Friday, December 01, 2006

Hypocrisy and Condemnation are Also Diseases

(*TMI ALERT: Like 'spoiler' alert, but a warning that is a fairly personal post, and could fall into the Too Much Information category for some.)

December 1 is World AIDS Day, to commemorate those we've lost to this appalling disease and reaffirm our hope that a cure may some day be found.

Statistically, I live in a HIV+ ghetto, of sorts. It's incredibly disheartening to see the rising rate of infections among gay men in a first-world nation (not saying the problem in third-world nations is any less tragic, just that here we should know better), and instinctively it's so easy to condemn those men contracting HIV in this day-and-age, years after endless advertisements, campaigns and premature deaths, as foolish or stupid or argue that prevention campaigns of HIV/AIDS organisations, such as ACON, just aren't working.

But of course, as with most things, this cannot be reduced to soundbyte absolutes.

In and around inner Sydney, it's undeniable that sex and sexuality are omnipotent. Getting laid is a perennial preoccupation with many gay men, and between the pick-up joints, dance clubs, sex clubs, saunas and beats, it's pretty easy to find that instant, inconsequential gratification with anonymous contacts.

Bring crystal meth into the equation and any sense of mind to play safe flies straight out the window. If you've ever happened upon Gaydar, or any other gay chat sites post-MG or Sleaze, it's depressing to see how many profiles seek to be 'fucked raw' while still in their CM-induced hazes.

I know all this, because I've been a part of it. I've fucked guys I've known for less than an hour, whose name I don't remember at the time. I've picked up guys from the net who for all I know could have been serial killers (hey, I'm from Adelaide - it's not so far-fetched). I've fucked under the influence of chemicals (excluding CM). And three times, I've jeopardised my life and the lives of others through unprotected sex. Not something I'm particularly proud of, but I want to make clear I'm not placing myself in any position of judgment. I'm a sinner just like all the other blasphemers.

So when, a few years ago, my best friend at the time looked me in the face and told me, quite straightforwardly, that he was HIV positive, my visceral reaction was to feel anger that he could be so stupid, followed almost immediately by a more cerebral reminder that our roles could just as easily have been reversed. Like my three occasions, his was a moment of carelessness, when his dick wrested control of the ship from his brain. He contracted the disease because of a broken condom, but he was in a sauna at the time. The argument could go that if he hadn't been there to begin with, fucking a stranger about whose HIV status he had no idea, he would never have been at risk.

But is that a real solution? Avoid HIV by avoiding sex altogether? We know abstinence as a means of 'safe sex' (the 'safest' form of sex, as it were) just doesn't work. People are destined to fuck. Fuck men, fuck women, fuck both, sex is a biological imperative. Avoiding STIs/STDs by not having sex is akin to avoiding airborne diseases by not breathing.

So given that people are going to fuck, what is it about gay men (apart from the basic biological explanations) that makes HIV so prevalent in our day-to-day lives, a massive elephant in all our rooms we can only avoid speaking about for so long? Are we naturally more inclined to unsafe, irresponsible sexual practices? Should we model our sexuality more on the habits of heterosexual people, whose incidence of HIV infection is, comparably, significantly lower?

What I would argue is that a common unwanted consequence of unprotected sex between men and women, aside from STIs/STDs, is pregnancy. And without wanting to sound callous, unwanted pregnancies can be terminated. I know intelligent, highly self-respecting women who, like me, have fucked up once or twice. Choosing to terminate is never an easy decision, but it can be done. A gay man, on the other hand, cannot choose to terminate his accidental HIV contraction. It's a penalty for life for one accident, one lapse in judgment.

But what about repeat offenders, the apparent inner Sydney hedonists who keep fucking unsafely? Surely the safe sex messages of support organisations is falling on deaf ears? Perhaps - but ACON and other like groups can only do so much. Ultimately they are trampolines at the bottom of the cliff, not the fences at the top. Young men are being pushed over the edge by a world that still treats them as pariahs. How and where is a man supposed to find the self-respect that stops him from life-endangering sexual practices when his family has rejected him, his peers assaulted him and his society insists any relationship he seeks will ultimately be inferior, even worthless? Yes, ultimately everybody needs to take responsibility for their actions, but what will compel a man to take responsibility for securing his life when he doesn't really see a clear future for himself?

Of course, sex cannot go unregulated. To suggest this is ever an agenda pushed by queer activists and organisations is a fallacy. Liberation and pride arise through the realisation that homosexuality, and homosexual expression, are not wrong, unnatural or immoral. What is wrong is unsafe sexual expression, straight or queer.

I don't pretend to have a solution to what is currently a disturbing problem, that nearly 30 years after the mysterious 'gay disease' first appeared, men are still falling victim even when there is now a simple and almost always effective way of avoiding the disease. Maybe a reduction in the omnipotency of sex in gay men's world - at least in inner Sydney - could be a start, but it's not like the urges will suddenly cease to exist.

I'd like to think that the first step will be for gay men to have less of a fight on their hands when nurturing their own self-respect and sense of responsibility. Once they genuinely value and treasure their lives, why on earth will they want to jeopardise it?

