Sitting in that waiting room, I thought back about what I had done that could put me at risk.
3 sexual partners. I was still discovering sex (no school teaches you about gay sex, so we have to learn by ourselves), but it was all safe. Most of it didn’t even include any penetration.
And there I was, scared to death. I was certain I was HIV positive. How couldn’t I be? I was a sexually active gay man, and that, from what I had heard, was the riskiest thing to be.
I was 18, and AIDS was still a scary monster out to get all the sinful gay boys. I think they make you wait in that waiting room as long as possible, just so that you would be forced to look back and think about every single thing you ever did that could possibly put you at risk of contracting the virus. It’s horrible.
As this was in the 90s, we still had to wait a full week before getting test results. I hadn’t slept properly that entire week, certainly didn’t feel any sexual drive, and I must’ve lost at least a couple kilos.
And now, here I was, about to get a life sentence from the nurse, my heart racing, my palms sweating, and my stomach tied in the tightest knots.
When the nurse called out my name, I could barely breathe as I walked into the small room, and she closed the door.
It should’ve never been this way.
A few minutes of rationalizing should have made me realize that there really was nothing to worry about. Yet I was unable to be rational.
I’ve grown up in societies (Beirut and Los Angeles) where HIV and AIDS prevention campaigns were centered around death, sin, and gay sex. The approach of all these campaigns has always been to scare people into being safe. If you don’t use a condom, you get AIDS, then you die. As easy as 1, 2, 3.
Unfortunately, this approach has horrifying side effects.
– Gay men of my generation have developed a fear of sex that is completely irrational. We have all, at some point in our sexual lives, be convinced that we were HIV positive.
– AIDS has become a sex partner for many of us, whether or not it is there or not. It’s like the virus is there, in bed with our partners, starring at us, judging us, and ready to punish us for everything we’re doing.
– It leads us to act irresponsibly. We want to get rid of this bedfellow. We don’t want it around. 2 solutions: ignore it (unsafe behavior) or join it (bareback). Either way, it’s unhealthy.
– It turns us into hypochondriacs, making us doubt ourselves, live in stress, and ruining the enjoyment of the moment.
– It stigmatizes people who are actually HIV positive and it makes them believe that they have just received a death sentence.
Many years later, the early public approaches to AIDS still haunt me. I have spent the last 10 years of my life working on various projects related to sexual health, mostly working with people who live with HIV or AIDS. I now consider myself a person quite knowledgeable when it comes to prevention and treatment. I have focused most of my work on fighting the stigma and discrimination linked to HIV and AIDS that came out of the early approach to the virus.
But even without any of that, the damage that has been done to the sex lives of gay men is obvious from any conversation with them. I get way too many midnight phone calls from panicking friends who are convinced they are HIV positive, despite the lack of any rational reason for these late night epiphanies.
I’m not saying that we should just fuck carelessly. HIV is still a problem, and it should not be taken lightly.
I am just saying that we should fuck all we want, using our logic and basic safer sex skills. We need to freak out about AIDS the way we might freak out about any of the other STIs. They’re no fun, some are really dangerous, but they don’t make us insecure or become our obsessions.
Our reactions (or counter-reactions) to AIDS have plagued us for way too long. Let’s start enjoying (safer) sex again. If we don’t fear it, we can address it. If we don’t fear it, we can take ownership of our sex lives again.