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Don’t Let HIV Stigma Keep You From Enjoying Sex

Don’t Let HIV Stigma Keep You From Enjoying Sex

How do you decide something is true? By that I mean, when is the moment you separate the intellect from your intuition to decipher absolute truths from flexible ones? Let's be frank: it is human instinct to want sex. But to enjoy sex requires something else, otherwise it becomes another ritual like going to the gym or, worse, getting waxed. The enjoyment part of sex often stems from feeling free and uninhibited — a mental state you can only access without the fear of judgment.

And if there’s one thing that keeps us all from entering a place of enjoyment, it’s shame.

It never ceases to amaze me how much the world shames people who like having sex, as if we’re bad people or we’re putting ourselves at risk simply by having sex (science has offered plenty of ways to prevent sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy). As a gay man with an iPhone, I am well-versed with the type of verbiage on hookup apps.

A few weeks ago, I was having a conversation with my friend who struggles with personal shame around his HIV status. Having discovered he was positive in his mid-20s, he felt as if he needed to change perspectives on sex completely. Now that he is HIV-positive he felt he needed to either stop liking sex or stop having it altogether — as if not enjoying it would reverse time, and ultimately the virus itself. Crazy, right?

Even though he was on treatment and undetectable, his attitude towards sex was completely different than mine. And it wasn’t because of our statuses, but rather society’s association with them.

When I was in my early-twenties, I based a lot of my self esteem on sex. Like many of my other gay friends living in Los Angeles at the time, having sex was metaphoric to our status in the world. It meant we were worthy enough to be wanted, sought after, needed. Of course it’s always short-lived, which fueled the need to have more. But just because I’m older now doesn’t mean I have to let it go.

I’ve always thought of sex as recreational, and for many of my friends who find themselves enslaved by stigma, it’s easy to start playing a game of “What If?”

What if no one finds me sexy anymore because I’m HIV-positive?

What if people think I’m “dirty?”

What if people think I am a bad person?

What if people treat me differently?

What if I’m undateable?

This is always a dangerous game to play because before we know it, we turn it into a game of “I Am.”

I am not sexy anymore because I’m HIV-positive.

I am dirty.

I am a bad person.

I am treated differently.

I am undateable.

When we let stigma seep into our lives, it eventually changes what we know to be true. Sooner or later, we forget how to enjoy the most basic pleasures in life — from laughter, to relationships, to food, and yes, to sex.

The absolute truth is that undetectable means uninfectious. To hell with the stigma!

If we let HIV stigma keep us from enjoying sex, we’re allowing a lie to control the truth. And if we let just one lie win, we create opportunities for other lies to flourish. We’re only as authentic as we let ourselves be. Everyone deserves pleasure — you, me, your idiot neighbor who fills the garbage can up too high, everyone!

Being afraid of having sex, much less being afraid of enjoying sex, isn’t going to end stigma. But you know what will? Looking at it directly in the face. At the end of the day, stigma is a coward. When you stand up to it, it will run away.

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying sex, so long as you and your partner practice preventative tools. Trust me, condoms are sexy, but nothing is sexier than knowledge. With knowledge comes freedom, and with that comes permission to enjoy the things we once deprived ourselves of — yes, I'm talking about sex again. 

David Artavia is the associate editor of the Advocate magazine and Plus magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @DMArtavia and like him on Facebook

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