It's Just Sex?
BY Benjamin Ryan
November 18 2010 4:00 AM ET
Out of the Game?
Annie Elmer, who at age 52 has been seropositive for 20 years, lacks both the sex drive and the interest in compromise. Menopause, she says, ran off with the last remnants of her libido, adding, "If I added a man to my life, I'd have to make closet space for him. And I'm really set in my ways."
David Goldmeier, a researcher at the Jane Wadsworth Sexual Function Clinic at Imperial College London, says Elmer's point of view is common: "Lots of women find that it's too much of a hassle, so they don't actually go into relationships."
All joking aside, Elmer, who lives in Cottage Grove, Minn., says she'd rather not torture herself with the anxieties over dating -- when to disclose, whether to disclose, will men like her, etc. -- that she feels are best left to youth. She prefers, she says, to seek peace as an independent woman. Her armor, though, eventually reveals a bit of a chink. "There's a lot of acceptance most of the time in my life," Elmer says. "But if the right man comes along, I may open my mind and let that spark come back. But right now I'm dormant. It's really good. [Dating] only got me in trouble because of the emotional roller coaster."
Serovich says this sort of self-preservation is a healthy measure for many: "If they feel like taking care of somebody else is going to be more burdensome than beneficial, then they're probably making a good choice."
Robert John Weber Jr., a 51-year-old former ballet and Broadway dancer from Wanaque, N.J., has similar instincts that tell him to stay out of a rat race that comes with more baggage than he can handle. Having buried three partners and countless friends -- and having survived a quarter century with HIV only to have hepatitis C and Lyme disease tacked on in recent years -- he isn't particularly sure anyone wants to accept his own hefty baggage. "Who could deal with all this shit!" he quips. "So I try to stay away from any expectations in that direction and focus more on just what is going to make my life satisfying."
As for middle-age sexual dysfunction, Weber says he can still "hoist the sails" at will. "When I want to give myself a 'helping hand,' there doesn't seem to be an issue. I will generally watch some porn." He says he has an enthusiasm for Colt products.
Melendez seconds Weber's outlook -- on masturbation, that is. No word on any penchant for a specific genre of porn. "You don't need to have a partner to enjoy sex," she points out. "There's the do-it-yourself kind of making love -- just to relax and clear your mind. That's a good thing. It's good for me!" If her sex drive is ever waning, it's for a particularly mundane reason, she says -- like keeping up with small children. But she and her husband work to keep things spicy. "Using toys or playing roles," she explains. "That's what kind of got us out of the routine. The more we worked together, the more we felt like we can do more. We always talk. That's the main thing. It has been great."
Manhattan psychiatrist McDowell encourages HIVers to assert their right to a great sex life. "Sex is so readily available now in a way that it really wasn't, even a decade ago," he says. "It's a whole smorgasbord out there of, kind of, whatever you want. Great sex is in your head; it's not the body. So I think that people who allow their HIV status to impede them from having a fulfilling sex life -- it's a tragedy. Because it's not necessary. If they explore it and come up with some decent strategies, they can have a great sex life."
What about transmission and how condoms might trip up "the moment"? "When it comes down to it," McDowell says, "the real risk in terms of transmission is receptive anal or vaginal intercourse without a condom. So if you take that out of the picture, almost anything else goes. When everybody gets hung up on how sex can't be spontaneous... If condoms are readily available, it can be pretty spontaneous. Every other kind of sex can be as spontaneous as you want and as dramatic as you want."
Fix What's Broken
Glenn Treisman, director of the AIDS Psychiatry Service at Johns Hopkins Hospital, takes a bit more of a measured approach and encourages HIVers to see any sexual problem they may experience not as an isolated symptom but as an indicator that they may need to take a step back and make more global changes in their lives. "Great sex isn't something that you can just pull out of a Cracker Jack box," he says. "A lot of people come to me with a variety of problems: sexual mistreatment, unreasonable expectations of what the world owes them or should give them, paraphiliias, addictions, and in order to get great sex they have to get that kind of stuff fixed first. It's not just a matter of going to counseling; it's a matter of getting serious about changing the whole course of your life. When the whole course of your life has changed, you can have great sex."
That's a tall order that Mark King hasn't shied away from, especially when he considers the benefits. Today, he's busy rediscovering his own sexuality -- finally growing up in middle age. And how is the sex?
"Better," he says. "Better and promising," he adds with a laugh. His boyfriend has been patient during the recent times they've spent together in preparation for King's return to Florida, he says. Once torn with anxiety over how he could enjoy another man without the added charge of methamphetamine -- and whether sex would trigger him to use drugs again -- King has been delighted to discover that sexuality can gradually evolve in ways he hadn't even allowed himself to believe.
"Much to my surprise, it's the emotional component that is the driving force," he says. "And that has never been the driving force before. The driving force was something chemical or it was pure lust. Sex keeps improving as I pull further away from drug addiction, as I relearn things. And you know what? He doesn't mind my flat butt."