Don’t get me wrong. Having HIV sucks. It really does. Not that it affects me tremendously anymore. My viral load is minimal, my immune system is top notch, and I generally feel slightly superhuman and awesome. But that is now, after long years of therapeutic confrontation. HIV took away a few years of my life.
Stuck in depressions, doubts, insecurity, and masturbatory loneliness, I was quite the pathetic personification of self-pity. Of course, future consequences are unknown. And it simply is a constant company—especially when getting to know women (that is a much funnier story to tell another day).
So to double down, HIV sucks… but this essay is not about HIV. This is about the joys of sex and how HIV has made sex so different—and so much better—for me.
I’ve always seen sexuality as one of my main sources of joy and happiness—the fun, laughter, giggles, and playfulness accompanying those lustful games. I was a womanizer—an artist, charming with poetry and prose, never wanting to commit, but never misleading either. Brief encounters were always welcomed, and I was curious about women in all shapes and sizes.
All in all, they were happy, sweaty, and mischievous times, in which erotic entanglements were aplenty. Until I learned I was HIV-positive.
Part I: In Full Retreat
In those first days, weeks, and months of being diagnosed, I felt venomous, like blood and my semen were infected with an alien entity. As I tried adjusting to this new life of mine, the sexual trauma had taken an ugly and monstrous shape in the back of my head.
In the cold and clouded grays of Vienna’s winter, my fear of intimacy reached unknown heights. I had already started taking my medication.
According to medicine, I was safe. According to medicine, I couldn’t infect anyone. According to medicine, the viral load was repressed. According to medicine, I was “clean.” But according to me, I was poisonous.
What I used to associate with the joys of aimless wandering in the night—a glass of wine here, a glance and a smile there—had become a myth of distant lands. I stood in galleries, in bars, and in clubs on my own, disconnected to the surroundings, trapped in my own head. A fearful tension occupied my eyes, my mind, and my body language. Orifices and emotions clenched shut.
All I did was observe from a distance those women in their big smiles and shining, happy eyes in their elegant strides and delicate movements. They were so close to me, and yet so unbearably far away. It could have been easy to walk up, to say something, to smile. But it became impossible.
I was carrying invisible scars in the open. A simple conversation would mean a simple confrontation. What can I tell her? What can I say? That my life is in shambles? That I am used and infected? That I am dirty? That my cock is a poisonous weapon?
A new darkness was taking hold of my life. I simply stared, having the imaginary conversation in my mind. Say this, say that, small talk, and superficial. The panicking drunk in my head was screaming violently: Can she see this? Can she see me hiding something? Can she see I’m not telling her something?! Can she see my poison? Still, I remained silent.
At even the slightest chance of an intimate encounter, my mouth flooded with a dry excuse to escape. I didn’t dare talk to her. I made up stories, anything that kept me from having to confront the situation of telling her about my status. I shielded myself from the horrors of someone’s affection and interest.
I’ve always been a shitty liar. Some scars are simply too deep to hide, to makeover, or to brush aside as if they weren’t a big deal. And so, I retreated.
Even if I was able to sway through a jungle of avoiding phrases and any personal details, even if things would move towards the tiniest bit of intimacy, I had installed more roadblocks. And so, controlled by my fear, shame, and self-loathing, I ran to safety.
I retreated from the joys of life and sex. This was a typical fear of commitment I had embraced in my past. For now, my association with sex was fear. And danger. The trauma had taken hold.
Part II: Enter the Incel
Loneliness leads to anger, leads to hate, leads to violence.
I was scared of intimacy. I was feeling ugly, unloved, and poisonous. To escape from that sick state of mind, I started blaming women for it. I blamed them for ignoring me, for not finding me attractive, for my failure to catch their attention. I started seeing fewer and fewer women as attractive. Ugliness took hold of me.
When frustration and unhappiness dominate your days, the world’s color shifts into a shade of ugliness that started covering everything I saw: women, nature, moods. Of course I still craved for desire, sex, and intimacy, but I started separating my corporal needs from the emotional insecurities that were plaguing me.
As I was becoming slightly more confident with my health and status, I noticed a difference in my approach. The desire for satisfying women fell short. My frustration would reduce sex to a simple act of penetration—passive-aggressive grunts and snorts, instead of passion.
The delicate romanticism of my past was dissolving in a testosterone-driven desperation. Cheap, pornographic fantasies dominated my imagination. Fucking for fucking’s sake. My sex became brutal—the only one I wanted to satisfy was myself. I was becoming angry and violent in bed. And I didn’t care. It was the only place I could exercise a little bit of power.
Eventually, I noticed where the source of my frustration was. HIV had taken away the awareness of my own sexuality, of my own desires and abilities, of what I can, of what I want, and of what I love.
Sexual awareness is my ultimate freedom, and I decided to seek that again. I wanted to overcome the trauma and to confront myself with the joys of sex.
Part III: Sticky Sweet Fountains of Joy
Oh Vienna…why? Yes, the city is nice but it’s also one of the most unsexual places in Europe. Nobody talks. Nobody laughs—especially about themselves.
Generally, a lack of openness, friendliness, and approachability oppress this city, which makes its faces as gray as the sky. And so, everyone is glued to the blue iridescence of their phones seeking online shortcuts to happiness.
The saddest thing of all is that to have sex, people seem to have to be drunk—or on drugs. Or both. To overcome shyness, inhibition, or some other emotional clogs that are blocking any sense of lightheartedness. Two-dimensional Tinder lives seeking two-dimensional Tinder wives. The third dimension—of taste, of emotion, of touch and smell—is tossed overboard. Considering the viral mess I was trying to step out of, these surroundings would be the end of me.
