For many, HIV is the ultimate boogeyman of the modern sex-scape. Years of horror stories have led some to fear contracting the virus so much that it becomes a constant phobia. It has also led to the stigmatization of HIV-positive individuals as toxic or wicked—and desexualized. Who, this line of thought goes, once struck with HIV could think of themself as a viable sexual object ever again? And who would view them as viable partners for any form of physical intimacy?
It is absurd that this even needs to be said, but people living with HIV are humans living full, long lives with a chronic but manageable condition, like so many others. They desire, and are deserving of, love and intimacy like anyone. Being in a relationship can actually be a vital motivator for some people to seek and keep up with treatment.
One might assume that HIV-positive people choose to date those who share their status, so as not to worry about transmitting the virus. And sure, this happens. But many HIV-positive and -negative people still pursue sex and intimacy together, in what are known as “serodiscordant” or mixed-status relationships. In the U.S. alone, there are at least 140,000 mixed-status couples, possibly many more, as that estimate was extrapolated from 23-year-old data. In countries where HIV is especially prevalent, more than 3 percent of all relationships are serodiscordant, and up to two-thirds of HIV-positive individuals are in such relationships.
Not all these couples know from the start that they are serodiscordant, thanks to a positive partner not knowing their status or contracting the virus while already in an established relationship. But many partners know they are mixed status when they get together and make it work.
There is no single strategy for HIV-positive and -negative people to pursue sex and intimacy. Some agree to pursue only emotional intimacy, perhaps consenting to forms of non-monogamy as well. Some only engage in non-penetrative sex. Some use condoms at all times. Increasingly, though, there’s recognition that effective treatment can lower one’s viral load to untransmissible levels. This makes the risk of an HIV-negative partner contracting the virus functionally nonexistent during unprotected sex with a HIV-positive partner who has had such a low load for at least six months and is maintaining their treatment regimen. The spread of PrEP—a preventive drug regimen used by an HIV-negative partner that reduces the risk of transmission by up to 99 percent—in recent years has also opened up new possibilities for a sense of security and less restrained intimacy. Some couples mix and match strategies as needed.
Vasilios Papapitsios: I became positive when I was 19. I’m 28 now. I’d just come out of the closet. I was living in a very hateful state [North Carolina] that had just defunded the AIDS drug assistance program, and I was going to school at UNC-Chapel Hill. As much as it thinks it is a progressive community, I was already feeling outed by a lot of my community members.
At that time, it was definitely easier to conceive of a relationship—or just casual sex—with another HIV-positive person because of the stigma I’d internalized and the fear of passing it along.
Elijah McKinnon: I’m from the San Francisco Bay area. I grew up in a pretty liberal household. I talked about sex and various STIs, including HIV, with my parents, who were in an open relationship and very open sexually. I had various relatives die from AIDS.
I had a lot of friends who were young and positive, but not out. It was more hidden than I think a lot of people are now about their status. So the first thing I learned is that I need to take ownership of my own status. What are the ways I can best protect myself? I mean not only from STIs, but a more holistic approach—like my mental sanity, my emotional sanity.
I never thought about serodiscordant relationships from this taboo perspective. One of my first…let’s just call him a boyfriend, was HIV positive. That’s when I discovered PrEP. I had to be 19, 20. This is right when the FDA approved it. I was super skeptical like, you want me to take what? Then after being involved with the study that changed the entire landscape of PrEP a couple years ago by testing a lot of people [using it] and seeing the significant decrease in [transmission of HIV], it was sort of a no-brainer for me. Leading into this relationship, I don’t think I had any barriers.
Vasilios: [Just before I met Eli in late 2016,] I’d been in New York for about half a year. It was suddenly an environment where people just didn’t care about my status. It was: That’s okay, the same way it’s okay for you to be gay. I felt more liberated and free to just be myself.
[Then I moved to Chicago.] It was the first time I was very open about my status to the public. I witnessed communities of people who were all on PrEP, or they know about it. I had been undetectable for a year or two. That was a major factor in terms of my internal stigma and fear.
My world blossomed. I was allowing myself to have intimacy and love and sex in ways that I couldn’t before…I realized I just deserved that and wasn’t this scourge of society.
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Elijah: I met Vas during a performance where they were doing a blood ritual [that involved taking a bath in fake blood] that centers on queer people living with chronic illnesses. So I was very much aware of their status.
Vasilios: I knew she was the PrEP girl. [Eli helped develop PrEP4Love, a campaign raising awareness of PrEP among black gay men, straight black women, and black trans women, and was a model in campaign ads all over Chicago.] She knew I was the poz artist and advocate.
