9 Sex Myths About HIV-Positive People That Need Debunking

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What follows may prove useful for anyone, but this list is probably most useful for those who just received a positive test result. You're here because you want to know which of the horrible images in your head about HIV-positive people are true. You have likely heard some of these myths before, and you may believe some of them: that HIV is the result of irresponsibility, or that you can "tell" who has HIV. It can be hard to separate the fact from the fiction when it comes to HIV, but this list can hopefully illuminate, educate, and discard any falsehoods you might have about what it means to be sexually active -- and sex-positive -- while living with HIV.

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FALSE: "If someone has HIV, they were being sexually irresponsible."

This is what HIV activists and sex educators call "bullshit." Here's an alarming fact: Most sexually active high school students in the United States know little to nothing about HIV. Many have never experienced a sex education class. If they have, their class was likely focused on abstinence as the "best" health approach (it is, in fact, the least effective. Their teachers likely excluded -- and may have even prohibited -- discussion about non-heterosexual sex or contraceptives.

Since we do not inform teens about adequate safe and safer sex practices, which include frequent testing, condoms, and contraceptives, it's absurd and irresponsible to expect young people to make informed sex decisions. Like other items on this list, this myth is thinly veiled sex shaming, one built on generations of Christian sex policing and purity myths.

Sex-positivity is essential for public health. Let's say that, in a best-case scenario, a sexually active student learns about clinics and discovers the necessity of frequent testing without any problems. Even with that knowledge, humans still get horny. We make decisions in the heat of the moment, and sexual social spaces revolve around alcohol and other substances that make it nearly impossible to make flawless decisions every time.

Wanting sex doesn't make you irresponsible. It just makes you human. The fact is, sexual experiences can result in HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. Instead of policing behavior, shaming human sexuality, and setting impossible expectations, we should make sexual information easily accessible and foster a culture that welcomes discussion about sex and sexual health.

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FALSE: "Most people with HIV were trying to get infected."

Many people have assumed I was trying to catch HIV. People believe this myth for a few reasons. First, they think everyone with HIV knows they have it. Second, they think everyone with HIV is infectious. Third, they think you can "tell" who has HIV. They reason, "Why would someone knowingly have sex with someone with HIV unless they were trying to catch it?"

There are so many problems with this reasoning, and this is an example of myths stacking up to create bigger myths that have disastrous effects on public health. When the uninformed public and clueless lawmakers believe we were "chasing" HIV, they can blame and demonize us for our own disease.

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FALSE: "Everyone with HIV is dangerous."

"Dangerous" may be interpreted as "infectious" or "untrustworthy." Many people think we're all walking infections and any sexual contact with us is extremely risky.

The fact is, people living with HIV who are taking antiretroviral therapy correctly can have an undetectable viral load, meaning their HIV cannot be transmitted. Regardless of medication, there are many sex acts you can enjoy with an HIV-positive person that pose zero risk of HIV transmission.

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FALSE: "Most people with HIV have dark stories about "'how it happened.'"

Every person living with HIV has encountered the "tragedy porn" of disclosure. Uninformed people assume a terrible backstory or sordid sex tale. Countless people have asked me, "How did it happen?" -- hoping for some dark and juicy story. I enjoy shattering expectations when I say, "I had sex with someone. I don't know who it was. I tested positive a few months later." That's my story -- one shared by countless others.

HIV does not target those who enjoy wild weekends. You don't need an abusive relationship or bacchanal sex party to become HIV positive. Most people catch it by doing what numerous people do every Saturday night.

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FALSE: "HIV-positive people enjoy infecting others."

Many believe that HIV-positive people enjoy tricking people into sex and "infecting" them. HIV criminalization laws assume this myth and portray our disease as a weaponized illness. The needless incarcerations and institutionalized stigma these laws continue to generate amount to an indescribable failure by the United States government and multiple state governments to fight the spread of HIV.

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FALSE: "HIV happens as a result of extreme, risky sex."

Many people catch HIV from their first sexual experience, their first relationship, or their first love. You catch HIV from sex -- not risky sex, BDSM sex, group sex, or hardcore sex. Just sex. That includes simple, vanilla sex with people you love and trust. The only way to know that someone is HIV negative is to see their last HIV test and know for certain that they have not had sex with anyone since they were tested.

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FALSE: "HIV affects older people. If you only play with young people, you should be safe."

I believed this in college -- until the day my doctor called me into the clinic. I was 21. Most of my playmates at that time were close to my age. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that in 2017, youth aged 13 to 24 composed 21% of new HIV diagnoses in the U.S.

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FALSE: "You can tell who has HIV."

No, you cannot tell who has HIV. HIV-positive people are some of the sexiest people you will meet.

It takes the virus some time for HIV to "build up" in your blood before it can trigger an antibody test, during which time you are able to transmit HIV. Even if you are getting tested regularly, you could be unaware that you have HIV -- and your HIV could be transmittable. During that time, you may not experience any symptoms -- many people don't.

Someone can live with HIV for months (or longer) without ever experiencing symptoms or getting sick. This is why it is important for HIV-negative people who are sexually active to get tested frequently -- every three months or more.

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FALSE: "People who don't disclose their HIV status should be punished."

HIV is not a death sentence. This myth is perpetuated by U.S. law: The general public, including people who sit on juries, is not adequately informed about the modern realities of HIV transmission and prevention. Thanks to stigma, they see transmitting the virus to someone as murder.

Modern medicine has made HIV a manageable, chronic illness. But most HIV criminalization laws in existence were enacted in the 1980s during the height of AIDS panic, a time when we knew relatively little about HIV. By and large, they fail to account for modern advances in HIV care and prevention. We know a lot more about HIV now, including how HIV is spread (not through saliva, even though most of these laws still criminalize HIV-positive people who bite and spit and how it's prevented. We now know that being undetectable means HIV-positive people can't spread HIV.

Even in states without specific HIV criminalization laws like New York, the presence of HIV increases penalties. For example, an HIV-positive man was sentenced for 10 years for aggravated assault for biting a police officer in 2006. The criminalization of HIV is the next major battleground for HIV activists.