This Month in HIV: Sex and Dating When You're HIV Positive
My name is Bonnie Goldman and I'm editorial director of The Body. I'd like to welcome you to This Month in HIV. This month's subject? Dating when you're HIV positive. Dating when you're HIV negative is a challenge. Dating when you're HIV positive is doubly, maybe triply, so. After all, dating usually requires some strategizing. It's like a promotional campaign: You try to emphasize your strong points and play down any weaknesses.
What does this mean if you have HIV? How do you get back into the dating game after your diagnosis? How -- and more importantly, when -- do you tell someone you are dating that you are HIV positive? There are so many questions about sex, dating and HIV that the whole idea can seem overwhelming. That's why, today, we've brought together four people to help make sense of it all.
Our first guest is Perry Halkitis, Ph.D. Dr. Halkitis directs the Center for Health, Identity, Behavior and Prevention Studies at New York University. He is one of the United States' leading authorities on HIV prevention. His research examines the relationships between drug use, mental health, social issues and risky behavior. Welcome Perry!
Our next guest is Keith Green. Keith is an associate editor at Positively Aware and works as a community activist in Chicago, Ill. As an African-American gay man with HIV, Keith feels called to combat the virus in communities of color, especially among black gay men. He's 30 years old and single. His story and articles can be found on our site. Welcome Keith!
Our next guest is 24-year-old Nina Martinez. Nina was infected with HIV from a blood transfusion as an infant. Originally from Washington, D.C., she's currently at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., studying public health. Nina works for the Hope Clinic of the Emory Vaccine Center, where she helps educate the public about HIV vaccine trials. She's heterosexual and single. Welcome Nina!
Last, but not least, is David Salyer. David is an HIV-positive journalist, educator and activist living in Atlanta, Ga. He has developed and led safer sex and disclosure presentations and workshops for people with HIV since 1994. He's also a peer counselor. He's been writing for years about living with HIV and his wise and witty articles can be found on our our site. He's a 40-something gay, single man. Welcome David!
My first question is -- and I guess we'll start with you, David -- how did you get back into the dating game when you were first diagnosed?
David Salyer: Well, I can't say that it slowed me down. I was actually already dating somebody. I just went to him and said, "This is what's happened. I've tested positive." As it turned out, he got tested, and he was positive as well. I know he wasn't the person that infected me. So we just traveled down that road together, for six years.
After that, I left that relationship. So that's when I reentered the dating world again, and I have dated negative men and positive men. There are difficulties either way, really.
Keith, how did you get back into the dating game when you were first diagnosed? What were some of the issues for you?
Keith Green: I'm kind of with David. I never really slowed down. In the beginning, it was really difficult. It was very, very difficult in the beginning. I dated, and did not disclose. I'm bisexual, so I dated both men and women. One thing that happened was I feel I was pushed more towards being a gay man, if you will, because I found it a lot easier to disclose my status to other gay men, or other men, than I did to disclose to women.
It was really, really challenging in the beginning, until I really got comfortable with my own status, and with the fact that this was something I was going to have to live with and go through for the rest of my life.
Why do you think there is such a big difference between disclosing to men and to women? Keith Green: Well, because you can't disclose the HIV piece, really, without the question about sexuality coming up, especially for black women. I'm not sure what it is, and I can only speak for black women, but even my straight black female friends and my mother are all very, very ... you know, it's not even really about the HIV thing. It's knowing that the person that they are with, or about to engage in sexual activity with, has been with another man. There's something about that that does not sit well with black women.
"Disclosing my HIV status would mean disclosing that I also have sex with men, and that just became such a big challenge that I didn't, couldn't, deal with it at that time."
-- Keith Green
So it was more that disclosing my HIV status would mean disclosing that I also have sex with men, and that just became such a big challenge that I didn't, couldn't, deal with it at that time.