Elijah: I’m black and queer and non-binary. We live on opposite ends of the country. We have different interests and passions. We’re constantly approaching things from the perspectives of our past traumas. There are constantly tensions between our other identities that we are processing. Our status is, I don’t want to say low on the totem pole, but there are other things we are processing.
Vasilios: We have an open relationship. Usually it’s separate. Sometimes it’s not.
I have to be aware that there are other STIs when you do not use a prophylactic. Even if people I’m having sex with are on PrEP, that doesn’t mean other things are thrown out the window. For me, PrEP is like a mental prophylactic. It gives us the opportunity to get into it and not have to think, oh my goodness, this little act of intimacy or sex is so wonderful but there’s still a lingering fear. That doesn’t really exist for me anymore. And that is an amazing gift. But any sex interaction, I have to think about, huh, I don’t know this person or whatever, I’m taking a risk.
How do I put this… We use condoms [together] if we need to. But we don’t really want to.
Elijah: There are a lot of tools that people don’t know about when navigating sex. Like the number of partners, or knowing how to have communicative conversations with those partners as just number one. That allows you to navigate sexually through an experience however you want to.
There are obviously condoms and PrEP, but also positioning [in terms of who is the recipient of penetrative sex; the receiving partner is at more risk]. There are ways of being intimate that are non-penetrative. There’re so many different things we discuss. Everything on our relationship is on the table. When it’s not, things begin to spiral because we’re not being communicative.
One thing that really has been intimate about our respective statuses is that I feel, versus a lot of other relationships, we’re more actively involved with each other’s holistic health. Not just okay, what’s your CD4 count? But how’s your mind doing? Let’s check in. How are you eating?
Vasilios: I think we have learned from our past experiences. And we complement each other in our different healing journeys.
Elijah: Up until about a year ago, I got a lot of questions, like: Aren’t you scared? Don’t you just think it would be easier with a negative person? I don’t even know what any of those questions mean!
There are still a lot of people who are very unaware due to fear and stigma around how to not only be in a serodiscordant relationship but be in a gay, queer, alternative relationship in general. Because they don’t have any models and the models that we do have are very monolithic. If it weren’t status, it’d be something else, like: How is it being in a mixed-race relationship?
That is just one facet of our multi-faceted relationship. It’s a topic that’s up for discussion, not so much negotiation. And it isn’t a barrier to accessing our most intimate depths of pleasure and joy.
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Stressed Students, Bridesmaids Drama, And More: An Advice Column From A Total Amateur
Hi! A while ago I asked the BuzzFeed Community to tell me a problem they’re having, so that I — a person with absolutely zero professional qualifications to help anyone — could give them advice. So, here are the results! NBC 1. “Dear Andy,I have NO idea where I should go to school… I’m applying…
Hi! A while ago I asked the BuzzFeed Community to tell me a problem they’re having, so that I — a person with absolutely zero professional qualifications to help anyone — could give them advice. So, here are the results!
I have NO idea where I should go to school… I’m applying to 12 schools, 10 on the west coast and two in BC. I’m a high achieving student (I’m in five AP classes, president of two clubs, volunteering and a job, etc.) and I don’t want to go somewhere that’s all about the pressure, but I still want a high quality education. I’m so lost, help!”
—The Overwhelmed Student
You posted this just to dunk on all of us academically, didn’t you?
Kidding. In all seriousness, you can get a very good education at a bunch of different schools. And when you’re done, you’ll have a degree that probably nobody will ever verify! In my completely amateur opinion, the only reason people think the “Ivy League” schools are better is because a lot of wealthy, well-connected people go there (and have gone there), and therefore when you graduate from one, you’re more likely to get in at some fancy law firm or whatever because of your connections. So if you aren’t planning on being like, IDK, the CFO of Waystar Royco or something, just pick the school that you really want to go to. Where are you going to be happy living? Is one of the schools in a city you already want to move to and/or the city that has jobs in your future profession? Is it important for you to be close to home? How many Wendy’s are there on campus, and do they carry Spicy Nuggets? These are the questions you should be asking.
Oh, wait, actually…forget all that. Go to the school that will cost the least when you factor in tuition, room & board, and any scholarships you might get. Student loans are a curse and you want as little of them as possible. In the end, you might not even end up doing the thing you studied in college. Wanna know what degree I have? A BFA in Theater Performance. An acting degree. And now here I am, writing for a website. You’ll be fine.
I got married this summer, and I decided to choose only family to be my bridesmaids. For me this included three female cousins and my (now) sister-in-law. My husband, on the other hand, decided to do a mix of family as well as friends from high school for his groomsmen. I had no problem with this at all.
