College: the land of hookups. Random, drunken, hot, delirious, routine, and... unprotected, regretfully or indifferently so. We have sex, we orgasm, and we move on like nothing happened; those moments of artificial intimacy slip to the back of our minds. This societal perspective is problematically mainstream, supported by the different poisons of sexualized entertainment within pop culture we desire to inject into our youthful veins. However, there is one crucial, and for some reason, invisible aspect that we sometimes fail to uphold — that our casual sex is also safe sex.
This may be painful, but think back to your last hookup. Did mysterious symptoms appear shortly after? Did you consider the possibility of them resulting from your previous sexual encounter? If you are like me, you felt an immediate twinge of doubt. You warily Googled your symptoms with keyword “STD” and voila, you’ve created a personal nightmare. Suddenly, you find all these websites listing STDs and scroll through, looking for your symptoms and their match. Then you freeze. Your symptoms are under “HIV.”
Over Thanksgiving break, I had unprotected sex. I knew what was happening, but I didn’t care. That brief moment of emptiness later brought long moments of regret. While making plans to hook up, not once did I ask his status, or when he was last tested. I forgot the basic knowledge I needed for my own safety by blindly assuming he was clean because he was a “friend.” Post-sex and anxiety-ridden, I texted him and asked when he was last tested. He replied, “You only text me when you want something!!!” Fair enough.
But how crumby was he for not giving me an answer? So I asked when he last had sex, and he told me, “the week before.” Um. What? My brain dumped itself into a chaotic tornado. I maniacally thought: How could he have been so casually unprotected with me when he JUST had sex with someone else? Was he protected last week? Was that partner infected? How could I do this to myself for a second time!? HIV, HIV, HIV.
I could only wait, get tested, and hope for no forthcoming symptoms. But a couple weeks later, I found a weird lump in the side of my neck, a swollen lymph node in my groin, a mysterious red rash on my chest, and times when my body felt warmer than normal. I researched my symptoms with HIV and tried to assess my risk by comparing my situation to others. An odd comfort seemed to ease my panic when reading the posts of those who were as scared as I was. Hours were spent obsessively reading exposure stories and symptom related questions, looking for a peace of mind I would not find. I started to delay homework because I was too distracted. How could homework possibly be more important than my legitimate fear of contracting this lifelong virus from an unprotected hookup? I became a paranoid hypochondriac.
The waiting consumed me. For seven long weeks, I fiercely prayed to God for another chance and asked my friends to pray for me as well. There was no keeping this fear to myself.
Finally, I took a seat at my local clinic. As I sat there waiting and wishing, my friend texted me saying: “Just relax. :)” I took a deep breath and calmed myself down. A small blonde woman came out of the office and led me to another room. She pricked my finger for an instant anti-body test and initiated small talk. Luckily, she was interesting enough for it to be worthwhile.
“What’s an intelligent young man from Rutgers doing in a place like this?” she asked. I smiled and said, “I have no idea.”
The ice was breaking and it felt like we were becoming friends, yet her gaze remained professionally reserved. After 10 minutes of conversation, trying not to peek at the results, and signing the cross, she carefully pushed the plastic testing meter toward me. There was one line. I was negative. In one breath I exhaled all demons, doubt, and overall mental destruction into the relief of that single line. Strangely, I knew all along I would be OK, but I was relieved to finally breathe. Before I went my way with a paper bag of complimentary condoms, I hugged her and thanked her for her work. Her name was Susan.
NIKKO ESPINA is an English major at Rutgers University. You can follow him on Twitter @NikkoMinaj