Why Some HIV-Positive People Don’t Disclose

Anonymous Question:

Heya, well this is a touch on the awkward side for me and I hope it’s not an inconvenience to you, but I had a question and feel you’re probably the best source for information. I am HIV+ and undetectable, I’ve been invited to a warehouse style dance/sex party hosted by the “Daddy’s Social Club” of Columbus, Ohio. My question is on etiquette in disclosing my status, is the risk just assumed by the party goer’s, is it even ok for me to go?

 

Yes, it’s OK for you to go. Your question touches a debate currently raging between HIV activists, the medical community, lawmakers, and the public. I’ll tell you what I believe, and then I’ll tell you what the law states. I believe the men at this party are freethinking adults. Their choices are theirs to make, and they should assume a degree of risk when fucking strangers, as should everyone.

Unfortunately, the law disagrees. Lawmakers hold us — people with HIV — solely responsible if our sex partners get infected and brand us as criminals if we fail to disclose our status beforehand. If you go to this party, find a guy blindfolded in the dark, hands against the wall with his pants down, ass sticking out, taking loads from anonymous men, and you dump a load in his ass without informing him about your HIV status and making sure he’s OK with it (doing so would make you an absolute nuisance and kill the mood), you’ll have committed a criminal act, at least according to various HIV criminalization laws across the United States.

These laws don’t care about the concept of assumed risk. (I wrote about “assumed risk” in this sex party guide in The Advocate and part two of my sex party guide in Them. Read both.) “Assumed risk” is simply the fact that anyone who willfully enters a dark space where anonymous sex is intended to take place assumes the risk that they might get touched without their consent, and if they participate in anonymous sex, they assume the risk that someone present may knowingly or unknowingly have transmittable HIV or some other sexually transmittable infection. Spaces like this are commonly found at gay circuit parties, sex clubs, bathhouses, and so on.

I don’t think non-disclosure should be illegal, at least not in the case of consenting adults engaging in high-risk sex. The laws that criminalize non-disclosure treat our disease as a weapon and portray us as dangerous. HIV criminalization laws are not consistent across the country — they vary from state to state, and were largely written with gay men in mind.

Most of these laws were put in place in the 80s during the height of AIDS panic, a time when we knew relatively little about HIV. By and large, they fail to account for modern advances in HIV care and prevention. We know a lot more about HIV now, including how HIV is spread (not through saliva, even though most of these laws criminalize HIV-positive people who bite and spit) and how it’s prevented (undetectable HIV-positive people can’t spread HIV).

These medical breakthroughs — this increased knowledge about HIV — are so significant that they should rightly change the nature and severity of these laws. But they haven’t, at least not yet, because the hetero, HIV-negative public is terrified of HIV and those who have it. (HIV disproportionately affects queer men and transgender women of color.)

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It’s hard to relay dense, difficult-to-understand information about HIV to the masses, particularly when they go into a panic at the mere mention of this disease. It’s harder still to assert the value of this information to anti-gay lawmakers in conservative backwaters like Iowa where an HIV-positive, undetectable gay man was thrown in jail for not disclosing his status even though, with an undetectable viral load, he was physically unable to infect his accuser. His accuser remained HIV-negative throughout the trial and still managed to get this HIV-positive queer man of color branded a sex criminal for life.

HIV stigma — hatred and fear of our disease — makes it easy to convince a jury of clueless straight people that someone with HIV is dangerous and deserving of having their life ruined. Remember: Perceived exposure, regardless of actual transmission, is illegal.

With so much to lose from not disclosing, the legally correct answer to your question is obvious: You must tell everyone at this party your status before you have sex with them and make sure they’re OK with it. If possible, get proof — Grindr messages or text messages with timestamps — that you did. This gives you some evidence that you disclosed if they later sue.

Here’s the problem: In that scenario, it’d be your word against theirs, and juries tend to side with self-proclaimed victims over us “dangerous fags with AIDS.” When you disclose your status to someone prior to sex, you’re trusting them to tell the truth under oath if this encounter gets rehashed in court.

The fact is, people will respond in ways you can’t predict to a positive diagnosis or even to the perception that they were put at risk (regardless if they actually were). A guy once threatened to call the police on me after I gave him a blowjob, even though every credible source on HIV states that getting HIV from receptive oral sex is virtually impossible.  Just to belabor an important point, I was undetectable at the time, which means that even if my mouth was filled with open sores (which it wasn’t) and his dick was lacerated with cuts (which it wasn’t), I was still physically unable to infect him. Regardless, if he had called the cops, I likely would have been criminally convicted. (On top of all this, the doctor he consulted actually encouraged him to press charges.)

If I seem paranoid to suggest that scared people use HIV stigma to attack their HIV-positive sex partners, it’s because they do. It would be impossible to tabulate how many times HIV has been used to smear people like us as “sexual predators,” even in cases when an alleged victim’s claim that they were not informed is impossible to verify. 

This not to scare you. These are simply facts. HIV-positive people are enemies of the judicial system and we have every reason to distrust it. These laws are written against us and generate the widespread belief that we are all hell-bent on infecting people. Legally, you must tell every potential sex partner about your status and hope they’ll tell the truth to a jury if they later decide to go after you.

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Since there is so much to lose no matter what we do, many guys who attend the kind of event you’re going to fuck freely and say nothing. They don’t give out their names or numbers. They dance, fuck, and dash. If, two months later, someone they fuck tests positive for HIV, it’s impossible to trace it back to them. (This scenario is just one example of how HIV criminalization laws actually contribute to the spread of HIV.)

If the event is bareback-focused or bareback-friendly — many all-male sex events are, like CumUnion — everyone present assumes this risk. The beauty of bareback culture is its rejection of fear, stigma, and shame. Among barebackers, sex for sex’s sake is seen as an act of fellowship, one in which everyone shares risk and responsibility equally.

I cannot tell you in print to go to this event, fuck freely, and say nothing, because that is a felony in Ohio punishable by up to eight years in prison. A jury would see you as a monster regardless of the fact that you, like me, are undetectable. To not incriminate myself in writing (which, truthfully, is very hard to do — if this goes to court, I’ll call this entire blog a work of fiction), I won’t be explicit about what I choose to do. I’ve been HIV-positive for five years and undetectable for most of that time, and I love warehouse-style dance/sex parties. When we’re huddled and sweaty in the dark, groping for dicks and fingering holes, we share a visceral experience — a powerful rejection of fear.

These spaces are so liberating because HIV stigma is so pervasive. Because every HIV-positive person remembers the pain of being blocked, refused, and turned away because of something in their blood. Stigma kills us, criminalizes us, and creates a culture of distrust among queer people — the ones who should be most adept at helping each other survive. (Don’t think for a moment that this isn’t an intentional tactic employed by a majority-hetero populace.)

Some say HIV stigma is the reason anonymous sex remains popular among queer men. Everyone needs intimacy, but many HIV-positive guys prefer to satisfy that need with men they’ll never see again. They’re not monsters for feeling that way — our laws make them scared of sharing anything more with the people they fuck. And that’s fucking heartbreaking.

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If you take the legal route and disclose every time, you will encounter rejection. But you’ll also find countless kinky, slutty, gorgeous men all over the world who don’t care about your status. Lucky for us, these well-informed, beautiful men are often found at warehouse-style dance/sex parties.

Despite the risk, disclosure is the greatest social litmus test. It weeds out the trash who never bothered to educate themselves about HIV and who will remain terrified of it regardless of what you tell them. It’s hard to get rejected for something in your body — something that amounts to a small part of who you are  — but the men who pass the test will prove how much better sex gets when you fuck the right ones.

Beastly

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