Switch On Your HIV Smarts.

Promiscuous Gay Nerd: Choosing to Love Poz Guys

, by Jake Sobo

I met James1 on Grindr. Well, not exactly – he was a friend of a friend, who also happened to be a fan of my writing. We had connected years ago and intended to meet up, but we never found the time. So when James pinged me on Grindr, my interest was piqued. He was gorgeous, successful, and hung like a fucking horse. I thought to myself, “okay, what’s the catch?” We made plans to spend a weekend in his hometown, a two hour drive from me.

But before I got in my car and made the schlep over to see him, he texted me to say that he had something to tell me. Something I should know before we met. At this point, most gay men I know would be preparing to run for the hills. Having a Grindr trick tell you before you ever meet that there’s something you ought to know, without just spitting it out, is usually a code red situation. But I wasn’t most gay men. Quite the contrary: Rather than feeling anxious or ominously worried, I put my hands together like a skinny girl at McDonald’s and prayed, “Please let him say that he’s positive.”

To say that this is a new perspective for me is an understatement. Nearly two years ago, just a few weeks after I started taking Truvada daily for PrEP, I penned an article on “Learning to Fuck With Poz Guys.” In that piece, I talked openly about the challenges I experienced incorporating HIV-positive guys into my (mostly condomless) sex life. The writing on the wall was pretty clear then that sexual transmission is nearly impossible with guys who are on treatment, have undetectable viral loads, and do not have an STI co-infection. Despite that growing scientific consensus, I still struggled with my own irrational fears and deeply-ingrained stigmatizing views of HIV-positive men. Like most gay men, I had been trained to avoid HIV-positive guys at all cost. Sure, you could use condoms. But why risk it?

We know even more today than we did in 2012. The preliminary results from the PARTNER study released in March this year firmly planted the jaws of many in the field squarely on the floor. If you’re not familiar with the ongoing clinical trial tracking serodiscordant couples that don’t use condoms consistently, let me briefly rehash its findings thus far.  In two years, not one person with an undetectable viral load –gay or straight – had transmitted HIV to their primary partner, during an estimated 16,400 occasions of sex among gay men and 28,000 among straight couples.

The kicker for HIV-negative folks like me on PrEP: none of the HIV-negative partners in the PARTNER trial are on PrEP (or PEP, for that matter).

But all this science aside, why in the world would I pray for my new beau to be HIV-positive? Knowing that there’s no risk of infection is one thing. But to actually seek out and desire HIV-positive partners is quite another.

The answer, I think, lies in the spectacular failure of my last relationship.

Like so many gay couples, Tim and I fought tirelessly over monogamy. We were both sluts who clearly loved to spread our seed. I didn’t mind the idea of him having sex with other guys, but he was controlling and jealous. He ominously threatened one day that if I ever cheated on him, he would beat the shit out of me. I nervously laughed it off. He couldn’t be serious? Right?

When we finally did open the relationship, he insisted on all sorts of restrictions. It turns out those restrictions were only for me. No sex in our house, he said. I’d come home from work and find evidence to the contrary. I didn’t really care. But the real stickler was his insistence that we use condoms whenever we fucked outside the relationship. As the bottom in the relationship, my getting fucked condomless would threaten both his dominance over me and his HIV-negative status.

So when I found out he bred a friend of a friend in the woods outside a party while I was inside with friends, I was done. A few weeks later, when he went out to the bar with friends, I enacted my own form of resistance: I went out and got my ass creamed. It felt exhilarating – liberating, even.

When I came home, he was drunk and furious. Somehow, he seemed to know what I had done. I denied it. But as I walked up the steps to our apartment, he took his first swing – the beginning of a long night that ended with his arrest.

Throughout the entire relationship, HIV provided the rationale for Tim’s controlling jealousy in our open relationship. I’m under no illusion that this explanation is entirely legitimate; clearly, Tim had his own demons and insecurities that he desperately needed to deal with. Nonetheless, it was always lurking in the shadows of our relationship, providing a kind of scientific legitimacy to his control.

Tim’s behavior is an extreme example of what is a pretty common phenomenon for gay men I know. The fear of HIV leads gay men to all sorts of irrationalities. This is especially true for HIV-negative gay men, whose knowledge of the disease is largely fed by stigma and misinformation. When I came out to my parents at the age of 14, my parent’s first response was that I would probably die of AIDS. The LGBT youth group I attended regularly for the next two years didn’t teach me gay history; it taught me how to use a condom. Irregularities in the blood tests I needed to start Accutane in high school compelled my doctor to warn me that I might be HIV-positive. If a condom broke with a partner, I would get tested every month for the next six months – each time reading into some minute detail (the counselor’s tone of voice; his delay in returning to the testing room; an ominous voicemail)convinced that I was positive.

