Tag Archives: HIV/AIDS

Lessons from Watching Lesbian Porn in Class

LesSexMonoThe first time I had sex with another woman I had no idea what I was doing. As I started to take off her panties, she said down to me, “Gloves?”

I remember thinking: “What gloves? What for?”

The practice seemed so esoteric to me. From then forth my whole orientation with safer sex altered. As a teen, I had not fully realized my sexuality and only had sex with (cis) guys. I was surrounded by sexual health messages that greatly encourage safety:

Understand birth control options, communicate with partners, get tested, use condoms.

But there was no enthusiasm for queer sexual safety. Saying, “Use gloves” or “Use a sex dam” is very different from “Use a condom”. None of my education went beyond the scope of heterosexual sex; specifically, penis-vagina penetration.

Clearly, this education ill-equipped me for the “real world”. But it also served a deeper function. Excluding information about safer lesbian sex, or more inclusively, sex between people with vulvas, maintained and reinforced the attitude that it’s not “real sex”, and that women-who-have-sex-with-women don’t really need to practice safety.

As a bisexual (cis) woman who has had penis-vaginal sex before, where did I fit into risks? Do people really use dental dams? Are gloves always necessary for manual sex?  If so, why aren’t gloves promoted more among heterosexually-based safety messages? What sexual acts are less risky than others? I soon realized that I was not alone in the confusing and silent knowledge gap. The most powerful moment of this realization happened during a university course lecture in which we watched lesbian porn.

The class was titled, “The Sociology of the HIV/AIDS Pandemic”. That day we were covering the 1988 ACT UP protest of Cosmopolitan Magazine for publishing an article which (very erroneously) claimed that women were unlikely to contract and transmit HIV. The professor then dimmed the lights and switched on a porno short. Current Flow by Jean Carlomusto stars Annie Sprinkle and Joy Brown getting it on with an array of safer sex props ranging from condom covered vibrators to eating pussy with sex dams. The women fuck on the couch while a broadcast of the ACT UP protest faintly play on the television in the background. This video was specifically made to counteract Cosmopolitan. It was one of the first lesbian porn made by and for women that explicitly shows how to have safer sex.

The professor then bluntly asked the class, “Who here actually knew how to use a dental dam or understood the function of latex gloves prior to this video?

Only a few raised their hands. Among a group of predominately queer, early twenty-somethings this felt horrifying and shocking.

That activist porno is just as relevant today as it was 24 years ago. Lesbians and women who have sex with women, including those who are FAAB (female-assigned at birth), continue to be overlooked in the HIV epidemic. According to a 2009 review by the GMHC, very little research has devoted to the study of lesbian sexual play yet we are still learning new degrees of STI risks associated with different acts such as manual sex, fisting, tribbing, sharing toys and oral sex.

I’m lucky that my first time having sex with another girl was one that encouraged safer practices. Safety wasn’t optional. It was ethical. And it was hot. It opened up my world and cemented my desire to learn more, inform my options, and talk about safety confidently with other partners. But I know not everyone (and lesbians in particular) experiences such enthusiasm- including a lack of concern from medical professionals who assume “queer* women*” experience almost zero risk of HIV and other serious sexually transmitted infections.

For me, safer sex has developed a whole new dimension of excitement because of the political protest attached to it. Feminist mantra: “The personal is political”. It’s partly an acknowledgement that the sex I have with another woman is very real despite hetero-sexist attitudes. It’s also an intimate act of caring for and protecting each other.

Monologues are independent stories. The opinions shared are the author’s own. For more information on sexual safety for lesbians and women-who-have-sex-with-women, the National LGBT Health Education Center is a good place to start. Please do comment and share other recommended resources below.

STI vs STD: Is it important?

The term “STD” (sexually transmitted disease) is increasingly replaced by “STI” (sexually transmitted infections). Is this change (which started as early as the late 1990s) a matter of political correctness? An effort to reduce stigma affiliated with disease? Or are there real distinctions between infection and disease, hence adopting a more medically accurate term?

The correct answer: all of the above.

