Abusive Behaviors and HIV

Since the beginning of the epidemic, HIV prevention advocates have struggled to combat the elusive enemy. We wave condoms in the face of high-risk individuals and try to persuade them to believe that using a condom actually feels good. We display Quilt panels that memorialize lives lost to AIDS. We scream in the face of mainstream society. We expand our vocabulary to include such words as fisting, felching, sodomy, barebacking and sucking.

We see our youth frequenting parks and participating in unsafe sex just to gain acceptance. We hear, "No one dies anymore. If I get infected I will just take a pill." Media hinting to the possibility that AIDS is curable bombards us. We read advertisements from big pharmaceutical companies with HIV-positive people climbing mountains, sky diving, winning marathons, and in their spare time writing dissertations about world peace.

HIV prevention advocates and people living in the age of AIDS have seen, heard, and experienced all of these things. After 20 years of trying to prevent new HIV (re)infections, people are still getting (re)infected. Society continues to stigmatize behaviors that are killing our youth, our brothers and sisters, our friends, and our partners. Do we blame "the other" or do we accept responsibility for the cards we are dealt? How do we move forward?

This is the first in a series of articles to address the issues that everyone living in the age of AIDS faces on a regular basis. Why after 20 years are people still getting infected and reinfected with HIV? These articles will articulate concerns, and try to create an atmosphere of open and candid communication about these issues and possible solutions.

Meet Devon

Devon is a 31-year-old gay white male, who lives in Chicago. He knows first hand about domestic violence. "I ended a three-year verbally abusive relationship. When I left I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder," Devon said. After ending the relationship Devon found himself confused, with no concept of self, lonely, scared and with high levels of self-hatred. Devon was walking through life in a daze, with mental scars as well as physical scars to remind him of what he went through.

He finally decided to break his silence and seek counseling. However, he found that help and professional services for gay men were not so easy to locate. After extensive searches he discovered help from a therapist who lives in South Florida, hundreds of miles away from his home in Chicago. Dr. Judith Wells-Crowley gave him advice and general counseling over the phone and the Internet. Together they worked on the life-threatening issues confronting Devon, and set the stage for his recovery, which at times was very difficult.

According to Devon, "the relationship was destructive and unhealthy, and physically abusive in the end. The first thing I wanted to do was find my self worth in the form of someone else's sexual attraction to me, even if that meant unprotected sex." There were suicidal thoughts, periods of deep-rooted depression, anger, and loneliness. All of these emotions he could experience in a single day.

The unreported violence and Devon's reaction are more common than not among gay men and lesbians. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP), there were over 3,000 documented cases of domestic violence in 1997, a 41 percent increase from 1996. Domestic violence in the gay community is very seldomly documented or addressed.

"The hardest thing to get over was being a victim," Devon stated. "I couldn't admit that to myself. I am a man. A strong man. Men don't get abused." Because domestic violence is defined primarily as a heterosexual problem, many gays and lesbians do not recognize domestic violence even when it is happening to them. Like Devon, many people internalize the belief that domestic violence only occurs in heterosexual relationships. This belief is further reinforced by domestic violence public education campaigns. These campaigns assume universal heterosexuality and exclusively address male-female relationships.

After a year of therapy and multiple support groups Devon now understands the signs that were present during the relationship, as well as how he was at high risk for HIV infection. "We never practiced safe sex, it really wasn't an option. And when the relationship was over, it still wasn't an option." Devon knew about safe sex. He had vast knowledge about HIV and how it is transmitted. He knew what a condom is. He understood what to do and what not to do. He also recognized how to negotiate sex with his partners, yet, for a period in his life, these things fell by the wayside.

"On a daily basis I was humiliated, disempowered, verbally abused -- for three years. I left the relationship believing everything he said. I was a worthless person that was nothing without him. Safe sex wasn't an option. If you believe you aren't worth saving, then how does the practice of safe sex coincide with that? What about you is worth keeping safe or saving?"

Although his recovery is ongoing and at times traumatic, Devon believes that acknowledging and ending domestic violence is part and parcel of preventing other self-injurious and self-destructive behaviors. Protecting oneself from HIV and STDs requires the same self-protecting skills and behaviors as protecting yourself from domestic violence. If you allow yourself to be a victim in one situation you are likely to allow yourself to be victimized in another.

Devon eventually received the assistance that he needed, however for some people that help never arrives or comes too late. He is now an advocate for gays and lesbians who may suffer from domestic violence. He emphasizes that most gays and lesbians are not aware of local services that may exist or where to go to get help. Devon also stresses that gay men can be victimized. "They need to know signs of domestic violence. They need to be able to recognize that it is happening to them. And then, they need to have the courage to say, 'I am a victim, and I need help. I can take steps to protect myself. Protection of myself is my responsibility.'" A motto that saved Devon's life.

Profile of an Abuser

  • Overly jealous

  • Tries to isolate partner (victim of abuse) from friends and family

  • Attempts to control partner

  • Severe mood swings (Jekyll and Hyde personalities)

  • Explosive temper

  • Tells partner that problems are partner's fault

  • Directs verbal assaults toward partner

  • Blames others, especially the victim for their actions

  • Low self-esteem

If you or someone you know is the victim of domestic violence please seek help.

If you are an abuser or think you may be an abuser, STOP and get help immediately.

National Domestic Violence Hotline
1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or 1-800-787-3224 (TTY)
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