Valuable HIV Lessons for HCV

By: Marcus Hopkins, HEAL blogger

I’ve had three major relationships over the course of my life, so far, two of which took place after I received my HIV+ diagnosis in 2005.  These two relationships have each helped to craft and mold my ever-evolving views about the “Safe Sex” movement.  It’s actually more appropriate to say that they have augmented my views on “Safe Sex,” as I have long been of the opinion that having sex comes with a bevy of responsibilities, the onus of which falls upon all parties involved to ensure the safety and wellbeing of themselves and others.

Lessons LearnedAs I’m sure has happened with many others in my circumstances, one of my first responses after testing positive for HIV was to put a moratorium on having sex with others.  My thinking was, “If I can prevent the infection of anyone else as a result of sexual contact with me, I will be okay.”  Not only was this view unfair to me, it was unfair to others, as it put me in a position of unwillingness to cultivate meaningful relationships.

My first Post-HIV relationship reshaped the way I approached the topic of sex.  A complicated man whose views on sex and politics were as varied and radical as could be, but whose intelligence far outweighed many of his likely partners, challenged my views on sexuality and “Safe Sex.”  He practiced what many refer to as “Sero-Sorting” – the practice of having sex only with others who share your particular virus/illness in order to prevent the further spread amongst the uninfected.

Though it wasn’t the first time I’d heard of this practice, it was the first time I’d seen it used outside of the HIV- community.  While my boyfriend took HIV into account, it was, perhaps, the only virus he considered in his sorting – other nuisances like Hepatitis and Syphilis be damned, he was going to enjoy bareback sex with other HIV+ men, come hell or high water.

To be fair, at the time I was young enough to buy into his mindset without considering the ramifications of these other illnesses.  I hadn’t yet truly begun my in depth research on STDs/STIs outside of HIV, and so I merrily followed his advice, throwing caution to the wind.

It wasn’t until my first doctor’s appointment after my relationship with him ended that I began to take other diseases into account.  I had recently begun my coursework in the field of Health Communication, and my advisor suggested that I look beyond the scope of HIV/AIDS to address other sexual and reproductive health concerns.  It was then that I expanded my educational outreach to include other diseases, as well, not the least of which was HCV.

After this revelation, I entered into my second post-HIV relationship with a man whose sexuality was (and still is) both simplistic and confounding.  My third partner was a man who had come to age in the late 1980s, and had seen firsthand the ravages of the HIV virus in the Los Angeles gay community.  He was (and still is) the only person of his generation whom I’ve met who has never had unprotected sex.  Ever.

Having reached majority at the turn of the millennium, this is an amazing anomaly, to me.  I can’t even begin to account for the number of unprotected sexual encounters I’ve had, and this man can’t even count to “one.”

It is fair to say that he is likely a statistical outlier; there are likely so few people in his age demographic who can say the same.  He had a longstanding anecdotal joke that, whenever he goes to get tested, the person administering the test asks him, “Why do you even need to be tested?” likely as confused as the rest of the world that he has never slipped up, even during one of his infrequent drunken trysts.

This sort of sexual surety is something that I will likely never be able to claim, but it certainly helped to mold my evolving views on “Safe Sex.”  That someone can actually exemplify such steadfast sexual self-control is both an inspiration and a wonder.  It did, however, allow me to reconsider taking certain risks, and helped to develop my own guidelines for establishing a mutually beneficial sexual risk assessment that helps me determine whether or not a potential sex partner will turn into an actual one.

The more I write for HEAL Blog, the more research I do into HCV and the havoc it wreaks on the HIV community.  The statistics I research in order to inform my writing often astonish even me, and I’m about as jaded and realistic as someone who’s worked in the healthcare field for a decade can be.  Beyond just the bodily ramification of HCV, the sheer cost of treating/curing the disease is astounding on its own, much less in combination with the cost of treating HIV/AIDS.

Writing about HCV has afforded me the opportunity to reevaluate and reaffirm my approach to “Safe Sex” – we need to do away with the term, altogether.

I know that this is political heresy within the sex education community, but hear me out:

We need to reinvigorate sexuality with the concept of “Smart Sex” – taking responsibility for actions that place both you and others in sexually risky situations.

1.) Be Prepared – Arm yourself with knowledge about yourself, your sex partners, and sexual health; be willing to ask potential partners about their sexual history, health, statuses, and practices; don’t rely on any one person to provide protection – bring your own damn condoms; don’t assume that your potential partners are being truthful – people lie; get tested often and be truthful about the results

2.) Ask Smart Questions – Engage in an open and honest dialogue with any and every sex partner about their sexual health; gauge whether or not they’re being honest with you; find out whether or not they are under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and if they are, can you trust their word; determine whether or not drugs or alcohol will play a role in your sexual activities

3.) Engage in Full Disclosure – Be open and honest about your own sexual health practices; if you know you’re infected, disclose this information to any potential partners; ask if your partner is infected; don’t be afraid to say “No” if you’re uncomfortable with a potential sex partner’s answers

4.) Accept Responsibility – You are ultimately responsible for your own actions, as well as the repercussions; know your risks and make informed decisions – are you comfortable having sex with an infected partner?; think with your head, and not your genitals, making decisions based on reason and logic; know your risk factors – do you or your partner have any open sores or are you currently fighting an infection?

It’s my belief that following this approach to sexual encounters can help to stem the tide of HIV and HCV infection rates, not only within the HIV community, but in the sexually active community, at large.  We need to stop thinking in terms of “low risk”/”high risk”/”at risk” groups, and start operating from the perspective that everyone is “at risk.”

Viruses are some of the few things in life that affect everyone, regardless of age, race, sex, or station – we are all vulnerable to their ravages, and it is up to all of us to assume responsibility for ensuring that both we and those around us are kept informed and safe.

Disclaimer: HEAL Blogs do not necessarily reflect the views of the Community Access National Network (CANN), but rather they provide a neutral platform whereby the author serves to promote open, honest discussion about Hepatitis-related issues and updates.

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