In the days before "STDs" there was only "venereal disease", and sex workers were the culprits. Image from the DailyMail.co.uk

In the days before “STDs” there was only “venereal diseases”, and sex workers were the culprits. Image from the DailyMail.co.uk

Medical Jargon

Usage can be confusing because the medical distinctions between infection, illness, disorder and disease often overlap. In general, however, “infection” is only considered an illness or disease when symptoms occur. Many sexually transmitted bacteria and viruses are contagious without causing symptoms (or may have asymptomatic periods). Just a handful of these include chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes simplex, HPV, hepatitis and HIV.

Most STIs are treatable. Some strands of HPV can be wiped out by the immune system alone (but not always). But some STIs are not curable, like herpes and HIV (as of today). Contrary to popular confusion, it is not correct to differentiate STIs as “curable” and STDs as “incurable”.

The major distinction is that all STDs are caused by infections. However, not all infections develop into illness or disease. Also, a disease is always associated with symptoms; an infection is not so consistent.

Does this mean it’s wrong to use “STD” in the twenty first century? I would argue no. In many instances, STI and STD are used interchangeably and refer to the same thing.

Why I Say “STI”

I think it boils down to semantics and meaning. Some people feel that dropping the word “disease” only reinforces stigma. Why not just face the fear head on? The more we speak of “disease” the more normalized it becomes, right? Well, not necessarily. “STD” eventually replaced the more euphemistic term “venereal disease” by the 1980s, yet stigma firmly remains.

Personally, I prefer the term STI for two reasons. Firstly, “STI” is a broader term thus more inclusive. Secondly, using the term STI helps raise awareness that physical symptoms are not a reliable way to determine your status. A person can be infected with no symptoms and pass on the infection to others without having a disease.

Serious point here: According to the CDC, 1 in 5 people who are living with HIV today in the United States do not know their status (CDC 2013). In fact, people who do not experience symptoms and/or are not tested are the ones most likely to pass on infection to others. There are serious consequences when STIs are left unknown and untreated. It increases the risk of infection for other STIs and disease. In short, ignorance (RE: stigma) of getting tested and assuming you won’t get an STI is the greatest cause of infection.

Resources: Here are just a few smart spaces we recommend to learn more about STIs and prevention, stigma and facts. Visit Planned ParenthoodThe STD Project, the SexEd Library, the NMAC (National Minority AIDS Council), the Guttmacher Institute, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.

The fabulous sex educator, Andrea Renae (@theandrearenae), recommends the Judgement Free Health Care Providers directory, which is inclusive of LGBT and Queer people, Asexuals, Demisexuals, Polyamorous relationships, sex workers and people living with HIV. There is also the safer sex video Pleasure Rush initiative (NSFW) by GALAEI.

Ask questions on the InformedAboutSex forum.

Specifically for teens and young adults: Scarleteen, GYT (GetYourSelfTested) and Laci Green.

Gwenn’s Condom Research and Personal Use

There’s been a lot of talk in the past 12 months about women’s preferred contraceptive methods. With the coining of the “Pull Out Generation” and the launch of the ACA’s (Affordable Care Act) contraception mandate, much of this talk has been centered around birth control. This is an important discussion that pleases many sex educators: it’s about applying informed choices to people’s lifestyles and relationships, and determining the method that best suits that person’s circumstances.

However, hardly any time in this discussion has attended to those women who use the simple condom as their primary contraception. Even less attention is given to STI testing and prevention. These important topics have been swept aside and treated as a separate issue that seemingly doesn’t apply to long-term sexual relationships.

I spoke with a woman who fits within that cohort of condom-using relationships. Gwenn Barringer is part of the well known sexual health and HIV activist duo, Shawn and Gwenn. Gwenn wrote her Master’s thesis about condom usage in short term and long term relationships among college women.  Now she is a public speaker and vlogger busy busting HIV ignorance. Her approach?  Using her 15+ years sexual relationship with her HIV positive partner, Shawn, to teach others about sexual health.

Over email, we talked about Gwenn’s research findings on the likelihood of condom use in “trusting” relationships. We connected her thesis to her personal life and the contraception strategies that she’s chosen. First, Gwenn lays out the terms of her research and main findings:

Yes, Gwenn found that women in shorter relationships depended on condoms more than women in long term commitments. This wasn’t a big surprise. What was striking was deciphering the meaning of “short” and “long-term”.  Gwenn states, “I found across the literature that a short term relationship was defined as 3 weeks or less, and therefore a long term relationship was defined as more than 3 weeks. This is what I used in my study to define relationship length, so when we are talking about condom use being decreased in long tern relationships, we are talking about a month or so.”

