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What If HIV Had Never Happened?

By Dave R.

August 14, 2013

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'What ifs ...' are a glass half empty, late night go-to for many a positive person, but of course each 'what if' is really only a salve for the soul; it doesn't provide answers. They're essentially self-pity mechanisms but end up only reminding you of wrong turnings and mistakes made. We've all been there though and many people will have asked themselves at least once. What if HIV never existed? How would my life look now? Irrespective of its relevance to your personal situation, it's an interesting conundrum and one which can certainly make you think.

So, what if ... HIV really had never happened?

To begin with, you have to look back to the last point in time before you were diagnosed. I suppose that really depends on whether you are 'PH' or 'PrH' (well, they're giving acronyms to everything else: Post-Highly Active Retroviral Therapy (HAART) or Pre-HAART). Then again, if you are Post-HAART and HIV has never happened then you disappear from the time-space continuum anyway; so maybe it's better to concentrate on people who were infected before HAART came along.

Then you have to ask the question: Would the party have just continued deep into the 21st century because make no mistake, there was a no-holds barred, all you can eat party, from the late '60s until HIV came along and spoiled the fun.

"Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming -- WOW -- What a Ride!"

Attributed to Bill McKenna (motorcycle rider), Anonymous and a Nissan ad. There are less polite versions!

The above is a proclamation that appears on so many internet profiles. It reflects both the pre-HIV joy in gay sexual liberation and the post-HIV determination to live life to the full anyway. It more or less insists that "what ifs" are a waste of energy and HIV should only be seen as an impediment and not a road block. I wonder though how many people truly believe their own war cry. It reeks of bravado rather than reality.

Of course, the reason why LGBT people were partying to excess was due to the social and sexual revolutions begun in the 1960s. It was the newly-grown up, post-war generation who, sickened by wars and the ever present threat of nuclear extinction, created women's lib, women's contraception (the Pill), gay lib and black power amongst other forms of emancipation for minorities. People had had enough of the sexual repression and dourness of the '50s and spontaneously spoke out for the freedom to do what you wanted with your own body. It was a liberating feeling and you felt immortal.

I was 18 in 1968 and believe me, although not everybody enjoyed sexual freedom (my theory being that those who were cramped by convention, now run the political and corporate worlds), millions did, myself included. Parents, puritans and Popes were shocked rigid but nobody really believed Pandora's Box could be closed again. It was plus/minus a decade where sexuality was explored and re-invented and the morals and social restrictions of previous generations were discarded. Nothing new in this really; if you look back through human history, it has happened again and again before repression returned to spoil the fun.

However, not repression but HIV/AIDS arrived and parents, preachers and politicians did their "I told you so" dances right down the aisles.

Conspiracy theorists point to the arrival of HIV as being anything but accidental and it's wickedly tempting to think that the plague was brought about by deliberate "intervention" but of course until a new Edward Snowden pops up with shocking revelations, there's not a shred of evidence. Politicians, church leaders and traditionalists may have wanted to invent a means of stopping the LGBT sexual revolution in its tracks but even a born cynic like me can't imagine that the men in grey suits actually employed chemical warfare to root us out; they wouldn't ... right?

So looking at that point in history before patient zero, what would have happened if HIV had never emerged? Would something else equally devastating have taken its place?

To evaluate that possibility, you really have to look back at the history of sexually transmitted diseases. If humanity has a record of deadly, sexual viruses or bacterial infection, then you might reasonably assume that if it hadn't been HIV then it would have been something else. The thing is, that HIV is actually the first known deadly virus to be transmitted sexually and other viral STDs (Hepatitis A, B, C; Herpes, HPV and Human T-lymphotropic virus Type 1 (HTLV 1) linked to simian HIV strains) are also relatively modern. That's not to say that they definitely haven't appeared earlier in human history; only modern diagnosis techniques have been able to identify viruses with any degree of certainty, so they just may not have been recognized as viral infections in the past. We also know that HIV isn't the first deadly STD. Syphilis often proved to be a slow killer before the discovery of antibiotics and what's more, it was easily passed on from parent to child. Syphilis however, is caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum and is not a virus.

