When I first met L, I thought he was the hottest guy I had ever seen: Gorgeous eyes, adorable dimples, and a smirk that can charm any man. We made out that night, but for some reason didn’t have sex, which I regretted later.
About a year later, we ran into each other again, and before I understood what had happened, we were having sex. Amazing sex. It was intense, and it lasted the full length of the day, probably because it was a year in the making. The attraction was strong, the connection was stronger, and we were sexually compatible. In my head, this was what good sex was supposed to be like.
Except for one thing: We didn’t use a condom.
Well, technically we did at first. But then we ran out of condoms, and he continued doing what he was doing, and I didn’t stop him.
This was the very first time I had sex without a condom with someone who I was not in a relationship with.
And it freaked me out. Not the act itself, or the fear of catching something. What freaked me out was how easy it was for me to do it. How easy it was for me to toss out everything I had learned about risk and safer sex.
I have, since the age of 20, been working on HIV prevention in one way or another. I’ve spent a considerable amount of time telling people how, when, and why they should use a condom and practice safer sex.
It’s been something I do on a daily basis professionally or as part of my personal life for over a decade. I have been a strong advocate of condom use and of prevention. I’ve worked with leading organizations that spend millions on HIV prevention. I’ve participated in many workshops and conferences about prevention. My thesis for my masters has a substantial section about prevention and its importance in terms of the HIV pandemic. I lecture all of my friends about safer sex. I even lecture my sex partners, often during sex! (oh yes, it’s so fun to have sex with me!)
When L decided that he did not want to stop having sex because we had run out of condoms, my usual prevention-obsessed self did not stop him. I simply said, “Are you sure?” to which he replied, “I trust you.”
There are so so so so so many things wrong with this scenario, and yet we just kept on having sex, without condoms. And we never used condoms again, for the next 2 years of our relationship.
That’s quite a scary thing. If someone like me, that is fully educated on the risks of unprotected sex, is fully aware of transmission methods, and the way to prevent transmission, would just forget it all for some hot sex, then we’ve got a serious problem. A really serious problem.
Since that day, I’ve moved away from prevention, working more on stigma and discrimination related to people living with HIV and AIDS, though I still actively encourage people to be as safe as they can, and I spent some time trying to convince barebackers to be safer.
On a personal level, I still practice safer sex all the time, but I’ve stopped believing that the decision to not use a condom every single time is something that one can control. In the heat of the moment, anything goes.
I’m not sure how to move forward with this. Is the prevention work that has been done for so many years futile? The entire approach to prevention is as realistic as abstinence. As hard as your try, there comes a time when everything you’ve learned goes right out the window.
The day after this happened, I had a mini crisis, re-questioning many, many things in my life. I needed to talk to someone about it so I called my friend P, who also does similar HIV work. I told him what happened, and, to my surprise, he told me he had gone through the same thing but was scared to tell anyone about it.
There are reasons we don’t talk about these things. If the biggest proponents of prevention work themselves are unable to practice what they preach, then it undermines the entire approach. And, as bad an approach as it is, it really is a key part of the global struggle against HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.
On a more personal front, I’ve never shared this story before, for obvious reasons. I am afraid that people would just think that it’s a perfect excuse to not use a condom. I am afraid that people will ignore the advice I give them. I am afraid that I will be used as an example of someone who preaches safe sex, yet doesn’t always practice it. I am afraid that my irresponsible behavior will be to blame for the irresponsible behavior of others.
I hesitated before writing this post. The problem though is that sex in general is so full of taboos and secrets that it ends up being something that can never be dealt with effectively.
I think that we need to be more open about the problems related to every aspect of sex, in order to be able to deal with them more effectively. If everyone always pretends that they practice safe sex, when in reality they don’t, then we shouldn’t be surprised when we see that results are not up to expectations.
But if we talk about our experiences, then we can start to find create a stronger approach that will benefit generations to come.
Important note: I always, always, always try to use a condom. It is still the best way to avoid contracting STIs. I am fully aware that the fact that I did not contract something from L does not mean that I will not contract something from another partner. Also, while L and I kept on having unprotected sex for years, we both got tested routinely.