I had a few friends who I knew would expect to be bridesmaids, so I made it clear to them from the very beginning that I would be choosing family only as to not have a huge wedding party, but I told them they were not any less important to me and that I still wanted them to be involved in the wedding as much as they felt comfortable with. Most of the friends I had this conversation with were very understanding, however one straight up told me that she was disappointed (this was two years before the wedding).
Now it’s been a few months since I got married and this friend (a friend from childhood) started talking about the wedding. She told me she felt left out of the wedding since she wasn’t part of the wedding party. It particularly bothered her that my husband included friends and I didn’t. She then proceeded to tell me that it was difficult for her to be there the day of my wedding because of these feelings. AT MY WEDDING. She also included the fact that she didn’t want to upset me and that it doesn’t change our friendship. But if that is the case then why say anything in the first place? I’ve already said one too many times the reason for my bridesmaid choices and how important she is to me regardless. And she says she understands. I just wish she would let it go. Ever since this conversation I feel like I’ve been seeing her in a whole new light.
I do care about her feelings, but I stick by my decision and I don’t regret anything. I feel like I’ve done everything I can to make her feel better.”
—The Besieged Bride
[TL;DR: Bride had only family as bridesmaids, groom had some friends in the mix, bride’s childhood friend felt left out and complained about it a few months after the wedding.]
Question one: How drunk was your friend when she brought this up to you? If she was like, a 6 or more out of 10, I say let’s give it a pass and hope she got it out of her system.
Question two: Has your friend had a wedding of her own yet? If yes, then she should’ve understood the situation, because wedding planning is a special kind of hell and inevitably you have to make difficult decisions like this one that might hurt people’s feelings. So if you’ve planned your own wedding, you know the deal and you’re able to say to yourself, “It’s their wedding, I’m just going to be supportive and have fun.” If she hasn’t gotten married yet, she’ll realize later that it was totally inappropriate to complain about this to you. Hopefully.
I have been taking so many of the relationship quizzes on BuzzFeed but they all say I’m single. The major problem is I have an S.O. Is she just faking or am I?? Help me!! Is my girlfriend not actually mine or are we real?”
—The Quizzical Quiz-Taker
You’re not real. This is all a simulation.
—Andy (or am I?)
I’m not sure where to live. I live in Milwaukee, WI, right now. Moved here three years ago for school, but that fell through because Milwaukee is friggin expensive. My family wants me to move back to the other side of the state, towards Minneapolis/St. Paul. What should I do?”
—Meandering the Midwest
Get the fuck out of there, it’s so cold! Listen, I used to live in Michigan, and it was depressing because it was grey and miserable nine months out of the year. Now I live in Southern California, it’s sunny and beautiful and my vitamin D levels are through the roof. Migrate south, seriously.
But if you HAVE to stay, I will say that everybody who lives in Minneapolis seems to LOVE Minneapolis for some reason.
My problem is that I struggle with feeling attractive. I started taking birth control when my boyfriend and I started dating (six years ago). I started gaining the weight right after. I’m now a size 12 and my boyfriend is a slender guy. I haven’t felt attractive in the last year. I gained so much weight at one point I was a size 16. I’m back to a 12 and trying to lose weight again. I don’t feel sexy or beautiful in any way. I prefer to keep my shirt on during sex now. I don’t know why my boyfriend still finds me attractive. I have a tummy, I have rolls when I sit down, I just don’t know what he sees anymore. Any advice you could give me would be much appreciated.”
—Struggling With Size
First off, don’t worry about your boyfriend. Clearly he finds you attractive, and when you actually care about someone, the size tags on their clothes don’t matter to you at all. Appreciate that fact and find some security there.
Now, consider the possibility that if your boyfriend finds you attractive at any size, you can too! It’s not easy. It requires shedding every bit of toxic influence that the media and our society overall has thrown at you for your entire life. That takes time and work.
But if you are worried about your physical health at all, consult a doctor. There are many different types of birth control and like 40 different pills, and everyone reacts to each one differently. It can take time to find the right one, and not every doctor is going to be helpful about it. Advocate for yourself if you’re unhappy with your medication. You may have done all of this already and I’m just sitting here mansplaining BC to you, but if so at least you can cross that off your Mansplaining Bingo Card.
That’s it for this week. But if you’re having a problem that you need advice about, let me know! It could be anything: petty arguments that you need a judge to decide who was right and who was wrong, help making life decisions, relationship issues — I’m your completely unqualified man. Email email@example.com (for total anonymity) or leave a comment here!