For most of my life, HIV was a specter haunting me and my sex life. Over time, I found ways to cope and manage the stress and risk that comes with being a promiscuous HIV-negative gay man. Perhaps the most significant step in that journey was educating myself about the actual risk of transmission, something that most gay men still don’t know enough about. If you asked a 21-year old Jake Sobo what the chances are of getting HIV after being fucked by a poz guy without a condom, I probably would have said 50%. It’s actually less than 2%, on average. And as we know now, treatment and/or PrEP virtually eliminates that risk altogether.

Getting older as a gay man almost always means that some of your friends will test positive at some point. While as many as one in four gay men overall are HIV-positive in some urban areas, that percentage jumps to over 40 percent for guys in their 40s. It sounds trite, but being friends with HIV-positive guys and realizing that their lives were basically no different from my own played a significant role in helping me reshape my understanding of the disease.

What PrEP has done for me cannot be understated. I no longer live in a world where contracting HIV seems a possible outcome that warrants my anxiety or stress. With PrEP, I can have the sex that I want, with whomever I want, without HIV looming over my decisions.

As I picked up the pieces after my last breakup, I resolved to never be in a relationship again in which I didn’t see eye-to-eye with my partner about non-monogamy and HIV risk. I’m just not built for sex with one person, and I don’t ever want to be in a situation where HIV provides the grounds for controlling my behavior. But finding another gay man as liberated from the fear of HIV seems daunting – especially living in a non-urban area. I used to think that I might never date seriously again.

But, as luck would have it, it turns out guys on PrEP aren’t the only ones who don’t fret about contracting HIV anymore.

iphone3Three dots moved silently on my iPhone screen, indicating an impending message. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, James’ message came through. My prayer was answered.

Of course, James is a lot of things other than being HIV-positive. His serostatus turns out to be only one of so many things that I love about him. He’s goofy and ambitious. And, like me, he is a whore. We practice compersion, not jealousy; when I get my ass creamed by another guy, he doesn’t get angry. He gets turned on.

But I don’t love him despite his status, as many guys might imagine. It is not a glitch or problem or downside.  I love him, in part, because of it.

To guys out there who still don’t understand how this is possible, I invite you to look around you. The serodivide is crumbling. Hookup sites that used to allow only two options for HIVstatus now offer endless choices, from undetectable to on PrEP. Recent life expectancy projections suggest that gay men who test HIV-positive today and start treatment quickly will live longer than those who do not. Statistically speaking, my positive boyfriend is likely to outlive me.

While some friends of mine give guys who blithely refuse to fuck poz guys a pass, I don’t. You cannot hide your prejudice under the veil of risk anymore. That ship has sailed.

I know it’s not easy. Unlearning decades of stigma and fear will not happen overnight. It will take time and learning. That’s okay. But the cost of staying in place is too great, both for poz guys who face that stigma and fear on a daily basis, and to our communities which remain divided.

Tomorrow, September 27, is National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. If you’re an HIV-negative gay man and you serosort but want to do something to help end HIV stigma, take a first step. Stop serosorting. Fuck a poz guy.

Who knows, he just might be the man of your life.


1 Names have been changed.

Jake Sobo is a pen name used for anonymity. Jake has worked in the world of HIV prevention for nearly a decade. He previously published a 19-part series documenting his experiences on pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), “My Life on PrEP,” for Positive Frontiers magazine, which was picked up by Manhunt, translated into French, and widely read in the HIV prevention world. He has spent the better part of his adult life having as much sex as possible while trying to avoid contracting HIV.


17 Responses to Promiscuous Gay Nerd: Choosing to Love Poz Guys

  1. This is such a beautiful and eloquent illustration of how artificial barriers are being broken to create joy, pleasure, and compersion. Thank you Jake for this brave and heartfelt perspective.

  2. Jay says:

    Amen. To this but one thing love is for 2 people only if u love someone u will only be with that one person

  3. J M says:

    I appreciate the article for its intention. But is it kinda glorifying condom-less sex?

  4. TC says:

    This is amazingly well written! I’m also on PrEP and have similarly come to the conclusion that serosorting is a practice that need to be reduced, not only for the science that shows its lack of need but also for the stigma that it propagates. Of course the question of status should be asked, not to exclude or include the possibility of sex, but rather to know that they’re someone that takes care of themselves.

