He’ll be here soon. We’ve had sex before, but I wasn’t on PrEP back then. How’s he going to respond when I tell him, and what’s going to happen?
There’s this sensation of my heart beating closer to my mouth than it really is. The glowing amber filaments of the exposed light globe add a surreal edge to the way the room is dimly lit, anticipating his arrival. There’s no harshness here; sexual intimacy is going to happen. That in itself isn’t new. But the chemical compounds protecting my body from HIV at a cellular level are… at least to me. I don’t fully get how the science works. Would even knowing in detail how PrEP helps prevent HIV change the way I feel about using it anyway?
Calling it ‘biomedical HIV prevention’ makes it sound straight out of science fiction. But I’m getting more comfortable with it being science fact; even if it’s medical mechanisms are beyond my comprehension. At least with a condom there’s this physical, tangible thing. I can see it, feel it, pick it up — I get it. And when I reach down to check it’s still on, I feel safe. I think I feel safe now. I wonder how many tens, or hundreds of thousands of other guys on PrEP have had this thought. Maybe it’s just me.
Glancing at my phone resting beside me on the arm of the low-backed, cool grey sofa, I’m sure he’ll be here soon. He’s not the first guy I’ve made out with on it. And I doubt he’ll be the last.
I already know how our routine goes. I mean, it starts predictably, but it’s never mundane. I’ll open the door and we’ll have this cute/awkward moment greeting each other again. I really want to kiss him from the get-go, though inside I’m like “we’re not dating… but we’ll be fucking in the next 20 minutes”. We’ve done it all before. But he’s not boyfriend status and I don’t want to appear all clingy. It’s just sex… I guess.
“It’s been a while since I did it without a condom.”
The faint aroma of an expensive, citrus-scented candle occasionally drifts in and out of my attention. It was a gift found at the back of a cupboard from some half remembered event. Focussing on when it might have been given and who from serves as a convenient, albeit fleeting distraction while vivid flashback fragments of parties are recalled in my mind’s eye.
It’s been a while since I did it without a condom. I’m sure not everyone starting PrEP is like me though. Is it wrong to want intimacy with someone I trust without being afraid? There’s this emotional divide where I teeter between nervousness and excitement. Like some sort of hyper-sensitive set of scales that never quite balances, no matter how much you fine-tune either side. Is that normal — am I normal? Is it ridiculous if I feel guilty for not feeling guilty about what’s on my mind?
He uses condoms. With me at any rate. Does he use them with other people? I told him they’re my choice right from when we first started hooking up. Did I even discuss his wants with him, or did I just prescribe my rules? Am I being presumptuous about how he wants to fuck now? Shit!
I know he uses PrEP too. What else do I know about him? At least I know I’m using PrEP and getting tested regularly. That’s what matters.
“At least I know I’m using PrEP and getting tested regularly. That’s what matters.”
My best mate Tom has been pretty good with helping me get started on it. Well… for the most part.
The mellow, deep house transmitted digitally from mobile to sound system fades out. I press play on another faithful playlist to provide an uncomplicated acoustic backdrop, adding to the relaxed atmosphere. The current mood is in stark contrast to the tone of my last conversation with Tom though. We seemed to have wildly differing views about my use of PrEP.
Now don’t get me wrong. He’s not a bad guy, or anti-PrEP or anything; he uses it too! Tom has joined our ever-growing number of mates using antiretrovirals for treating HIV or preventing it. Since then he’s been on some crusader-style mission to get anybody he encounters on to PrEP too. I genuinely admire his compulsive passion to act on what he believes: “It’s about being personally responsible, Charlie. It’s about standing up for people living with HIV, Charlie. It’s about the whole community getting on board to make an impact, Charlie.”
I don’t disagree with the validity of his reasons. But choosing PrEP isn’t about that for me. I don’t feel compelled to get on a soapbox about personal choices I make in private. I’m not trying to be a hero here. I just want to take my PrEP quietly every morning with my coffee and that’s it. I don’t want to make a meal out of swallowing a little blue pill.
“I just want to take my PrEP quietly every morning with my coffee and that’s it. I don’t want to make a meal out of swallowing a little blue pill.”
So what if my reasons for taking it aren’t ‘good reasons’… according to Tom. Who says we’re supposed to be part of some noble cause to use it? Why? What difference does it make if my reasons don’t measure up to someone else’s values? Don’t focus on what makes us different. What’s important here is recognising what we have in common. Regardless of anybody’s reasons to use PrEP, the outcome is the same: being extremely well protected against HIV.
I absentmindedly stroke the faux fur cushion part wedged under my arm while contemplating some suitably rehearsed, sanctimonious retort for when Tom and I next hang out. It’s kinda funny. Just not in the humorous way. All of these beliefs, emotions and chains of reasoning that create richness in our lives. While all the time there’s this virus we call HIV not caring about psychological sophistications of human beings. It’s just a virus looking for its next host.
“Regardless of anybody’s reasons to use PrEP, the outcome is the same: being extremely well protected against HIV.”
A knock at the door breaks my spiralling train of thought. He’s here.
I make us some drinks and we sit down together side by side, our inconsequential chit-chat serving as linguistic foreplay before the main event. He asks “So what’s news with you?” while I’m soaking up just how handsome he is. He has this air of constant ease and authority. Confidence is sexy.
“Oh you know; same old. Work’s going well…” This is it. Now’s the time to come out with it. “I started PrEP”. An ice cube expands with an almost imperceptible cracking sound in someone’s glass.
“Good for you Charlie! How’s it going?” is his reply. His convivial tone reinforces a sympathetic sense of affinity between us. “Yeah, umm, no dramas really. I didn’t get any side effects or anything. It’s been pretty uneventful… so far.”
“Oh yeah? That’s good to hear.” He raises a single eyebrow while taking a slow, gentle sip, never breaking eye contact. I can’t help but peripherally notice a single droplet of condensation trickle erratically down the side of his cold glass as he tilts it to his lips. “Welcome to the club. Just had my results back from my one year anniversary appointment.”
“Cool” What an uncool thing to say. Whatever. Just smile.
“Yeah…” he says, pauses and then adds “All clear” with a wink. Again, there’s this sensation of my heart beating closer to my mouth than it really is.
As always, safe sex is a negotiation and it is important to be respectful of other people’s sexual health choices.
PrEP helps prevent HIV, but it doesn’t prevent other STIs. Using a condom every time can help reduce the chance of acquiring some STIs, but does not eliminate it completely. Going for regular sexual health testing is the only way to be sure whether you have an STI. Discover more in Eight reasons why you should get an STI test, even if you don’t think you need one
Charlie’s previous stories involve negotiating safe sex with a PrEP user: He told me he’s on PrEP and wanted raw sex, here’s what I said and supporting his friend’s concern about acquiring HIV: My mate got an STI from his undetectable buddy — could he get HIV too?
If you’d like to know more about many of the topics raised in this story, check out the following articles:
- Introducing PrEP – The little blue pill making a big impact
- Four reasons why: Figuring out if PrEP is right for you
- Why can’t everyone just use a condom?
If you’d like to learn more about HIV prevention, treatment and other sexual health matters, check out the Facts section or contact your local LGBTI health organisation listed in Emen8’s partner network.
How to get PrEP
Wherever you’re based in Australia, PrEP access options are available to you.