Without condoms I don’t feel he’s safe… from me
Leaning against the cold, stone surface of his kitchen counter looking like butter wouldn’t melt, the words pour effortlessly out of his mouth. It’s like someone’s gradually dulling the light in his ordinarily bright apartment as the tail end of what he’s saying fully registers “… was just thinking, maybe you wanna do it without a condom?”
I can feel myself bristle, automatically rejecting his suggestion. My chest tightens. It’s a familiar, knee-jerk reaction. “No Theo, I don’t want that… And I think that’s more about what you want than what I want.”
Bouncing forward from the counter, he wraps his arms around me, chin resting on my shoulder “Well, yeah. I want you! Is that so terrible?”. I love and hate how he can just gloss over stuff like it doesn’t really matter. But it does matter — we both know I’m HIV positive.
Nuzzling against my cheek, he gleefully announces “S-T-I’ve not got anything! Test results came back Thursday, all clear. And it’s my six month anniversary being on PrEP now, so you know… worth celebrating!” I only meant for Theo to be a hookup, I guess. But he’s addictive.
“Remember when we first hooked up and I said I wanted to use condoms?” It’s more aggressive than I intended. Was I really naive enough to imagine he’d never raise the condom thing? When I was diagnosed, I believed condoms were the only thing stopping me from being a danger to other people; another guy’s safety riding on a latex barrier, mere microns thin. And now I’m supposed to be comfortable abandoning what we’ve been told keeps everyone else safe from guys like me?
“Guy, that was ages ago. We did; we have been. And… I’m on PrEP. And… you’re undetectable. What’s the big deal?” For real? Such a flippant answer like he’s completely carefree. It is a big deal! It’s been my big fucking deal for years.
“You’re undetectable — you can’t pass on HIV to me… even if I wasn’t on PrEP.”
“Theo, you have no idea what it’s like. I made a promise I would never, ever allow myself to put somebody else at risk. Never! You don’t get to just pop some pill and pretend none of it matters anymore!” I know he’s on PrEP, but I can’t shake the thought I could still pass it on to him. Do you know what that feels like? Like you’re this ticking time bomb waiting to hurt someone else.
“Oh Guy… I… it’s not…” He doesn’t usually stumble for words. Clambering over the back of his soft grey sofa, faux fur cushions scattering as he comes to sit beside me “I don’t think of you as a risk to me. That’s not how I see you.”
A lump grows in my throat. Far out, this is new territory. I’ve avoided getting too involved with neg guys. I’ve always felt it’s just too risky — for both of us. “I don’t know how to feel different. Like… not dangerous.” I admit, my reply hanging in the air accompanied by the faint gurgle of the washing machine in the other room.
Apparently, times have changed. My doctor tells me I’ve been undetectable for years and now she says I can’t pass HIV on; ‘zero risk’ are her words. Why is it so hard to find relief in them? Hearing it now isn’t so easy to reconcile with how I’ve felt since before science said I’m positively uninfectious. When I found out I had HIV there was no PrEP. There were no ads splashed over Grindr vibrantly proclaiming ‘Undetectable=Untransmittable’. There was just me, my HIV and my responsibility to ensure I don’t pass it on.
“But you know you’re not? Dangerous, I mean. You’re undetectable — you can’t pass on HIV to me… even if I wasn’t on PrEP.” My leg instinctively flinches as his hand comes to rest on my thigh, thumb caressing the rough denim.
“Somebody once said the hardest part of learning anything isn’t so much about embracing new ideas as it is about letting go of old ones.”
There are guys out there parading the undetectable flag and here’s me — still hiding. “Hearing it is not the same as feeling it, you know. Didn’t you say PrEP was this journey for you, like the anxiety doesn’t just disappear with your first pill? It took time?”
“Yeah, it’s been a process. I read about it and spoke to other guys doing it, and now I’m comfortable with it. I’m comfortable knowing you can’t pass on HIV to me too. Sure, it took a while, but you know, I’m here now. And hey… I’m comfortable with you.” He smiles so gently while I watch my reflection bouncing off his intensely dark pupils.
Somebody once said the hardest part of learning anything isn’t so much about embracing new ideas as it is about letting go of old ones. “Yeah, well I guess HIV anxiety isn’t exclusive to neg guys.”
Theo doesn’t even miss a beat with his comeback “For sure! And deciding to not be scared any more isn’t exclusive to neg guys either.” The washing machine plays this tacky, digital ditty to say it’s done. “If that’s what you want…” he lets the bait linger.
“Huh… uh, yeah… yeah, it is.” The constant worry is exhausting “Just don’t expect radical change overnight, alright?” I know my treatment’s kept me healthy all this time. Is it safe to believe I can’t pass on HIV because of it? Am I still responsible if we both agree to ditch the condoms and trust these unseen, untouchable, biomedical barriers between us?
“…I guess HIV anxiety isn’t exclusive to neg guys.”
“I’m not here to pressure you…” Theo says carefully “But you know I’m not afraid of you…” moving in with a wry smile, instigating a kiss. His lips touch mine. There’s a temptation to remain stoic, unresponsive, but I just can’t help myself.
Pulling back, he says “Being responsible for my protection isn’t down to just you, you know. It’s funny — I’ve been hell-bent on it being my responsibility and mine alone. So… ummm… If you’re on board with taking your meds every day, I’m on board with taking my PrEP every day. If we can trust each other with that, does that work for meeting halfway?”
“Wow! Umm, sure Theo. Yeah, it does. I’m on board with that.” I am. Or at least I’m willing to try “I don’t know how this is gonna work, but yeah, let’s give it a shot.”
“Well…” he says with a flash of that wicked grin that emanates from his eyes as much as it does from his mouth. “It starts like this…” his lips come up against mine again and his hands hold the back of my neck. Maybe it is gonna be OK.
Although the science and the way we now understand the benefits of HIV treatment have progressed rapidly, some attitudes towards HIV haven’t advanced quite as fast for everyone. As always, safe sex is about respectful negotiation and it’s important to be respectful of other people’s sexual health choices.
People living with HIV who use treatment to achieve and maintain an undetectable viral load cannot sexually transmit the virus to an HIV negative partner. UVL 101: Undetectable = Safe provides more information.
PrEP stands for Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis. PrEP involves using prescription medication that, when used as advised, is highly effective at preventing someone who does not have HIV from acquiring HIV. For more details, check out Introducing PrEP – the little blue pill making a big impact.
For other candid personal stories on Emen8, check out:
If you’d like to discover more about HIV prevention, treatment and other sexual health matters, check out our Knowledge Hub or contact your local LGBTI health organisation listed in Emen8’s partner network.
If you’re living with HIV and looking for support, The Institute of Many (TIM) is a peer-run, national community group providing information and support online as well as via the TIM Facebook page.
If you’re using PrEP or considering if it could be right for you, peer-run, national community groups PrEP’D For Change and PrEPaccessNOW (PAN) provide information and support online as well as via the PrEP’D For Change Facebook group and PAN Facebook group.
Regardless of your HIV status, you can contact HIV organisations and AIDS Councils around Australia for information, support services and advice.