Perry Halkitis: I think, Keith, what you're saying is really great, and I think it points to one of the issues that we should probably talk about a little bit here. Which is, when we're talking about dating and being an HIV-positive person, HIV is not the only thing that's in the mix, right? There are issues of sexuality; there are issues of culture; there are issues of gender identity. All those things are difficult enough, for anybody, even without HIV. HIV is just another element in a very complex array of things that people have to balance.
I can't agree more. Nina, your situation is different from that of anyone else here. Because you always knew you were positive, when you began dating.
Nina Martinez: Yes. I was diagnosed when I was 8 years old, and as a result, I never learned to be uncomfortable with talking about my status, because you don't really ask an 8-year-old to keep a secret. And, because I didn't understand what HIV was, I just never learned to keep it a secret.
So I have always been very comfortable talking about my status, and I think that my comfortability makes it easier for people to be more at ease with my status.
I think -- especially when you're dating -- people can pick up on your insecurities, and if HIV is one of them, it makes it easier for them to kind of count you off the market. In terms of when I'm wanting to date, and things like that, the men in my life already know my status. So I feel like it's more my choice of whether to date them, rather than their choice of wanting to date me.
David Salyer: That's big.
How do they know your status already?
Nina Martinez: I think I bring it up casually in conversation. I think that's really important. Because if you just bring it out, point-blank, you might shock some people. But, generally, if people ask me where I work -- and I work at HIV vaccine trials -- it generally comes up as a side note, and people don't even think twice about what I've just said. It's a, "Wow. You wouldn't even know by looking at her." I have not really had a problem with that.
Do you have any terrific or any bad stories about disclosing?
Nina Martinez: Well, my first relationship ended with kind of a bang. He told me that I was going to kill everyone I ever loved. I'd definitely say that was quite the send off! But certainly, if somebody's going to tell me that, then that's somebody that I don't want to be with, anyway. But that was definitely very hard for me to take, because nobody had ever said anything like that to me before.
Did that have anything to do with HIV, or just anger about a breakup?
Nina Martinez: I think it was anger about the breakup, and it was kind of a way for him to tell me that nobody else would want me, that I was lucky that he wanted me, or something. I was 19 at the time that somebody said this to me. You know, you're going into your early 20s, and you're not really sure what you want. It's easier to settle with someone who will have you, and has had you, than to venture off. I think that was a large part of why I never moved on from that unhealthy relationship, why I stayed in it for two years -- because I didn't think anybody else would want me. It was pretty tough.
David, I know you have pretty funny stories about disclosing. You had written that you wanted to have a reality show about your dating experiences.
David Salyer: Really, honestly, I can't believe the Bravo network hasn't contacted me. Because I think that being gay and HIV positive, and being in your 40s ... I think there's a terrific reality show there. I've been single, now, five and a half years, so I have been on more than my fair share of dates.
And frankly, disclosing to people ... I think I have found the best way for me, personally. I was never really comfortable meeting guys in a bar and trying to have that conversation over loud disco music. So thank God for the Internet. Because now you can go online, and you can post a profile of yourself, with pictures, and you can write a paragraph. So right up there in the first paragraph about myself, I'm going to disclose that I'm HIV positive. And that tends to weed people out. If they can't deal with it, then they're really not going to contact you, and if they're okay with it, then they will.
What I get a lot of the time, actually, are responses from guys all over the country who will just say hello to me because I have my status right there in the profile. They'll tell me they are positive, but they are just not willing to put it in there. For some reason, they think it's so courageous of me just to be honest about it. I don't really see it that way. I just think it's what works for me. It's the way I live my life.
So, when I do go out on dates, typically they know already. It's been a long time since I showed up for a date and then had to disclose over coffee, or over dinner. But that has happened, and it's really funny.
The funniest story I can think of is, one time I was doing a workshop and there was a new volunteer who was working behind the scenes. I had done a safer sex presentation, and after this workshop, a guy came up to me and asked me out on a date. I said, "Sure." I just figured that he must have gotten that I was positive. But he didn't.