    Jay: That view of what love is is quite limited. Perhaps that’s how you feel your type of love would need to be, and that’s great! But as someone who is a non-monogamous (yet not quite polyamorous), there is a divide between romantic attachment and sexual activity. Moreover, for those who are polyamorous, there is always the possibility of falling in love with more than one person and having the love for each be as fulfilling as the other.

    J M: You could see it as glorifying bareback sex, yes, but only if you see certain types of sex as wrong or immoral, or if you believe some forms are inherently better than others. My ex, for example, thought condoms were very erotic and, when we did bareback, nothing more was contributed to his experience. On the other hand, I like the knowledge that there is nothing between my partner and I.

  5. RB says:

    I just feel the need to comment briefly if thats possible. I may be showing my years but I was a kinda cast out gay kid from suburban Westchester who took the train into NYC and started living around the East and West Village, from the time I was 15. It was 1978. I will not even begin to explain what we went through. I followed Larry Kramer early on; he was the only one who simply told the plain truth and organized to try to fight for our lives. I have remained negative; not so much from using a condom all the time but from engaging in honest and absolutely unrestricted communication with my partners. Our community had to get smart, get educated, get sensible, and get funded, really really fast and chaotic. From the first day I refused to be afraid and sat in hundreds of rooms and held their hands because their families would not even go near them. There has never ever been a moment when I was afraid to give or receive love in all of its forms to anyone poz or neg. But it became important to know. Even as viral loads became lower and lower and the science evolved…. We had to be responsible because it wasnt just a matter of who we were going to have sex with or not; it became a matter of survival of our community which in those days was fragmented. But nobody felt like we had been denied or lost anything or that something was inconvenient. The intimacy issues posed by the use of condoms became the basis of a whole generation of thought and so we educated ourselves as to risk factors, and a host of other factors that inform the personal choices and decisions that shape each person’s interpretation of the policy that best applies to their own individual lives. PrEP has been of course; a very fascinating preventative indeed although it is also brand new.. But I have to take issue with the kind of denial that has been so difficult to deal with within our own community. It kind of suggests that going out and getting our asses creamed without condoms or cares is without serious risk and that risk is assumed based on a series of personal choices. As of yet; there is still no HIV vaccine and thousands of people around the world every single day in fact do develop AIDS. Thousands of people even in the USA every day are infected with HIV. I can show you over 2 dozen couples whom I still know from that period who are not seriocompatible but have cultivated loving and enviable relationships and homes. None of them are bored in their relationships by a long shot and all are pretty well adjusted for the most part. More importantly, until we have a vaccine and funding for the science to manage it and try to keep ourselves at the forefront of education and advocacy there are issues not even mentioned in this article that need to be addressed – insurance and the specific coverages in most cases are not a minor matter when one is serio-converted. I have a brother who is poz since the late 1980s and while he has had adequate insurance the racket between the drug companies and the FDA is not designed to make patients or activists rich. It is one of the many ancillary issues that our families and our partners face when dealing with the various facets of organizing their own health care management needs and policies and beliefs and thresholds as they see fit.. And getting PrEP presrcibed is one of those options. But it can not be treated like any kind of vaccine. And while we are all well versed in what the lab research says in a multitude of studies, the fact remains is that use of condoms when fucking helps present the spread of HIV. And in any debate on the issue; it can never be said that it is a good idea to go out being a self described manwhore and get randomly creamed in the ass without protective barriers on a consistent basis. There are a few other vague allusions in this piece regarding undetectable loads and other “statistics” which of course apply to HIV but not to all the other unsavory healh problems that can arise from lack of a barrier.. But to think its appropriate to go out fucking at random with no protection these days is naive at best and potentially dangerous and fatal at worst.. None of this can have any bearing on those whom we love and have loved since their diagnoses and will love until we are all long gone. There is no choosing to love poz guys or women – we love whom we love. If we truly love them, we find responsible and meaningful ways to give and receive love regardless of what any of our baggage of many stripes has secreted away in it. But the need to operate out of an overabundance of caution and accompanied by the best reliable science; has never been greater. And this piece is a bit reckless

    • Frank says:

      You might get any other STD, but WHO CARES? They’re not HIV and you pop a pill and they’re cured.
      It’s not self-destruction, it’s exploration and freedom from the tyranny of fear meted out by your AIDS Experience.
      Life is too short. Live a little, live a LOT.

