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AIDS 2012: Meet Rig

, by Reilly O'Neal

Rig Rush at AIDS 2012 (photo: Reilly O’Neal)

Rig Rush of the Black AIDS Institute is the “mobilization coordinator of everything gay black male,” an advocate of better and earlier sex education for youth—and a volunteer in a rectal microbicide trial.

Throughout the MTN-007 study, which looked at the safety and acceptability of a gel containing the HIV drug tenofovir (Viread), Rig had regular HIV tests, answered questions about his sex life, underwent rectal exams and uncomfortable biopsies—and helped bring another HIV prevention tool one step closer.

The charming Mr. Rush spoke with BETA about his experience in the trial, his advice for others considering joining a microbicide study, and what words of wisdom he would give to his younger self if he could.

BETA: Having experienced HIV prevention research first-hand, what would you tell someone who is thinking about joining a clinical trial of a rectal microbicide?

Rig Rush: I would say, “Remain open to the experience.” I truly believe the best way we learn about ourselves and the world we live in is through experience.

And through this experience of going through the trials network, not only are you more informed about how your body engages sexually, but you’re able to communicate about it confidently and authentically. So many times, HIV, STDs, anal sex—it’s all passed on by hearsay and myths. The facts sometimes get lost in the translation of what is appropriate sex and what is good sex—because they’re different. Appropriate sex and good sex don’t always line up!

I would say to someone who is going to do this trial, “Ask questions. Ask the uncomfortable questions: ‘Is it going to hurt? How deep are you going to go? What’s going to happen with me—how am I going to feel afterward? Is someone going to be there with me? Can I call somebody afterward? How is this going to change me?’” Ask those questions—and don’t be afraid of those answers.

The biggest obstacle for me was getting the HIV tests. It’s never easy. Because regardless of how confident you are, in those 20 minutes, you’re always second-guessing yourself….And when you get to the process of inserting the gel, there’s always that, “OK, there’s something foreign in my body,” and your body knows it and responds to it. Be in tune with that.

When you’re going through this trial, it is going to be uncomfortable, but the benefit of passing through a state of “uncomfortableness” is that at the end of it you come out confident, and you come out well informed.

BETA: As a panelist for a satellite session on rectal microbicides, you spoke about the need to reach people at a younger age with messages about sexuality and healthy sex, and you mentioned that your first sex ed was porn. If you could send a message to your own younger self about sex, what would you say?

Rig: [Singing] “Slow down, you move too fast!” To my younger self, I would say, “Explore.” And I would also say, “Be confident in who you are, and don’t compromise yourself sexually for the benefit of others.”

As I said, some of the most powerful knowledge we gain is through experience….Oftentimes, gay men are “trauma informed.” That means rape, or the awkwardness of the first time being penetrated, not understanding how it works back there, not knowing how to take care of yourself….What I would say to my younger self is, “Research, know your facts”—because at the end of the day, an informed decision is better than making a comfortable decision.

For more about rectal microbicides, and why men and women around the world need them, visit the International Rectal Microbicides Advocates.

Reilly O’Neal is the editor of BETA.

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