Thursday, June 13, 2013

Risky behavior, victims, dirty boys, and the way we talk about HIV

At least a few times a year, I get to have the seroconversion conversation with a friend. There's nothing novel or unique about that. It's common enough for gay men my age and it has been since I came out. I'm right in that age group so that when I came out, HIV and AIDS were already major and established parts of the community. They were facts of life and of death.
When I opened a gay magazine—they were still relevant then—almost all the ads were for viatical settlement companies. They hadn't yet been taken over by pharmaceutical ads. The older guys who took me out to bars and showed me the ropes were few and far between, since so many of them had died, and they both taught me to assume anyone I would have sex with was positive and to expect that there was a good chance that I would be someday.
We've come a long, long way since then. For many people, a diagnosis is more like a diagnosis of diabetes than the death sentence it once was; yes, you will have to take medication for the rest of your life, but it won't be the thing that kills you and your life expectancy most likely won't be affected.
But, some of the same attitudes hang around, attitudes that are damaging to all of us.
All too often, when someone tells me that he has found out that he is positive, he will tell a story—it might be one that he believes, it might even be true—about the very unlikely way in which he got it. This will usually involve some practice for which there is a theoretical risk but no—or almost no—actual documented cases of infection. It will be a story about a tiny scratch in the mouth, chapped skin, or something else. Why do people do this?
We tell these stories and convince ourselves of their truth because we hold onto a dichotomy of those who are victims of the disease, those who got it accidentally or through extreme circumstances and thus are innocent; and, those who deserve it, whose own decisions and actions are the reason they became infected. Yes, there are people who had no causal role in their infection and there are those who have challenged fate (not that this means they deserve anything), but this dichotomy misses the great reality in the middle. 
Whether positive or negative, anyone who has been sexually active has done something risky at some point. I'm old enough to remember when a huge effort was made to eroticize safer sex, an effort that was doomed to failure, because even the most anonymous, meaningless sexual encounter is a moment of intimacy. Sex is often about pleasure, but that doesn't mean that even hedonistic sexual acts are not about a connection with another person. The introduction of a condom or any other barrier necessarily limits that intimacy. And, almost everyone has chosen pleasure—because we also have to face that unsafe sexual practices feel better—and intimacy and risk over safer but less intimate and less pleasurable practices.
We all do this or have done this sometime; Apollo has a hard time winning when Dionysius is offering us so much more. And, some of us have been lucky and some of us have been unlucky. 
To admit this is to admit that we've been stupid and if we've gotten something because of that our decisions had a role there. We aren't victims; we were involved. 
But, it also involves admitting that if we haven't gotten something, luck had a lot to do with that. No one deserves their bad luck. So, no one deserves to be infected or sick.
In other words, to admit this means to admit that the world is much more complex than we like to tell ourselves.
All of this also means that we have to overcome another really horrible dichotomy: clean and dirty. You aren't virtuous or perfect or clean because you have avoided some infection. If you are sexually active, the odds are that you are lucky or you might be the one person who is perfectly responsible in every situation (and who has never been lied to by a partner or friend). And, you aren't vicious or a slut or dirty because you became infected. You may have made bad choices or one bad choice—or you may not have, maybe you just trusted someone you shouldn't have—and you weren't so lucky.
To see these attitudes hanging around after all these years is more than disheartening; overcoming them is necessary for loving ourselves and loving one another.

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