      • RB says:

        Are you kidding? Is this complete satire? PrEP is NOT a vaccine; if you think that PrEP can keep you from contracting HIV you are playing a reckless game and have learned nothing not only from the experience of the gay community at large or years upon years of actual science. Tyranny of fear? What on earth are you talking about? Youre right; life is too short; shorter still when you go around thinking you are immune from HIV and that popping pills “cures” you of something. It IS self destruction and if youre having unprotected sex with multiple partners its potentially destructive to others. Your arrogance is breathtaking; and I dont say that hatefully. If you are in any way sincere in your belief that PrEP guarantees you wont catch HIV and you have such a narrow view of how medical science deals with STDs and there are quite a few you dont just pop a pill and cure by a long shot; you are willfully reckless and that is just irresponsible in the worst way. You need to educate yourself cause that hasnt happened and if you dont educate yourself you will find yourself well schooled when you receive your diagnosis. None of your approach has any foundation in actual science. None of it.

        • Gus Cairns says:

          I’ll leave the commentary on the pleasures of condomless sex to others, but the important thing is that RB is saying stuff that is not scientifically correct in this post.
          PrEP can, and does, stop you from getting HIV. If taken with even moderate adherence it will reduce your chances of getting HIV by 96% or more. See http://www.aidsmap.com/page/2892435/
          That’s better than condoms. Using condoms *perfectly* might be that effective, but perfect use is very difficult – and uncommon. 100% condom use as a strategy – i.e. the difference in the infection rate between people who report that they use condoms 100% of the time and the ones who never use them – is in the range of 70-85%.
          Ah, you’ll say, but in the study you quote, only 50% actually took PrEP that often. True, although rates in the US were closer to 75%.
          But people only use condoms that often either: study after study has shown that the proportion of gay men who use condoms 100% of the time is roughly between 35% and 60%, depending on the area.
          That is not good enough. In another study, and a frightening one, researchers calculated that the rate of infection in young gay men in Bangkok was such that 50% of those who didn’t use condoms consistently would have HIV within five years of starting sex with guys. But – and this is the really scary bit – the infection rate in those who said they used condoms 100% was such that 20% of them would have HIV within 5 years.
          Condoms are not and never have been enough to end HIV in gay men or even make much dent in incidence. We need more. Of course some guys probably will use PrEP as a way of stopping using condoms, but if PrEP works better for them, then the HIV rate will go down. The evidence is, however, that a lot combine condom use with PrEP.
          I agree with RB that we won’t have a final answer for HIV till we have a vaccine. But I also know enough about vaccine science to know that that may be an awfully long way off yet. By opposing PrEP and leaving gay men to the mercy of a bit of rubber that is a faff to put on, causes some people to lose their erection, may split, leak, fall off or just be unavailable in the heat of the moment, you are essentially opposing something that could make sex safer.

    • Jake Sobo says:

      Thanks, RB, for your extremely thoughtful comment. Obviously we disagree, but I can appreciate that and understand where you’re coming from. To me, the risk of acquiring syphilis or gonorrhea does not outweigh the benefits I get from having sex with strangers. I know that’s perhaps shocking to put it so plainly, without context. But at its root, that’s what it comes down to. We evaluate risk differently. I wouldn’t blame someone else for weighing those risks differently.

  6. Magpie says:

    Honey, I couldn’t finish reading this one….but I will. I’m just torn up by the suggestion of violence perpetrated upon you, perhaps too similarly plotted to my own, too painfully left unsaid. Anyway, I just wanted to sing out a little here my appreciation for your words. Gracie.

    • Jake Sobo says:

      Thanks for your concern, Magpie 🙂 I know the IPV stuff is heavy for some. I will address it more directly in another piece. I know some readers felt it was glossed here. That wasn’t my intention. I’ll deal with it more directly elsewhere.

  7. Thomas says:

    I greatly appreciate the general message of this, as I firmly believe sero-sorting is outdated and ineffective. However, I perceived some of this as fetishizing poz status/treating someone living with HIV as less than a complete person. When it comes to sex, I totally agree with (occasionally) treating someone like a piece of meat–and prefer to be treated that way myself at times–but something just seemed off in this article. I know this was not the intention, but it was my perception.

    I’ve been on PrEP for about a year and the responses from poz guys when I tell them that their status does not make a bit of difference to me have been very similar to what happened in your experience above. This is awesome and breaks this false barrier that has existed for my entire adult life. That said, now that the “truvada whore” movement seems to be gaining momentum, I have been getting more and more guys that assume that I’m just some giant barebacking slut. I believe part of the reason I’m getting this response is that I’m in the hyper-conservative, sex-negative, deep South (semi-rural Louisiana). It is still annoying to think that some guys have dismissed my company simply because I chose to take more control of my sexual health by getting on PrEP. As a result, I no longer advertise that I’m poz-friendly or on PrEP and I think that is really unfortunate. The dialogue that is happening elsewhere in the country is getting lost or simply not happening down here and we’re going to continue to see more and more infections in this area of the country.

