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When Opposites Attract

May 2000

A note from The field of medicine is constantly evolving. As a result, parts of this article may be outdated. Please keep this in mind, and be sure to visit other parts of our site for more recent information!

It happens every day. Somewhere, an HIV-positive person has unsafe sex.

Maybe he assumes his partner is positive, also. Maybe he feels his partner should look out for him or herself. Maybe he doesn't care.

At the very least, unprotected sex is risky in this age of syphilis outbreaks and other ever-present sexually transmitted diseases. Those diseases are potentially more threatening to HIV-positive people than they are to those who are not infected with HIV. Then there is the theoretical danger of re-infection with a new and possibly more virulent strain of HIV.

Why then is anybody -- HIV-positive or HIV-negative -- engaging in unprotected, "bareback" sex?


Resurgence in Bareback Sex

"There's a false sense of security from the medications," says Dr. Timothy Fishback, M.D. He feels the myth that AIDS is no longer fatal, along with destructive behaviors caused by self-loathing, are responsible for a resurgence of bareback sex.

The West Hollywood psychiatrist, who counts many HIV-positive men and sexual compulsives among his patients, says honesty is as scarce as bright light in sex clubs and bathhouses.

"I have the good fortune to be in a private situation where people are assured of confidentiality and they tell me the truth," says Fishback. "The majority of my patients say they're not telling the truth about their HIV status. Or they are telling the truth and engaging in unsafe sex anyway.

"There's no one reason. Someone could be irresponsible, someone could be sociopathic and not care about anybody. Someone could be going through a phase where they're really angry, and it's misdirected anger at a stranger."

The tall, youthful doctor looks away and shakes his head slowly, as he talks about cases close to his heart. "I have a friend in New York who's been with his lover for 12 years. He still hasn't told him he's positive. It blows my mind."

"I have patients who have an open relationship, or maybe one is cheating on the other, and they're not talking about it, they're not being tested, they don't want to talk about it. They're in complete denial."

Shared Responsibility

On a personal level, Fishback feels safe sex is the equal responsibility of both partners, a feeling shared by most of the 30 HIV-positive individuals recently surveyed for this article.

Twenty-seven of those who responded feel safe sex is the responsibility of both partners, regardless of HIV status. Three feel the HIV-positive partner is primarily responsible for safe sex and disclosure.

Dan Nickerson follows a "do ask, do tell" policy.

"Personally, I came to the conclusion I should disclose," he says, "and if they ask me, 'are you HIV positive?' I would tell them. I certainly wouldn't lie."

Nickerson, a supervisor of Case Management Services at AIDS Project Los Angeles, calls himself "an older guy -- past 40." Those years have given him a keen understanding of human nature. He knows the price of disclosure, but feels the price of dishonesty and denial is far higher.

"There's a lot of stigma attached to this infection, and that's very real," says Nickerson, HIV positive for more than a decade. "It's hurtful on some level. But people will interact with you differently if they think you're negative. They'll take more chances."

Withholding HIV Status Criticized

Rebekka Armstrong is trying to convince people not to take those chances. A longtime survivor of HIV, the former Playboy model and actress talks frankly about safe sex to groups, including college fraternities. When asked about HIV positive individuals who don't disclose their status, her reaction is characteristically blunt.

"I think that's fucked up," she says. "There's all this complacency, but you have to protect yourself. That's the bottom line."

Like Nickerson, Armstrong is up-front about her HIV status, especially with potential sexual partners. For both, those are personal policies that will ultimately help slow the spread of HIV infection. What's alarming is that, by all indications, Dan and Rebekka may not be in the majority.

Author Ron Mackovich thanks Jeff Bailey of, for conducting the survey cited in this article.

This article has been reprinted at The Body with the permission of AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA).

A note from The field of medicine is constantly evolving. As a result, parts of this article may be outdated. Please keep this in mind, and be sure to visit other parts of our site for more recent information!

This article was provided by AIDS Project Los Angeles. It is a part of the publication Positive Living.
See Also's Just Diagnosed Resource Center
Telling Others You're HIV Positive
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