Looking back at the sexual medical history of mankind, it can be divided roughly into three sections:

  • In ancient times, if sexual diseases existed and were treated, any knowledge has been lost or was never recorded.
  • Then for 500 or more years, sexual diseases were recognized but as nothing could be done about them, they were feared and treated ad hoc often with some degree of unpleasantness and a definite social stigma attached. Syphilis was widely reported in Europe when there seemed to be a continent-wide epidemic in the early 1500s. It was widely referred to as the Pox. However, even in ancient times, cultures from around the world reported the incidence of syphilis but where and how it emerged is not known. Syphilis and gonorrhea were even thought to be one disease. It was only in the early 20th century, when the different microorganisms were identified under microscopes and reliable diagnostic tests were developed that progress began in treating the two separately. One slightly amusing fact about syphilis, or "the great pox" is that every country blamed each other for its arrival. In the middle Ages, the English called it names like; like "French pox." The French blamed the Italians and called it the "Neapolitan itch." The Italians blamed the Portuguese; the Portuguese accused the Spanish; the Germans fingered the Poles. Since then, prostitutes from Africa, East Europeans, Mexicans, and of course homosexuals have all shouldered the blame for the spread of syphilis and then HIV.
  • The 20th Century brought definite medical breakthroughs, largely thanks to the discovery of antibiotics and accurate diagnosis. However, despite the advances of the last century, we can cure STDs caused by bacteria, parasites and fungi but we can't cure STDs caused by viruses! Some bacteria though, can kill you if left untreated and some complications of other STDs can be very serious. Making sure that there is universal antibiotic treatment available, especially in the Third World, will help prevent the emergence of new and resistant strains.

The other main viral STD problems we face today are Hepatitis, Herpes and HPV (human papilloma virus). Herpes simplex, which is responsible for genital herpes, has only really been a widespread problem since the 1960's. Again, that's as far as is known; it's perfectly possible that it has existed for hundreds of years but was identified with other sexual diseases. It was certainly mentioned by a French doctor in 1736, and in the 19th century, it was often seen as a side effect of syphilis or gonorrhea.

Similarly, it's difficult to imagine that HPV, (responsible for genital warts and now linked to genital cancers) has only emerged in the 20th century. It seems logical to assume that advances in science have resulted in its identification as a separate viral sexual problem. HPV also has various different forms and only the most modern techniques can diagnose them and their consequences.

Once again, modern science has been able to identify the different strains of hepatitis and diagnose them as viral, although hepatitis as a disease has long been recognized. Certainly the consequences and potential threats of hepatitis are now much better appreciated than a century ago.

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Reader Comments:

