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OutServe Magazine | November 7, 2012

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Attitudes on HIV

Attitudes on HIV

Sensationalism of Progress Toward Curing HIV Causes Unsafe Sex Practice

By David Small

I’m 36 years old. I’m between a generation who were adults living through the 1980s AIDS crisis, who can count the number of friends they lost to the disease in the dozens, and a generation who is, by my counts—apathetic at the most, and nonchalant at best about safe sexual practices. The disappearance of fear in our youth over contracting HIV scares me.

And today I see the USA Today headline, “The AIDS epidemic: Beginning of the end?”

As a professional communicator, I’m appalled by editors who sensationalize a story down into a few words in a grabbing headline like this. Because one message I got from reading the complete story is that people, a lot of people, particularly in young minority groups, evermore are contracting the virus at astounding rates.

How can such a statistic contribute to such a headline?

While I applaud the fact that in general, society no longer treats HIV+ people as pariahs, I think our collective progress toward understanding that you can’t contract HIV from simple contact has provided a slippery slope fueled by the media stating it is no longer a death sentence. That slippery slope seems to have spawned an entire generation of people who don’t seem to be taking precautions.

Here are some pertinent excerpts from the article that are completely buried under scientific hullabaloo that doctors can now practically cure the disease. You can practically cure it? Well, hell… if you can practically cure it anyway, then why do I have to wear a jimmy hat? That’s what some kid out there is thinking now because of this article.

  • In communities with high infection rates, people can be at risk even without being promiscuous, simply because the virus is found at such high rates within their social network, says Justin Goforth, a registered nurse at Whitman Walker Health in Washington. In these communities, staying HIV-free requires “perfection,” Goforth says, or at least 100 percent condom use.
  • Young gay men — who don’t remember when AIDS was a universal death sentence — are the only group in which the rate of new infections is increasing, largely due to an “alarming” growth in the disease among gay black youths. The HIV infection rate climbed 48 percent among young gay black men from 2003 to 2009, according to the CDC.
  • Many young people are unaware or in denial of the dangers of unprotected sex, which HIV patient Kevin Swinton compares to “Russian roulette.” Other young people are fatalistic, he says. Convinced that they’ll eventually contract HIV anyway, they decide to have fun while they can, says Swinton, 36, of Silver Spring, Md. “I knew the risk was out there,” Swinton says. “D.C. is small enough that eventually, everybody sleeps with everybody.”

The USA Today article blames such attitudes by our youth today on lack of sex education and lack of access to health care. That may be spot on, particularly for those who are poor and disenfranchised. But a third factor ought to be with the media and medical community who recite low statistics for certain activities.

In a conversation with a dear friend, he told me he practiced unsafe sex with multiple partners he knew were HIV+. He stated that because he was not the receptive partner, and that his partners were “undetectable,” he was willing to accept the reduced risk. I wanted to vomit. He’s a decade younger than I am and fairly new to being gay. He’s not poor. He has access to military health care. He is well educated. And other than the normal growing-up-Christian-and-rejecting-it-upon-coming-out stuff, he isn’t disenfranchised. How on earth did he get this nonchalant attitude?

My view certainly isn’t all encompassing to all Millennials. I know plenty in the younger generations who do practice safe sex. And one anecdote does not make a trend. But I’m personally seeing this more and more. And I just have to ask, “why?”

Here’s much better coverage of the issue than USA Today… and it’s from 2008! The title, “Circumcised Gay Tops ‘Less Likely To Contract HIV’.”

But instead of jetting into coverage of the Sydney Morning Herald’s story, the article in this Australian gay men’s magazine asks if this kind of research sends the wrong message. Of those who responded, 60 percent said yes – it’s another dangerous excuse for having unsafe sex. The other 40 percent said no, the sensible safe guys won’t stop using condoms.

Don’t get me wrong, I am absolutely thrilled for the scientific breakthroughs made in the last decade. One of my dearest friends on the planet has been living with HIV for more than 20 years and is a long-term non-progressor. For the first 18 years he had it, he wasn’t on any meds and today is a part of the National Institute of Health study to find out why he is still alive. He also has to live with what comes with being HIV+, like his fear when his T-cells, despite being on meds now, dropped recently to near AIDS levels. It is scary to face your own mortality. Today, he is healthy, in fantastic spirits, and will live a long and fruitful life. He will die at an old age of happiness.

I’ll close with the caption under a rather nice photo of a muscular bubble butt from this Australian article, “If you wanna tap it, you should wrap it.”

Perhaps if editors published more photos like that and less sensational headlines, people would read further for the full message—there is still risk, take precautions.