A Conversation About Hypersensitivity

By: Marcus J. Hopkins, Blogger

I was recently pointed to an article about HIV that laid out a quick primer for uninfected people on how to speak to people living with HIV. The author lays out some simple, easy-to-follow guidelines, such as “Don’t Ask – Have you learned your lesson?” and “Do Ask – How are you handling it?” This well-meaning guide helps [ostensibly straight], young, hip people to ask culturally sensitive, yet emotionally supportive questions about HIV that focus on the person, rather than the disease.

As someone who grew up during the initial AIDS epidemic (rather than the one currently developing amongst young MSM populations 16-35), I was amazed at how each of the purportedly thoughtful “Do Ask” questions comes across not only as someone taking an interest in how the HIV-Positive person is coping, but also as someone who greatly pities the person on the receiving end of these questions. Questions that are designed to be “understanding” and “empathetic” more often come across as making the other person feel “pathetic.” Moreover, if I were on the receiving end of some of these questions, I would find myself wanting to bludgeon the person asking me, because it would be very clear that they aren’t asking a question for which they want any real answer.

“How are you protecting yourself from transmitting?” This is a “Do Ask” question, rather than “Is your boyfriend HIV-Positive, as well?” What the hell? How are my preventive measures the business of anyone other than my sex partners? If anything, the proposed question is more invasive of privacy than the initial query about the boyfriend.

These questions follow a recent trend of “delicate treading” that has infected the world of HIV education, largely in response to this younger generation’s seeming inability to handle direct confrontation in any sort of adult manner. Questions can never be directly posed about sensitive subjects out of fear that the person being asked will crumble into a pile of weeping ashes. In fact, this kind of mollycoddling is specifically spoken against by Health Communication professionals and educators, in no small part because it makes the person on the receiving feel as if they’re children, and belittles their intelligence.


Photo Source: About.com (Health)

HIV stigmata have not eroded over time thanks to delicately tiptoeing around uncomfortable questions; it has been eroded away by people who are frank, honest, and unafraid to answer tough, probing questions, and who are unafraid to be open about their HIV status regardless of what others think. This is the same of stigmata associated with all chronic illnesses, including HCV.

We do a disservice to the educational efforts of advocates and professionals when we attempt to “correct” lines of questioning from people who are not living with a disease. It is, in fact, the least socially acceptable question that winds up providing the greatest opportunities for education, because answering those types of questions helps to correct misperceptions and leaves the questioner with food for actual thought. It is high time that we stop trying to plant socially appropriate questions into interested audiences, and start getting real about answering questions that make us uncomfortable; the opportunities can only serve to further understanding and acceptance, as well as provide those of us who aren’t crying from hypersensitivity the chance to grow.


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. Please note that the content of some of the HEAL Blogs might be graphic due to the nature of the issues being addressed in it.


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