Longer life-span for infected people causes less concern
He said he was clean.
So several cocktails, licks and strokes later, he and Jay Porter were having sex – without a condom.
“I thought to myself, ‘I shouldn’t, but I’m going to,'” recalls Porter, who picked the young man up at a bar.
After the bareback incident, Porter, who lives in Belleville, blamed everything but his own foolishness.
The alcohol. His low self-esteem. The guy’s interest in him. It also crossed his mind that after two hours of conversation, they would develop a deeper relationship. He was wrong.
“I never saw him again,” he says.
After Porter, now 24, mustered the guts to get tested, he discovered he was given another chance.
“I just know that I’m lucky to have escaped without infection,” he says, “and I know that many people aren’t so lucky.”
Around 40 million people are living with HIV and nearly three million have died from AIDS-related illness, according to UNAIDS. World AIDS Day, recognized on Dec. 1, provides an opportunity for people worldwide to unite in the fight against what many people are no longer scared of.
This year, according to a Kaiser survey, only 15 percent of people polled said they were personally very concerned with becoming infected with HIV versus 24 percent in 1997.
“I feel that as young adults, we feel invincible. We think it won’t happen to us,” says Matt Grimes, 21, of Ypsilanti. “I don’t think it’s that people don’t care, but people just don’t think it will happen to them. When you are put in a situation where you’re possibly intoxicated after a long night out partying and you are really attracted to someone, you’re not really thinking about HIV in the heat of the moment.”
It’s a false sense of security that has spread the notion that it’s safe to come out and play, notes Mark Cichocki, an HIV/AIDS nurse specialist at the University of Michigan Health System. The drugs are often over publicized as the next breakthrough – and a closer step to a cure.
“The message that ‘this is going to kill’ or ‘this is a life changing thing’ is just not there anymore,” he says.
David (who asked that his real name not be used) barebacked with about 10 men before he found out he was HIV-positive in 1994. At the time, he felt that although the media pushed the importance of protection, he was still isolated from the virus.
But when his results came back positive, he was in denial. Maybe they mixed up the charts, he thought. “After he gave me my results, I didn’t hear anything else he said,” remembers David, now 36.
He remained in denial for two years. Within that time he continued engaging in unsafe sex.
Now, with HIV-positive people like Magic Johnson living a normal life, people continue to leave the condoms in the nightstand instead of their back pockets.
David says, “People are more relaxed concerning HIV now.”
Drugs don’t cure
With the “cocktail” therapy available, albeit at high costs to those without insurance, AIDS isn’t any less of a dilemma than it was in the ’80s. Since 2001 HIV infection in the U.S. has edged upward, according to the October issue of Details magazine. From 2003 to 2004 there was an 8-percent increase in HIV/AIDS diagnoses among men who have sex with men. The same group, according to the Center for Disease Control, accounted for 70 percent of all estimated HIV infections in 2004.
Despite highly effective treatments, there are still short and long term side effects to the drugs. People on HIV medication are developing hip pain and fat redistribution, Cichocki notes. And if those effects aren’t reason enough to wrap it up, there’s always the fact that AIDS still kills, David says.
“People are still dying from it,” he says. “There needs to be more education.”
Between 1987 and 1992, the federal government developed public-service announcements addressing safe sex, which ran more than 59,000 times, according to Details.
The news media has eased the beating of HIV awareness into our brains, which has left many with the impression that David had: It won’t happen to me.
“People think, ‘I’ll just go ahead and take some medication and I’ll be fine,'” David says.
Outside of ads from HIV drug agencies, the lack of media attention is leading many to believe there’s nothing to worry about, Cichocki notes.
“You don’t hear a lot about it (HIV/AIDS) anymore,” he says.
While new research shows that HIV-positive people can expect to live 24 years, it’s still a fire that shouldn’t be played with, Porter notes. But without the knowledge of the virus, young people are left with the impression that it’s safe to play unsafe.
“If young people are not exposed to the severity of the virus, they’re less likely to fear it, and less likely to take the steps necessary to prevent it,” Porter says.
Every morning Bradley Fowler, 38, takes two pills. A far cry from the 16 he took immediately following his HIV-positive diagnosis in 1996. He works for a janitorial service during the day, engages in meditation frequently and spends time with his partner. While searching the scene for his one and only in his early 20s, like many young people, he engaged in unprotected sex. But he wasn’t promiscuous, he says.
The couple doesn’t use condoms. And his HIV-negative partner has avoided infection.
“I’m not saying people should have sex without condoms,” says Fowler, who will speak on Jan. 9 at Affirmations in Ferndale on his new book “In the Life With Logos,” which discusses HIV. As a trained HIV/AIDS educator, Fowler, who only tops his boyfriend, makes sure he withdraws before climaxing. But, according to the CDC, pre-ejaculate still poses a risk.
“I don’t have that,” Fowler notes.
‘The Gay Disease’
Grimes, who has been in a committed relationship for three years, has seen AIDS affect friends, and he says he won’t play Russian roulette. With media coverage of AIDS on the decline, more gay pride events are promoting HIV awareness. But Grimes thinks it re-emphasizes the stereotype that gay people sleep around, thus upping their chances of getting infected.
“While this type of lifestyle is alive and well in the gay community, not all gay men are part of it,” Grimes says. “I get tired of people always assuming I sleep around just because I am gay. Gay people can have healthy, normal relationships just like straight people can.”
According to Porter, who avoided infection despite engaging in risky sex, HIV may always be considered “The Gay Disease.” The gay male disease, to be precise.
The CDC reports that no confirmed cases of lesbian sexual transmission of HIV have occurred in the U.S. but vaginal secretions and menstrual blood are “potentially infectious.”
While the media has backed off hammering the HIV effects into our heads, Porter sees the gay community’s HIV outreach efforts as less cowardice than other outlets, which just sweep the still devastating virus under the rug.
“People in this community realize the danger of HIV/AIDS,” he says. “They realize it’s affecting the entire world, and they’re trying to do everything they can to make other people aware of it, too.”