“It’s no longer a death sentence” is not what I was told in my seventh-grade health class. “It’s the worst sexually transmitted infection, and not one you want to get” — that’s what I was told. That’s what started my pathological fear of contracting HIV.
Before I had sex with a single man, I was having HIV scares. I don’t think there’s a pediatrician in the history of mankind who’s had to deal with such an obsessive (barely sexually active) 17-year-old.
Upon asking for my fourth HIV test, my pediatrician told me that since I was having unprotected vaginal sex with literally one woman, the odds of my contracting HIV were slim. He told me it would be a different case for anal or if I was having sex with men.
Then at 18, I started having sexual relationships with men (two weeks into college), but it wasn’t until almost four years later, the week before graduating from college, that I first had penetrative intercourse with a man. It was unprotected, and I was high and liquored up. That’s what it took me to get to a place where I could sleep with a man. The sex was unprotected, and this was May 2013, before I even knew what PrEP was.
Later that week I took 20 milligrams of Ambien and invited the same boy over. We had sex again. Again, unprotected. For a month afterward, I freaked out about being positive. Then I finally got tested. The results came back negative.
Then after coming out as bisexual and fully embracing the label, I began using condoms. The possibility of getting HIV seemed even more real, and once I embraced the bi label, I couldn’t stop thinking about HIV during sex and feared being that HIV-spreading “bridge” to women — a bridge that's quite possibly a myth I've been conditioned to fear. So condoms seemed like the logical option.
But with condoms comes erectile dysfunction. Almost every time.
It was frustrating, it was embarrassing, and I began loathing myself for being unable to keep an erection. This led to a vicious self-fulfilling prophecy, and I couldn’t get hard for pretty much anyone, at least the first few times we attempted to have sex.
I tried everything to get over my ED. Therapy, breathing, stress-releasing exercises, beta blockers to help with nerves, even Viagra (100 milligrams — I was not messing around). Nothing worked.
This led me to bottom more consistently, and bottoming, as we all know, puts you at higher risk for acquiring HIV. This is when my fear of acquiring HIV peaked. So after consulting with my therapist, I asked my primary care physician to put me on PrEP.
But I became obsessive over taking Truvada, always worried that I’d missed a dose (even though I’ve never missed a dose). I bought those plastic pill containers that your grandparents use to make sure they take their meds on the correct day. I’d put them in there so I was positive I hadn’t missed a day. I then bought portable pill containers that I stuck to my keychain, so I’d have a Truvada on me at all times.
I’d demand neg men on PrEP to wear condoms. They were baffled by how insistent I was, especially since I was neg, on PrEP, and adhered to my medication daily. When a man didn’t want to have sex with me because I wanted him to wear a condom, I would not acquiesce. Condoms protect against other STDs, and the Centers for Disease Control recommend using them even while on PrEP, and yet it was still HIV I was concerned about. So, we wouldn’t hook up, and he would get pissed. (It seems audacious that he would get mad at me, but that’s another issue.) I also wouldn’t sleep with men who were poz even if they claimed they were undetectable and we wore a condom. My reasoning: Condoms can break, undetectable men can have viral blips, and Truvada as PrEP is only 90 percent to 99 percent efficacious. Oh, and he could be lying.
And while I knew at the time I was being neurotic, I couldn’t stop myself, even after looking at all the academic literature and learning that it’s pretty much more likely I’d get struck by lightning during sex than acquire HIV while having protected sex with an undetectable man while I’m on PrEP.
Then Christmas Day last year, I was bored and not in the mood for my usual Chinese food and movie combo, so I went over to the home of this guy I met on Grindr. He told me his partner was coming over, and I told him that was fine. I did my usual asking about status and condoms. They said they were neg and we could use condoms. We ended up on the roof of his South End Boston home, and by a miracle, I got hard. I didn’t have condoms on me, since we were on the roof, so I decided screw it, I’m going to have sex bareback.
I did and it was amazing, until I learned after the fact he had actually been poz. I was on PrEP at this point, and I topped. But still, I freaked out. I spoke with an infectious disease specialist at Mass General Hospital. I got tested both exactly 10 days and 14 days after exposure. (As the guideline says, wait 10 to 14 days post-exposure.) I was a mess for two weeks straight. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t think. I was furious with myself. And while I knew, statistically, the odds of me acquiring HIV were almost null, I still couldn't shake the idea that I was positive. And while I knew that HIV is manageable, and you can live a healthy, normal life with HIV, I told myself that was only what doctors told men with HIV to make them feel better.
Of course, my results came back negative. Truvada did what it was supposed to do. Or he'd been undetectable, or maybe I was lucky.
Cut to eight months later, and I haven’t had unprotected sex with a man or a woman once. I’d also rejected men who were positive, even if they claimed they were undetectable. I’m in Provincetown for the summer. Boys are plentiful and sex is everywhere. Oh, and I get a bad case of oral thrush, and my doctor, after testing for HIV and other STIs (negative) suggests I go off PrEP for a little to get rid of it. (After consulting with other doctors, I realize it was unlikely Truvada was causing my thrush, but I listened to my doctor).
What happened next was caused by some karmic gods. The next four men I met out at clubs were positive. Because we met in real life, I didn’t ask about their statuses until we were in bed together. They were honest about it, saying they were poz and undetectable.
Then for some reason, one I’m not exactly sure of, I decided, screw it. I’m going to have anal sex. Maybe I was tired of having thoughts of HIV consume me. Maybe I was drunker than I thought. Maybe I was thinking with the wrong head, but for some reason, I said yes. With the first guy, we used condoms, and I couldn’t keep my erection. We had sex for a little bit, then stopped and jerked each other off. The second time, I was able to keep my hard-on for most of it. The third and fourth times, I had no trouble keeping my erection during sex with the condom firmly on.
After having ED problems on and off for years, it seems to be going away for good. I also seem to have gotten over my fear of acquiring HIV, bizarrely enough, through exposure therapy.
HIV is no longer a death sentence. That’s a fact. We should engage in safe-sex practices to decrease our chances of spreading and acquiring HIV. That too is a fact. But we cannot let the fear of HIV ruin our lives. My pathological fear of HIV has been an insidious source of stress in my life and relationships. I couldn’t tell you the number of nights I’d lie awake in bed, convinced I had acquired HIV. I couldn't tell you how many times I regretted having sex or lost my hard-on because of thoughts of HIV. I couldn’t tell you how often I cried because I was annoyed with myself that I couldn’t get hard to have sex with a man I really liked.
The fear of contracting HIV has run my life for what feels like forever, and I’m not willing to let it control me any longer.
While we need to be careful, we also need to live our lives without fear. We face so much nonsense and persecution as gay and bi men, let’s not add HIV to the list. Let’s be smart but not let it control us.
Because at the end of the day, it is true: HIV is no longer a death sentence. It’s really not the end of the world.
ZACHARY ZANE is a writer focusing on (bi)sexuality, gender, dating, and relationships. Follow him on Twitter @ZacharyZane.