I met Mara at a fair in Barcelona over 10 years ago. She was selling ridiculous plastic dolphins. What followed was a rollercoaster. A heart-wrenching relationship, challenging emotional and sexual limits—ending in borderline insanity. We needed to stop the madness, so she took the courage to end it. Yet we had grown together—and over a few trying years, a bond had developed.
A familiar feeling of love, trust, and friendship that had outgrown any ambitions for relationships or sexual tensions. We were family now. Despite being in different cities—and sometimes different continents—we would partake in all of life’s joyous and horrid events.
When she told me she was pregnant, the poetry continued. In instances like these, life unravels too fast to keep track. After the hesitant decision to keep her child, the uncertain biological-father faced certainty, and ran back to Argentina.
For me it was obvious what would follow. I needed a change of heart, pace, and location. Vienna was oppressing me in its icy heart, and since misery loves company, I packed my things and left. I might have been worthless for my own good at the time, but I knew Mara could use my support. I knew she needed me.
I fled back to the winter in Barcelona, where I would find a rhythm of living and loving that I was more comfortable with. I would start the next adventure living with my best friend—in her father’s garage.
A makeshift wooden board separated our “rooms.” She slept next to the kitchen, and I slept next to the car. Occasional sleeping-on-the-bed battles ensued with the dog (I won, most of the time).
Sunny days and freezing nights of sharing—one pregnant with a child and a mountain of responsibilities, the other pregnant with a virus he would have to start living with. Both pregnant with thoughts and fears of uncertain futures and plights.
Still, the sharing helped. I reassured her that she would be able to manage the tasks at hand, and I was right. She reassured me of the reasons she fell in love with me all those years ago, and she was right.
With reluctance, she helped me reopen the box in which I hid all my attributes, desires, passions, and the sexuality I always saw myself to have—the same qualities I had blamed for my HIV in the first place.
While her belly got bigger, I used the time to dust off and study the treasure I was rediscovering again. To read and write and find inspiration. Biographies of artists and their muses, of literary masterpieces and pulpy junk. And especially of sex.
Once again, a shift of light occurred—but this time it revealed beauty. Reading of the strength of the tongue, the abilities a mouth can have over the orgasmic pleasures of women, a desire awoke again. There was a beat again—a slow, but steady beat of the heart, pumping creative blood through my veins and my seriously underused penis. Spring had arrived.
I started remembering things I had almost forgotten from a long time ago, before the end of my life, before the virus covered me with doubts and fears. I remembered what it was like to satisfy. Not with brutal, violent power, but with the real, heartfelt, and delicate power of pleasure.
I remembered that sex is the most boring part of sex.
Passionately. Delicately. Honestly. In contrast to the plight that Mara was going through (the biological father’s abandonment and the challenges she faced), I felt ashamed of my dark and violent episodes. But being the sexual woman that she was, she encouraged me to re-explore the beautiful bars and ladies of Barcelona. And I followed her order.
A new smile took shape. Women started looking at me. My head couldn’t stop turning with excitement. Instead of the brutish grunts in my eyes when seeing beauty around me, my eyes would smile in their direction, sparkling with a curious passion. Instead of boasting testosterone, I laughed at myself and charmed with travelled anecdotes. Humble, kind, and occasionally funny (not trying too hard, nor too little).
Our lives ended shifting. Mara was feeling more confident, more secure. The dark, steel-guttered garage was being transformed into a bright wooden-floored loft, with functioning kitchen and proper bedroom. And the dog finally had its own bed. A new home for Mara was becoming more real, so I moved out to give her the last weeks to herself. With my moving, and her new confidence, the emotional curse of the virus had been broken.
Soon I was spending sober Sunday afternoons under white covers with a lover—sweaty bodies entwined in embraces, laughs, giggles, and hours of lip-smacking acrobatics. Very often, penetration wasn’t even involved.
I was more in the moment than I had ever been, more present than ever before, more grateful for being aware of what I had lost and found again. Not only this closeness, but the ability to give in and let go of the world around me.
I had lost over two years to anger, to depression, to my venom. To HIV. To the struggle, and the ugly approach I had to life, to love, and to women.
The beauty of life and its sexual encounters, I used to take all of that for granted. It was so easy. So simple and so wasted. A new appreciation for sex dawned on me. I bowed to life, to friendship, to love and to a new joy of intimacy I feel every time I’m with a woman now.
I became aware of the changes that had happened. Of my sexuality. Of what I want and what I didn’t want. Of how I wanted to be and how I wanted to be seen. As did Mara.
Once again, our lives danced in synchronicity. Seeing Mara a few hours after she gave birth, looking at that beautiful son of hers, she knew she could manage anything—smiling with peace, tranquility, and the ultimate happiness of unconditional love.
This virus has given me a strange superpower and a second chance. HIV has given me a sexual awareness of my partners—of their tact and rhythms, of their movements and strides. I feel them more, I hear them more, I adapt more to the rhymes of our bodies, react to their unspoken yes’s and no’s. So much more pleasurable. No more aggressions, no more things to prove.
I am free again… except when I have to babysit.
This essay was originally published in German and reprinted with permission by Philipp Spiegel. (Philipp-Spiegel.com)
Philipp Spiegel is a writer, photographer, artist, and public speaker based in Barcelona and Vienna. Spiegel started his career in photojournalism and fashion photography, but his HIV diagnosis shifted his main focus to subjects affiliated with sexuality and HIV. (Philipp-Spiegel.com)