    Good luck with your new squeeze!

    • Jake Sobo says:

      What a shame that you’ve felt the need to drop the pro-PrEP and poz-friendly messages from your profile. I’ve had guys turn me down for sex because I’m on PrEP — due to a variety of assumptions they make about me and HIV risk more generally. They’re right to assume I am a barebacking slut, though — so I can’t fault them there. But they’re wrong to think that fucking the other guy they’re talking to on Grindr who’s not on PrEP and who is also a barebacking slut but doesn’t advertise that fact is less of a risk than fucking me. Being an open slut interrupts the fantasy many gay men have of safety / boy next door / a world free from risk.

      I talked about this in Part 6 of the “My Life on PrEP” series. I said then:

      I’ve been faced with encounters like this ever since I started hooking up with guys 15 years ago; generally they involve much harsher language. I’ve never been ashamed about my sex life or my desires. For many guys, that’s a deal breaker. Too many guys out there are deeply ashamed of their sex. It’s embarrassing for them. They’d rather pretend that we’re all boys next door who “never hook up” but make an exception or two (or 264) on their road to monogamy… It’s the very same stigma that leads many gay men to not get tested. To not discuss HIV with their partners. To pretend like only whores get HIV – which, by the way, does not include me, you, or the guy who came in my ass last night. In short, it’s what’s driving plenty of infections.

      I view those rejections as a regrettable cost of being a PrEP advocate and HIV stigma fighter. Lost sex is worth it to me, but I can understand why not everyone feels that way (especially those in smaller, rural communities).

  8. D.E says:

    Where I live being on PrEP regularly is expensive. I feel that there is a certain level of privilege that goes unacknowledged here for men who can just take PrEP and reduce their risk. That being said, I think the article provides an interesting perspective; the stigma and fear of HIV in the gay community is quite strong and a general lack of knowledge is one of the main contributors. Poz guys, in many ways, are safer to have sex with than a stranger you’re meeting in the park who’s status is unknown to you.

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  10. theszak says:

    Another excellent example of progress

    The Strategy… BEFORE sex get tested TOGETHER for A VARIETY OF STIs then make an INFORMED decision. An interesting websearch, enter the terms… tested together before

  11. Mark Olmsted says:

    What distresses me is the prevalence of framing barebacking in narrow terms. The desire to have condomless sex is neither primarily about promiscuity or self-destructiveness. It is about the desire for sex to feel as intimate as possible. You can’t get much more intimate than getting a load up your ass or blowing a load up someone else’s. This desire can be even more intense when the person is a stranger or one or both parties is drunk or high and stripped of inhibitions. It may not be “true” intimacy in the sense we are trained to think of intimacy culturally — with layers of romance and mutual knowledge and monogamy involved — but we all know, as gay men, that the moment of orgasm is still very powerful thing, and condoms can mess with it in all kinds of ways.
    So let’s at LEAST stop bashing each other for not wanting to use condoms when we ALL tend to crave that moment we we feel very very close to another person physically and psychologically.
    Also, as a poz man for over 30 years who can count on one hand the times he was rejected for it, it is my experience that stigma is as stigma does. I have never had the slightest trepidation sharing my status, have done so ALWAYS quite unaplogetically as soon as there was an indication of mutual attraction. Sadly, it was often the first time anyone had been given that information from the getgo, just like that. But often enough the response was a relieved, “me too” and then we could just relax.
    I got clear in my head very early on that the virus just found an efficient way to move from host to host, and that it was never anything to be taken personally. For those who struggle with issues of internalized shame (and if you are a survivor of the Bible Belt, I feel for you) I can tell you this internal clarity will do you a world of good. If someone rejects you for being poz, just smile and move along. That is their right — they will inevitably find out on their own how many formerly negative men found it a crappy long term strategy to stay negative. But there’s no reason to stew in rejection — they are rejecting the virus, not you. I personally would feel far worse if they didn’t like my personality or sense of humor – THAT HURTS.
    Stigma does exist – but I think we unwittingly perpetuate it by attaching it to ourselves instead of coating ourselves in the teflon of self-esteem. Your worth should not be measured by how many men want you or don’t want you. If you have adopted that belief system, you can unadopt it. But you have to challenge it.