So there I was, on the date with him, and I had to disclose. He just ... he had this look on his face like it hadn't actually occurred to him. The funny thing was, I actually think he had pity sex with me later, just to kind of make me feel better about it. Then I never heard from him again.
So it was kind of funny. But, no. Typically they know already, and I don't have to disclose on a date. The most interesting conversation for me is when I go out with somebody who is HIV negative, and I just ask them point-blank, "Why would you be willing to go down this road with me?"
And what do they say?
David Salyer: Typically, I'll get a response that goes something like this: "Well, I've known people who were positive; it's just not a big deal for me."
"I've also heard that, especially amongst black men, that the pool of men to date is really small. So if you factor in the fact that possibly 46 percent of us, or one out of every two of us, is HIV positive, that makes the dating pool even smaller for somebody who is negative, who's looking for other negative men."
-- Keith Green
Keith Green: I've heard that one, too. I've also heard that, especially amongst black men, that the pool of men to date is really small. So if you factor in the fact that possibly 46 percent of us, or one out of every two of us, is HIV positive, that makes the dating pool even smaller for somebody who is negative, who's looking for other negative men. So I have heard people actually say, "Well, the dating pool is small, I can't afford to really exclude positive men," which is just an interesting statement for me, in and of itself.
Keith, have you had any interesting disclosure stories that you care to share?
Keith Green: Sure. Sure. The most interesting [one] was actually with a female. She was a friend of mine. We met and started this kind of friendship that had these kinds of undertones to it. One night, one thing led to another and we had sex. I didn't disclose. We used protection. I felt really, really terrible about it afterwards, and I disclosed to her.
She literally just freaked out. Freaked out! And this was somebody -- we had been building this friendship for probably almost a year, and I hadn't been able to tell her that I was positive. She knew that I was bisexual, but she didn't know that I was positive.
So, when I disclosed that to her, she just really, really ... It basically cost us, for some time, our friendship. It was a very long time before she would even speak to me again.
Rightfully so. She felt betrayed. She felt like we were friends. We had been building this friendship all this time. She felt I should have been able to discuss that with her, even before we decided to have sex -- which I probably should have. I just could not find the way to do it. I could not bring myself, for whatever reason, to do it.
How long ago was this?
Keith Green: This was in 2000.
Do things like that still occur? Or do you have rules about this now?
Keith Green: Oh, yeah. There are rules about this now. This is a totally different world at this point. I disclose. At the point that I think this may get serious, I'm going to disclose. So if it's not sexual, if we're talking, dating, considering ... look, this is who I am.
"When you've already entered the bedroom and you're starting to take your clothes off, to me that's just not the time to start disclosing your HIV status."
-- David Salyer
It's easier now, especially here in Chicago, because I'm pretty out there. If you're black and gay and you go out, you may see a plugger [an advocate]. So it's pretty easy now. It's a lot easier. Most people already know. Like David said, it's kind of easy. But now it's a lot different than then. I don't waste any time disclosing.
David, do you have any disclosure rules? Can you kiss somebody without disclosing? How far can you go?
David Salyer: Yes, I have done that before. I have met somebody, and if there was some energy between us, some chemistry, I've kissed them. But beyond that, no. If I thought it was going to go any further than a kiss, just a casual kind of kiss, then I would disclose to them.
Perry Halkitis: So David, you set your limit at kissing. So, no oral sex, nothing else beyond kissing without disclosure.
David Salyer: I'm never going to climb into bed with someone unless they know. It's just not going to happen.
Why is that?
David Salyer: I think that's the most uncomfortable conversation to have, when you're in bed already. When you've already entered the bedroom and you're starting to take your clothes off, to me that's just not the time to start disclosing your HIV status.
It's not the time personally for me to start talking about boundaries and what you consider safe, and here's what I consider safe. I want to have that conversation outside of the bedroom, very casually, with the lights on. I don't want to do it in the bedroom. I can't think of something that would make me more anxious than that.