I also have a feeling I'm not the only person who's not just made, but repeated, a stupid mistake that could have cost me dearly. Those without sin, etc. Every day I am grateful I've not become another statistic, but I never forget that is purely a case of good chance. I don't intend to repeat that mistake ever again.

In the meantime, I also never forget those friends, and friends of friends, who live with the spectre of HIV because of one mistake.


At 2/12/06 8:42 am, Blogger Andrew said...

There but by the grace of god go thee. Good post and the whole thing can only be solved by coming at it from a realistic viewpoint, as you have done.

At 2/12/06 9:20 am, Blogger Ron said...

A good and powerful post, Sam.

And as Andrew said, 'there but by the grace of god ...' When I look back just HOW did I manage to avoid it?

Luck, I guess, perhaps no drugs ... I don't know. I don't envy the condom sex of today (I was lucky in some ways growing up in the 50s, 60s and 70s). I'm glad the need has all but left me except occasionally in a fantasy.

I wonder if anything has changed from my early days in how we view ourselves: is there still so much self-hatred (realised or not) amongst gay men as I think there used to be, that in some way many of us have a kind of suicidal, self-punishment death-wish? Understandable in a sort of a way. Despite all the so-called advances in tolerance of gay folk (but never really acceptance), how many days go by without some evidence of homophobia?

I actually do wonder if the tolerance is better. As an out gay boy in a Sydney GPS school in the early 60s, I didn't experience a single instance of homophobic bullying - verbal or physical. Yet when I hear the stories my teenage son tells me of life for today's gay teens in some schools it makes me shudder with horror.

I am sorry I wandered off-topic there ...

At 2/12/06 9:55 am, Blogger M-H said...

Good post Sam. Someone near and very dear to me had a scare recently on the other side if the world. And my initial reaction was anger too: how could he take his life, that precious-to-me life - so lightly. (It's all about me, I guess.) But everything you say resonates with me.

At 3/12/06 5:11 pm, Blogger JahTeh said...

As you say Sam, it's 30 years. The younger gay men don't know what it's like to go to a funeral every other day or watch a partner descending into insanity or wasting away to a living skeleton. In those early days you weren't HIV+ or HIV-, you had AIDS and died of the complications but nobody wants to re-live old history so it keeps happening.
The first thing I do when I get to Sydney is give you such a whack in the earhole for being stupid, three times stupid.

At 4/12/06 11:00 am, Blogger Chris said...

Amazing post Sam. Really brave.
It forced me to think on an issue in which I have no experience.
I was a young child when AIDS horrified the world in the late 80's and early 90's. As a result the perils of HIV are never really that present in my everyday meandering.
Definite food for thought Mr Penguin.

At 4/12/06 12:44 pm, Blogger HDZ said...

Is the message fading?

After reading your post I picked up a copy of my local gay rag and flicked through it.

There was a 12 page supplement on positive living, discussing treatments, drug trials, international activism etc. There was a 1/4 page ad for "post exposure prophylaxis" and an article on AIDS Awareness Week book launch "Being +".

There was not one single advert or article on safe sex.

The message out there appears to be "HIV/AIDS is something you live with, unless you are in Africa in which case you die"

This worries me deeply.

At 4/12/06 3:50 pm, Anonymous Gay Erasmus said...

A brilliant and humane post, Sam. You've given me a lot to think about. You've reminded us all that it's no good to judge or condemn, and that the problem is more multifaceted and complex than we'd like to think.

Providing condoms etc is only part of the answer. Personally, I think you have to look at the long-term social determinants of HIV transmission -- you have to ask how people view sex, and how their view of sex and sexuality is conditioned by broad social forces. Admittedly, this in itself isn't a problem-free approach; it runs the risk of reducing people's individual circumstances to the same set of issues (eg. low self-esteem, religious or some other culturally ingrained attitude towards sexuality, social isolation). But it's better than the approach which treats unsafe sex as an isolated catastrophe, an event done without thought for the safety of oneself or one's partners.

I know a few guys who've had scares in the past few months. And, being a Sydney boy, I know many guys, of varying ages and circumstances, who've contracted HIV. All this only solidifies my belief that judgement is the last thing anyone needs.

At 4/12/06 7:52 pm, Anonymous Andrew said...

Condoms simply aren't going to solve all of our problems. It is the promiscuous lifestyle of gay men (and straight men) that is the real cause. I think we need to change the way we view sex. If people confined sex to serious monogomous relationships then the risk would be substantially reduced, and, with time, could even be eradicated. In anycase, just how fulfulling can sex with a total stranger be?

At 5/12/06 8:57 am, Blogger Sam said...

I agree with part of what you say Andrew. If models of monogamous relationships for queers - e.g. civil unions - were encouraged rather than discouraged by our government, some of us might feel there is a valid alternative.

With regard to what else you say, sleeping around is not the problem per se, it's doing so unsafely and repeatedly so.

At 5/12/06 5:51 pm, Blogger Not so Single Guy said...

Great post. Thanks for your honest!!

At 6/12/06 8:31 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Judgement be damned : the older you get the more tired you get of the rubber barrier. On one hand its a question of having less to live for and on the other its a desire to be in a relation where the rubber is no longer necessary.
On top of all this is a harking back to the time when rubber was not necesary and a "hell I'm sick and fed up with the "be safe" culture.
What a dilema ...


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