As a black queer man, I understood at an extremely young age that I didn’t have the ability to be as sexually free and liberated as my heterosexual male counterparts.
Whether it was because black gay men are merely looked at as a health statistic or because our freedom comes at a deadly cost, it was apparent that our sexual appetites were to be suppressed. Now, although that suppression isn’t quite the same, and it looks quite different from how it did 20 years ago, it’s clear that some queer individuals are still expected to be too “respectable” to desire sex, let alone consensually act on that desire.
Take me, for example. I am a 31-year-old, self-described black queer nerd with a penchant for social justice, activism and community involvement. I also enjoy sex. But if I had a dime for every time a person connected my alleged intellect and community involvement with an inability to like sex, or merely rejecting it as a practice, I would have been wealthy many moons ago. That’s because in some twisted world, people are learning that being a black and woke—for lack of a better word—nerd and enjoying sex are somehow mutually exclusive. Trust me, they are not.
With the advent of modern medicines like pre-exposure prophylaxis (or PrEP), conversations about enjoying sex and sexual health have become slightly easier. PrEP is a once-a-day prescription that people like me can take to considerably reduce our chances of acquiring HIV. Currently, there are several campaigns marketing PrEP in the United States (and abroad), and many more focus on black and Latinx gay and bisexual men.
The news about PrEP has also started to spread into other communities. Last June, for example, the first citywide program to get heterosexual black women on PrEP was launched in the nation’s capital. If followed correctly, PrEP is nearly 100 percent effective, and the few reported HIV transmissions have been primarily because of nonadherence to the prescription or an exposure to drug-resistant HIV.
Considering this, I have also noticed, however, that conversations made somewhat easier by new medicines remain tricky depending on one’s profession and how others view one’s intellect.
Let some tell it, individuals who either work in—or have previously worked in—public health spaces should be sexually “pure” or, at the very least, should engage only in monogamous sexual relationships. Nonetheless, black queer and transgender people fully committed to sexual-health work will emphatically tell others that thankfully, because of our ability to make the best decisions for our own bodies (without regard to heterosexual-based, noninclusive sex education policies), neither is true.
My first time experiencing the “Intellects can’t have fun” rule was in the mid-2000s while in college. I was at a bar when a classmate saw me drinking a cocktail with friends. He immediately communicated, “I thought you were a straight-edge person; didn’t think you would be out.” After inquiring into the meaning of “straight-edge,” I discovered that it meant a person who chose not to engage in a lifestyle of drinking and partying and, in many instances, someone who wasn’t having sex.
But it was college.
He mentioned that he received this impression from me “because you always seem to know what’s going on in class.”
The problem wasn’t the straight-edge lifestyle itself; it was the fact that it was automatically connected to me solely because I knew a few easy answers in my political science courses. For some, it’s shocking that people who are supposedly intellectual like to have sex—or even that we have it at all. But, sadly, it’s messages like this that are deeply problematic because it could cause those who might engage in riskier sex to reject even considering PrEP in the first place.
When people with preconceived notions about sexual-health professionals meet one, sometimes those notions are smashed. This is particularly true for those who enjoy sex, like to read and identify as LGBTQ. Make no mistake: For many of us, experiencing an intense climax, searching for consensual sexual exploration and unapologetically living within that honest sexual reality trumps any false notions of a perceived purity.
I have now been on PrEP for more than four months, and I couldn’t have made a better decision. One of the deciding factors was my understanding my body enough to know that I liked sex. Not only did I like sex, but I knew that oftentimes, not using a condom brought my physical body more pleasure. Most of us feel this way but are simply afraid to admit it because of how it would be perceived, not only by our sexual partner or partners but also by society writ large. In the black community, specifically, we hold on to this conservative and traditional denial of our sexual activities and appetites. It’s the same reason many men won’t date women who have had sex with multiple partners—well, that and sexist politics.
That’s why it’s critical for us to have all available options to make informed decision about our sexual health. It’s important to remember that black Americans have been disproportionately affected by HIV since the epidemic’s beginning, and the disparity has only deepened over time. Using (or not using) forms of protection—condoms, PrEP—isn’t necessarily about eliminating risk, but about mitigating said risk while also understanding what’s personally desirable and pleasurable.
Our bodily pleasure will always matter.
Maintaining a healthier life is not solely the responsibility of the individual; society and providers must also create safe spaces that are rooted in best practices and cultural competency that allow people to feel as though they can ask all questions related to their sexual health. Many people are unfamiliar with PrEP, but it is an innovative tool in the sexual-health toolbox that could have a positive impact on the lives of many black people—at home and around the world. We must all decide what’s best for our sexual lives—nerds, queer people, transgender individuals, black folks and everyone in between.
Preston Mitchum is a Washington, D.C.-based writer, activist and policy nerd. He is a regular contributor to The Root and The Grio and has written for The Atlantic, ThinkProgress, Out Magazine, Ebony.com and the Huffington Post. Follow him on Twitter to see just how much he appreciates intersectionality.