Today I went to get my quarterly HIV test to renew my Truvada (PrEP) prescription. It was the first time in my life I’ve ever had gotten an HIV test using another HIV prevention tool other than condoms. There’s always some thought in the back of my mind that I could get HIV because I know that not having sex with a condom will possibly give me HIV. This has been ingrained since I was a middle school student. But I did feel more at ease and, as a result, I started to think more about what’s worried me and just how much I’ve grown.
For a while, I’ve always wondered how other people must label me. Maybe they think I’m a slut. But does it matter what label I adorn to my jacket, to my cock, to his cock? No, not at all. Now I want to move past those labels and think about how these labels hurt and how we let our silence over expressing our sexual pleasures eat away at our minds. We get trapped in this cycle between forgetting and hating this “I” that we are because we’re chosen to fuck in any situation we think puts us at risk of something. Maybe sex is forgetting, a temporary medicine for larger social, political and emotional issues we face.
But to characterize condomless sex, PrEP use, or any other kind of sexual choice only as that ignores the aspect of intimacy that we gain from sex, even if that intimacy isn’t heteronormative, isn’t “normal.” Sex ought to be more about celebrating this temporary escape. Sex ought to be more an expression of want, not just one of knowing what you want personally, but anticipating the wants of our partner(s). This is where our focus needs to be directed and, for many, newer prevention strategies enable them to arrive at that realization.
“Condoms only. Condoms always.” This motto doesn’t work. This motto doesn’t take into account that what drives HIV transmission is not condomless sex but psychological fear, stigmatized silence, and a lack of education on how to express your sexual wants, how to express that drive for escapism. My biggest past failures have not been rejecting condoms in the bedroom. My biggest failures have been not using condoms with understanding what I found most pleasurable, without asking the kinds of question of a partner this risk demands, and really understanding, without question, that I am not a bad person for wanting this risk.
I’ve been on PrEP since August and my mindset is starting to change. A little blue emblazoned with GILEAD on it isn’t going to negate, absolve, or erase this past, but I can finally start having better sex by demanding what it is I want. Or at least in the months leading up to using PrEP I began to question every aspect of my sexual practices. I started to see my own silence and have been working on breaking the fear that silence has created down, each day at a time.
If you feel afraid of your body, if you feel like sex is dirty the moment after you have it, if you feel wrong for wanting what you want, if pleasure is just the orgasm itself, well, take a moment to think. Evaluate what kinds of sex that’s making you have, how you’re communicating with your partner(s), and how that fits into different prevention strategies today. If this leads you to more questions, don’t be afraid to ask friends for advice. Don’t be afraid to not know about prevention strategies. Express your insecurities, your fears, the feelings that you were “bad” because there are so many others who have felt exactly the same way.
For now, for me, the science says that taking PrEP daily gives me a better shot of not getting HIV, so I’m going to take it. That works for me. Do I really want to take a pill a day? No. Does it make me angry that I can’t have sex free from the specter of HIV, that I can’t just undo all of this terrible suffering…the phone call I received when I found out my great uncle was dead, the wretched feeling in my stomach as I touched a priceless chapbook by an artist who was killed by a virus? Yes. But for now sex isn’t just about death anymore. It’s not about a label.
Call me what you want. But I’m not reckless. I’m not self-loathing. I’m not unclean. I’m a man who has sex with other men in an ongoing HIV/AIDS epidemic, which is to say: I’m imperfect just like you.