When I Was HIV Negative, I Was Scared of Sex With HIV-Positive People, Too
As a gay man with a smartphone, I know that conversation, dick pics and casual sex are just one tap away. Promoted as social networking apps mostly to adhere to app store guidelines, Scruff, Grindr, and similar apps do provide a social networking service. It just so happens that the networking typically involves a top servicing a bottom.
Don't get me wrong: I've used Scruff for directions to the nearest convenience store along with finding out the location of the best local Mexican joint when I'm traveling. But, if we're being real, I and my seven million fellow Scruff users are typically open to a little more than polite conversation.
(I intend no offense to the people strictly looking for polite chitchat. Sometimes, I'm there. More often, though, I'm certainly not.)
Still, you never know where the digital winds will take you, and recently, I happened by someone who looked a bit familiar. After a brief back and forth, I realized I wasn't mistaken: This was somebody I had thought about every now and then but thought I'd never see again.
Years ago, I hooked up with a guy who was visiting Philly, where I lived then and still live today. At the time, I was HIV negative and he was HIV positive. I said I was cool with our different statuses. He came over. After some intensely awkward attempts at sex, I had to ask him to leave.
I profusely apologized, and I felt awful. Despite my purported sex positive progressivism and my rejection of societal stigma and shame toward HIV-positive folks, at the end of the day, I just couldn't do it. I just wanted him to get out of my house.
In other words, I wanted to wash my hands of the uncomfortable, unpleasant, mortifying situation that I myself had created. Then again, the only person who was really embarrassed at the time, I'd later learn, was me.
Months later, I tested HIV positive.
Now, while I don't believe in the idea of God the smiter or puckish arbiter of universal justice, I still recognize the dramatic irony of this situation. Funnier still is the fact that years later I would be writing about it on TheBody.com.
Not so funny, though, is the fact that what happened between me and that guy years ago isn't an isolated incident.
As an HIV-positive guy, I can attest to the fact that there's nothing worse than someone saying he's cool with my status while he shakes or hesitates unbuttoning my pants. To me, healthy sexual expression is about communication, sincerity and mutual pleasure: It isn't just about getting the job done grudgingly in order to burnish your sex positive bona fides.
In other words, if you're not cool with it, don't act like you are. More to the point: You don't get a merit badge for having sex with an HIV-positive guy, you don't get brownie points for doing something you don't want to do in bed and you certainly won't find sexual fulfillment at the bottom of a well filled with your own fear and anxiety.
That's a lot easier said than done, though.
After all, it explains why I found myself in that awkward sexual encounter in the first place. Why did I do it, then? Well, I was also incredibly horny and, frankly, the dude was, and is still, hot.
So, this year, when I saw him visiting Philadelphia again and on Scruff, I had to message him. Would he think I'm a creeper? Would he yell at me? Would he -- and he'd be totally justified in doing this -- tell me to go fuck myself? After a brief back and forth, I explained that I thought we had met before.
"Funny enough," I messaged him on Scruff, "we hooked up [years ago] and I was nervous about your status. About six months later, I seroconverted. I think often about how poorly I handled sex with you since I was so fearful." I brought up the fact that we couldn't even have sex, that I was trembling and annoyingly fearful before I had to ask him to leave.
It was the right guy.
"I didn't hold it against you," he responded. "I just felt bad that u seemed ignorant of it at the time."
Ignorant is precisely the right word, too. Ignorance is merely a lack of knowledge, and irrational terror at the prospect of having sex with an HIV-positive person is simply ignorant. No matter how many times we assert -- and back up our assertions with evidence -- that undetectable effectively means non-infectious, no matter how many times we talk about PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) being the most effective way for HIV-negative men to guard against acquiring HIV, no matter how many times we point out that sex shouldn't ever be shameful, we still have to contend with the human factor.
You know, that nagging reality that human beings are complex, dissonant, nonsensical, instinct-driven, emotional beings. That human factor.
Many times, gay men, bombarded with dissonant HIV prevention messages and stigmatic specters of HIV/AIDS in pop culture, come from only one of two places, too: fear or horniness. Combine the two and you have some spectacularly entertaining fireworks highlighting absolutely terrible social interactions.
More often than not, though, it's the person ignoring his own issues who's suffering the majority of the embarrassment and discomfort. Clearly, like most HIV-positive guys, I was once HIV negative. And, I can say without a doubt that, when someone rejects me or seems to reject me because of my status, be it mid-thrust or mid-message, it still smarts a tiny bit. Earlier in my life with HIV, it was emotionally devastating. With time, though, it began to hurt less and less.
Today, I sort of laugh at the absurdity of it.
Or, as someone else said, I don't hold it against people; I just feel sorry for their ignorance.
Josh Kruger is an award-winning writer and commentator in Philadelphia. His work often focuses on HIV/AIDS, cultural stigmas and social problems. You can follow him on Twitter @jawshkruger.