by guest contributor: Ryan Berg.
When I met Charles, I’d recently moved back to Des Moines from New York City, a stop-off, I’d intended, on my way out west. I sat in a coffee shop getting some work done when my mind began to wander. I logged on to a smart phone social networking application designed for gay men, and received a message from Charles, a college freshman.
We exchanged pictures, made small talk, and before long he got to the point: He was eager to meet right away. He didn’t mince words about what he wanted.
I might have been drawn to his youthful longing. Maybe I was acting out because being back in Iowa felt suffocating to my sexuality, or maybe his boldness triggered my own desire. Whatever the reason, I met with him. And not only did we have sex; we had it without a condom. I knew better. Here was a person I’d been acquainted with for less than an hour. We’d exchanged little more than first names, and yet I still found myself jumping into risky territory.
I’d broken a rule of contemporary gay life. As long as I’ve been having sex, it’s been understood: Don’t endanger your sexual health. Everyone knows it’s a death wish.
But Charles seemed fine with our slip, almost encouraged it. There were moments during our rendezvous where I could have interjected, impressed upon him the inherent dangers of unprotected sex; I could have shaken us both from the irrational haze of our desire. I could have grabbed a condom.
I can’t blame my lapse in judgment on drugs, alcohol, or the shame of being in the closet. I’m educated about HIV/AIDS, having worked with queer youth in New York and volunteered for both the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and Housing Works. I get tested regularly, and have been scrupulous about maintaining my HIV negative status. I know the studies; have researched articles about the resurgent HIV epidemic, climbing syphilis rates, new drug-resistant strains of Chlamydia. So why would I chance my sexual health for this brief encounter with Charles?
Risk is a relative notion. Perhaps I qualified my safety by being in the Midwest where the numbers of HIV infections are lower. Or, because of Charles’ age, and my assumption that he hadn’t had many sexual partners, my risk was lessened. Whatever the calculation, I felt daring enough to engage in a way contrary to my knowledge of the subject.
The more I talked to young men on the smart phone application, both closeted and out, the more apparent it was to me that the younger generation of men who have sex with men in Iowa– like most places across the country– were willing, and often times preferred, to engage in unprotected sex.
When considering risk, public health professionals tend to focus on how rational or irrational a choice is based on the information available. Rarely is it considered how emotions, our sense of self, can alter our decisions. It’s easy to isolate a situation like Charles and mine, and examine it, define it as a momentary lapse of reason. How else could such careless behavior be explained? But new studies show that nearly 50% of gay men using hook up smart phone applications engage in unprotected sex regularly. Momentary lapses are becoming habitual, repeated behaviors.
I grew up watching AIDS patients wasting away on television, and listening to the cries for action by activists as they faced social indifference and political neglect. Witnessing the near-death frailty of once youthful men on TV frightened a whole generation soon to come out of the closet into being meticulous about sexual safety. Later, as anti-retroviral therapies became available, and the lives of those living with AIDS were prolonged, a belief seemed to permeate queer culture. Sex, it appeared, was losing its danger. Youth have become more brazen, often times ignoring a host of complications that come with living with AIDS. One young man I spoke with recently shrugged when I asked about his habitual unsafe sexual practices. He told me it wasn’t a big deal if he tested positive, it’s no longer a death sentence.
People are living with the disease, true, but people are dying too. Even when you’re able to pay for the medication, a litany of problems can arise. The drugs can having serious side-effects, particularly in advanced disease; if patients miss doses, drug resistance can develop; providing anti-retroviral treatment is costly and resource-intensive, and the majority of the world’s infected individuals can’t access treatment services; individuals who fail to use anti-retrovirals properly can develop multi-drug resistant strains which can be passed onto others.
Results from a recent review confirm that HIV-positive adults are at a higher risk for developing cancer than the general population. In particular, people with HIV are about four times more likely to develop cancer than people without HIV and are slightly more likely to develop cancer than people who have had an organ transplant.
AIDS education has seemed to wane from public discourse and prevention instruction seems sequestered to HIV testing sites. Remember the days when red ribbons were fastened to the lapels of a host of public figures, serving as a reminder of the epidemic?
Luckily, we might see the reappearance of such reminders this year. Films like the Academy Award nominated How to Survive a Plague, and Jim Hubbard’s United in Anger: A History of ACT UP, are bringing AIDS awareness back into focus.
Young men who have sex with men need to grapple with, and face the facts these films present.
Youth can be perilous without support and education. As men of a generation that remembers the devastation of the AIDS epidemic, there is a need to reach out to our younger counterparts. Gay male mentors are nearly nonexistent for young men. Most men, myself included, have allowed desires to dictate interactions with younger men. As a result, many like Charles get terribly lost before coming to a healthy, integrated sense of self. Now it’s time to step up, to present ourselves, and our knowledge, in hopes of making the lives of our youth a little less lonely and a lot safer.