it could just as well mean that they are in fact highly infectious.
Simply said, unless someone has tested negative three months after the last sexual activity and has not had sex since the test, you just can't be absolutely sure. Of course, people can always decide to stick to safer sexual activities. But in that case, why would they need to know their partner's HIV status in the first place?
HIV disclosure, whether required by law or expected as an ethical matter, is part of a system of prevention and depends on the idea of individual responsibility. But these conversations are often based on mistaken beliefs about risk. So why are they still expected? Do people really believe in the power of this system?
I once called a guy on what seemed to me an odd contradiction in his online profile. To the question of whether he practiced safer sex (a far more useful bit of information than HIV status) he had selected "Always". Yet on the list of "Things I'm into" he included "Barebacking". This is in fact a very common occurrence. When I asked what he meant, he explained, "When the guy is 100% percent sure he's clean I don't use condoms, but otherwise I always do." Any sign of irritation or baff lement on my part could have jeopardized the hook-up so I kept quiet. After asking more questions, I came to the conclusion that certain people do not understood barebacking to be inherently risky. To them, it all depends on the other guy's status. That seems logical, but is the internet in general, and cruising sites in particular, a place to turn to when looking for the truth? The reality is that a negative status is often far less certain than a positive one.
But who really cares if what people write in their online profiles sounds dumb or even AIDS-phobic as long as we all get laid, right? Should we take such ignorance and rudeness as outright rejections? Maybe not. What these online cruisers really offer to other cruisers, whether they mean to or not, is the possibility to read written mentions of HIV as unwritten invitations not to care about it. But to say in an online profile that you don't really care about a partner's HIV status may drive some potential playmates away because they will assume you're HIV positive yourself and are attracting others for the same reason. To say you are HIV negative or to request an HIVnegative partner when you really don't believe what a potential hook-up says could mean that you're using the system to fight the structures that oppress us.
In summary, there are five basic reasons that questioning partners about HIV status before casual sex is not the right approach:
- The information is useless. A stranger has little incentive to be honest with another stranger, and since no emotional bond exists, there may be no concern for the other's well-being.
- They may not know they have HIV. Even if the person is concerned for your safety, over half of all new infections may come from people who do not know they have HIV. And even if they claim a recent negative test, they could be in the process of seroconverting, in which case their HIV viral load would be extremely high.
- It could lead to greater risk. Once you accept the assumption that someone is negative, you may do things that you feel are unsafe. Particularly in the heat of passion, very risky behaviors like unprotected anal sex may be practiced because the partners believe they are both negative. This is a particular problem in new relationships, in which the condoms often come off quickly because both partners think they are negative. Many people have acquired HIV in this scenario, often because the positive partner did not know he had HIV.
- It really shouldn't matter. It's actually quite easy to prevent HIV transmission during sex, by taking some simple precautions (such as knowing how to use a condom correctly or avoiding high-risk behaviors like anal sex). If the person with HIV has an undetectable viral load and uses a condom, the chance of transmission is nonexistent.
- It encourages nondisclosure. People with HIV learn very quickly that disclosing will limit their chances of casual sex and will often lead to painful rejection. Every time negative people reject positive people, they train them not to disclose.
To return to the doctor from L.A., he never bothered to ask my status and was willing to play safely with someone without any mention of HIV. Yet he couldn't bring himself to do it once he knew. In the end, it wasn't the possibility of HIV itself that was the problem, nor even a lack of knowledge about the risks of transmission and how to minimize them. The problem was -- as always seems to be the case in any don't-ask-don't-tell situation -- knowledge itself.
Perhaps one solution to the problem of online attempts at serosorting is for hook-up sites to stop including that field in their sign-up pages. People can add the info if they choose, but including it in a menu of profile choices makes it seem as reliable as age, weight, or hair color (and of course, people never lie about those traits online). Barring that, a warning attached to each profile about the dangers of basing sexual decisions on a person's claimed status might at least alert users to the dangers of trusting such info. It might even encourage more people with HIV to disclose before sex.
David Caron is Professor of French and Women's Studies at the University of Michigan. His forthcoming book is tentatively titled: Sharing HIV: Tact, Contact, and Disclosure.
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