Perry Halkitis: David, what do you say to a person who is HIV positive who says, "You know, I'm really attracted to someone and I want to have sex with them. I'm just going to have oral sex with them. It's not necessarily a high-risk behavior. So I don't feel like I need to disclose at that point in time, because I'm not putting this person's health at risk." What would your response be to somebody like that?
David Salyer: Well, that does come up a lot of times when I am facilitating group discussions. Very often you'll have a wide range of opinions. If I'm in a group, for instance, the group's dynamic will take over, and they will try to get that person to understand that they need to disclose.
Now, what I usually do, if I'm talking one-on-one to somebody, I'll say, "What's really going on here? Is there a fear of rejection? Do you have some discomfort around talking about sex with somebody? How do you feel about your own sex?"
Because I feel like you have to get to their emotions about it, what's going on with them. So rather than try to come from some judgmental place and go, well, you've got this moral and ethical responsibility to disclose, I just try to get them to tell me what's really going on with them, what's making them uncomfortable.
About the moral and ethical responsibility, though: If you look at it a different way and you say, well, if I give someone oral sex, there's no risk of them getting HIV from me. So why not? I think people will rationalize it that way. What is it that you think is moral and ethical to tell somebody?
David Salyer: I feel like for me to keep my integrity, then I have to disclose if it's any kind of sexual activity. That's what I'd say for myself, personally. But what I usually do with other people is use it as an opportunity to get them to talk about their status, and how they feel about it. I want to get to their emotional well-being. Let's see what's going on with them. You know, everybody is going to make up some rules about sex. I can stand up and deliver safer sex information over and over again, which I have done since 1994. I know that when people walk out of the room, they're still going to make up some of their own rules and their own dos and don'ts. So I don't have a lot of control over it.
I wanted to discuss some of these issues because I think there are people who say, "Well, that's a no risk thing, and everyone knows the risks out there. Why am I responsible for somebody else? Why do I have to protect them? They know there is HIV everywhere. There is particularly HIV in the gay world. So I'm supposed to tell them the news, and say, 'By the way, I could be positive?'" So I wondered what you thought of that argument. And how many people are disclosing, do you think?
The lesson that I learned from not disclosing was that I don't have a right to take away somebody else's right to choose."
-- Keith Green
Keith Green: I think, Bonnie, for me, the lesson that I learned from not disclosing was that I don't have a right to take away somebody else's right to choose. And that's really what I got from it. This is really not about me. I know where I stand, and I know my status, etc. So it's really about the other person's right to choose to accept that risk. No matter how great or how small it is; it's not my place to negotiate anybody else's risk, at all.
Perry Halkitis: Keith, I definitely hear what you're saying. Once you disclose your status to someone, then you said it's the other person's decision what risk they are willing to take. But isn't that really more of a negotiation that should happen between the two people?
Keith Green: Oh, absolutely. It's a negotiation that happens between the two people. But I would assume the bottom line really lies with the person who is HIV negative, and is putting themselves at risk. Now, sure, I am also putting myself at risk for other STDs [sexually transmitted diseases] or reinfection, etc., etc. So there is negotiation on my part, too. Yes, I agree with you. It is a two-way street.
Perry Halkitis: I think Keith raises a really, really good point, though, that people tend to forget when you're talking about dating and being HIV positive. The positive person is placing him or herself at risk, too. People tend to forget that. You know, if somebody's walking around with a very virulent strain of gonorrhea or undetected syphilis, for an immunocompromised person, this can be potentially a problematic situation.
David Salyer: I agree with that, too. I would also say that I agree with what Keith said about the issue of choice and giving the other person a choice in whether they want to go forward with sexual activity. Also, my experience is that when you don't disclose, it will eventually come back to bite you in the ass.
Keith Green: Sure.
David Salyer: Because it is really a small world and people can find out later, down the line, that you're HIV positive.
Copyright © 2007 Body Health Resources Corporation. All rights reserved. Podcast disclaimer.
This article was provided by TheBody.com. It is a part of the publication This Month in HIV.
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