When it comes to safer sex in 2017 we have more options than ever before. Condoms are no longer the one size fits all solution, and we have a number of other biomedical options such as PrEP and Undetectable Viral Load (UVL) that we can use to have safe sex. However, with all these tools at our disposal, there is still one thing that stands in the way of our safe, happy and flourishing sex lives. It’s stigma.
If you are living with HIV then stigma may be something that you are no stranger to, whether it is through the lens of a hook up app, or the prejudice of a friend or family member, it is more than often triggered by the same thing; fear of the unknown. But it’s not just poz guys whose lives are affected by stigma, it’s all of us.
At the start of the HIV/AIDS epidemic we lost countless loved ones to an unknown virus. This was at a time where I was not yet alive, and yet it is a period that is so embedded in our community’s memory it has coloured the way we all experience sex as gay men. By the time I was opening up to my own sexuality in my late teens I had received so many coded messages that gay sex was taboo, that the discovery that gay sex could be dangerous was earth-shattering. It’s easy to fear something that is unknown to you, and when you are first coming out it can feel like everything is unknown to you.
When you get your first STI it can be easier to be angry at the guy who gave it to you, rather than be reflective on the steps you took to prevent it. It’s easy to fear a HIV diagnosis when you don’t know what that means in 2017.
If you want to have safe, stigma-free sex, then it’s your job to educate yourself and the others you meet. Being diagnosed with HIV in 2017 is not a death sentence, but instead a manageable chronic illness. If you are HIV positive and go on treatment you can reduce your viral load to an undetectable level, which means you can take charge of your own health while removing risk of transmission to other guys.
If you are HIV negative and potentially having lots of sex with multiple partners, you might want to consider PrEP; a once a day pill that prevents HIV in advance of any potential exposure. And condoms are still the best line of defense for many types of STIs, HIV included.
In a range of other health areas, stigma does not prevent people from accessing medicine where needed. If you have a headache, there is no judgement attached to choosing a paracetamol or an ibuprofen, so similarly we shouldn’t judge other’s choices when it comes to them taking charge of their own health.
Today you get to pick what strategy works for you; we can no longer let fear dictate the type of sex we want to have. If you think condoms are the right option for you, then great. If it’s not condoms but PrEP, then that’s also great. If it’s maintaining treatment and having an undetectable viral load then that’s also-also-great!
Whatever the combination of prevention methods, let’s respect each other’s journeys to safer sex, and cast no judgement on the strategy others choose. Don’t be afraid of the unknown, learn about it and then we can tackle all forms of HIV-related stigma together.