Comment by: Gary (Evansville Indiana) Thu., Aug. 22, 2013 at 6:14 am UTC
What Loreen says is true, I feel really guilty about it but I'm also glad HIV happened in a way. It made me the person I am now. I had to care for my partner until he died and was in a group of friends where half were lost to HIV. That made me grow up so fast and taught me things Id never have learned otherwise. So yep, I wish it hadn't happened but it made me really appreciate what life is
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Comment by: Loreen (Las Vegas) Mon., Aug. 19, 2013 at 3:31 am UTC
I think you have made a lot of interesting points and I'm glad you wrote this, it made me wonder what I thought about HIV. It may sound terrible but I'm actually glad HIV came along because it saved my son from dying. He was into drugs and was stealing to pay for his habit. He was always angry and he wasn't the same son any more who I'd had such a loving relationship with. When he was infected with HIV and survived he became a different person and turned his life right around. I got my son back and know he can live a normal life so stupid as it sounds, if HIV hadn't happened I don't think he'd be around any more.
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Comment by: Don S. (Los Angeles) Fri., Aug. 16, 2013 at 1:11 am UTC
CONTINUED: Not one single man I knew from those days is here anymore. But I am. What did it all mean? what really happened? what changed? The only difference between then and now that I can see (besides the parts of town Gay men used to dominate) is that everyone is lots younger—because people my age are nowhere to be found, or else such a rarity one should win a prize for spotting one of us! One reads of the first manifestation of Bubonic Plague in the Western world in the mid-14th century, and how as much as ½ of the total population of Europe succumbed to a disease even more horrifying and ugly than AIDS. But then one goes on to read and notes that less than 10 years later, life was being lived by the survivors in nearly the same manner as before. The economy changed, religion changed a tiny bit, the Plague had some effect on society, but basically, life went on. And although I don’t agree with everything he said, I do agree with Dave R. when he postulates that perhaps “HIV is actually only a blip on the human timeline.” Rather like the Vietnam war (which I lived through but few of my (young) friends remember of have heard much about). Obviously it had no effect on Washington or our nation’s ubiquitous hawkishness and fondness for foreign interventions. So I kind of suppose AIDS will be like that—a major, life-altering, consuming, scarring, horrific event that will ultimately be ours alone—property of us who “lived it.” And with so much else happening amongst our species on the face of this planet, it will be a marvel if AIDS even gets a sentence in tomorrow’s high-school text-books.
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Comment by: Don S. (Los Angeles) Fri., Aug. 16, 2013 at 1:10 am UTC
Dave R.’s comments were thought provoking. I wonder sometimes what life would be like if the scores and scores of dear beloved men lost during the Pandemic were still here. Men I had the closest possible friendships with, slept with, admired, looked up to, who were my teachers, mentors, guides, who’d been my lovers, who I compared my own progress at the gym to (and vice versa), who I actually thought would continue to own and run business I frequented, men I was to grow old with. Now they’ve all vanished. So often it seems my entire generation vanished except me and the (very few) survivors I only read about but don’t know and haven’t run into. I caught the virus in 1978 and of course had no inkling that whatever the really bad malady it took weeks to recover from (“flu” doesn’t hit in the Summer?) would still be dominating my life in 2013! One minute I was 24, with lots of friends and a future to look forward to, the next minute I was (am) 60, still waiting to “grow up.” Years upon years of attending memorial services for 3-5 loved ones every weekend, of becoming involved in volunteer work that demanded more emotional stability (or detachment?) than I was yet equipped to handle, years of being in physical proximity (holding a hand, having my head on a chest, holding a head in my lap) with a loved one as he passed. But meanwhile, with no reliable prospect of living another week, I attended orgies regularly, or threw them in my home (my upstairs master bedroom held 2 slings, a 12’x7’ chunk of exercise equipment, my big bed and three mattresses on the floor—in addition to video cams on tripods, a well-lit walk-in closet for those who needed to cut lines, or whatever—plus 25 invited guests for two nights) like there was no tomorrow.
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Comment by: Mary Scriver (Valier, Montana) Thu., Aug. 15, 2013 at 9:18 am UTC
I liked your 'what-if' article.
I'm just an old lady who has a lot of gay friends because I was in theatre classes in the long ago.
Here's something I haven't heard mentioned: those men who were so free with their bodies, running through the streets nude and on fire with eroticism, became tender nurses -- at least a lot of them did. They knew skin and mess and suffering and didn't shrink from it. Something like combat soldiers. They moved from eroticism to intimacy -- those who were tough enough -- and that's more valuable than all the "MadMen" on the planet.
I'm celibate, solitary, and preoccupied with other things, but I dearly love those tender men.
Prairie Mary
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HIV, Neuropathy and More: Avoiding Becoming a Nervous Wreck

Dave R.

Dave R.

English but living since 1986 in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. HIV+ since 2004 and a neuropathy patient since 2007. I've seen quite a bit, done quite a bit and bought quite a few t-shirts if you know what I mean; but all that baggage makes me what I am today: a better person I believe, despite it all.

Arriving on, originally, was the end result of getting neuropathy as a side effect of the medication, or the virus, or both. I found it such a vague disease and discovered very little information that wasn't commercially tinged, or scientifically impenetrable, so I decided to create a daily Blog and a website where practical information, hints, tips and experiences for patients could be gathered together in one place.

However, I was also given the chance to write about other aspects of living with HIV and have now contributed more articles about those than about neuropathy. That said, neuropathy remains my 'core subject' although one which unfortunately dominates both my life and that of many other HIV-positive people.

I'm not a doctor or qualified medical expert, just someone with neuropathy and HIV who has spent the last few years researching the illness and trying to create information sources for people who want to know more.

I also have my own personal website and write for

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