Gwenn continues: “My findings had a lot to do with the vague notion of trust. Women felt like they trusted their partners at the magic 3 week mark. I wish I had more time back then to go further with the trust notion but that was beyond my scope at the time. I do find anecdotally that college women feel that time spent with a partner equates to trust. And while I understand this, I try to encourage STI testing as a trusting experience.”

Gwen makes a key point- notions of trust and sexual health are intrinsically linked. This is a fairly general statement because what “trust” actually means varies from person to person. But all contraceptive methods- all consensual sexual acts -involve degrees of trust. “Pulling out” relies on a partner to be in control of his climax. Condoms are also about partner cooperation and protecting each other.

However, when it comes to public discourse around birth control in long term (heterosexual) commitments, male condoms are often portrayed as unpopular. In fact, some people struggle with getting their partner to use a condom because the other views it as a symbol of distrust in their relationship. Gwenn responds to this contradiction:

“As far as my thoughts on the condom paradox of trust, I do think that is an interesting observation. I feel like it has to do with trust but also has a lot to do with breaking some fantasies that people have about new partners. When you are in a new relationship often times it seems like everything is perfect and magical. Thinking about or discussing a condom inserts the realities of life into that which isn’t always fun.”

We ended the interview by Gwenn reflecting on the prevention regime Shawn and her practice. She is quick to debunk the notion that condoms connote distrust and non-commitment.

“My own relationship has an incredible deal of trust. I don’t think you can really be in a healthy relationship without trust and I certainly don’t think you can be in a serodiscordant relationship without a great deal of trust. That trust for Shawn and I came out of much communication about sex before we ever had sex.”

“Our prevention strategy is condoms each time we have sex. When we first were together, I was also on hormonal birth control but discontinued that (for reasons not related to Shawn’s status or our sex life) about 6 years ago. So we are also using condoms at this point as pregnancy prevention as well. We have discussed the issue of Shawn’s “infectiousness” due to his undetectable viral load and while we haven’t made any major changes to our sex life because of that, we do feel another level of security because we know it would be highly unlikely for him to transmit HIV to me even if there were a break or slip.”

There is no single birth control that suits everyone.  However, condoms remain the only birth control that prevents STI infection. The issue of transmission should not be glossed over when discussing contraceptive methods. Furthermore, the conversation needs to include and represent serodiscordant couples and relationships in which both or one partner carries STIs.

You can read and watch more of Gwenn at her blog and YouTube Channel, Shawn and Gwenn.

Dear AIDS Service Orgs, your condom campaign isn’t working.

We need to question the efficacy of pushing condoms as the only safe sex choice. The condom campaign does not seem to be working anymore and people are not getting the message. Yet Aids Service Organizations (ASOs) continue with this message. Granted, with PrEP there is a shift in responsibility that goes beyond those already infected with HIV, to everyone engaging in sex. Yet this shift brings a lot of discomfort as people outside of the HIV community and within begin to see their own roles and responsibilities changing.

Sticking with the condom campaign is the safe route, (pardon the pun) for institutions as they begin to formulate and consolidate their position on PrEP. Is there fear that supporting PrEP could imply promoting unsafe sex and sexual behavior that is out of control? Is promoting the use of PrEP taking too much of a risk with funders and stake holders who are comfortable with the good old (but not tried and true) condom message? Is PrEP a tough sell as the general public remains in a state of fear and denial about HIV?

Let’s be honest. Who practices safe sex all the time? People make mistakes. People faulter. Who likes using condoms all the time? I don’t. I was in a long term relationship with an HIV negative person where “all conditions” were adhered to, meaning – we were monogamous, had no other sexually transmitted infections, I had an undetectable viral load and was on anti retroviral treatment. Also being a woman, the likelihood of transmitting the virus has been shown statistically to be low. Throughout this time my partner remained HIV negative. It was what Josh Kruger refered to as an “adult informed decision”.

But if I mention this to the general public or my local ASO the reaction would be one of horror. I would be handed a condom pack, with a corny safe sex message inside, and given a pat on the head and small lecture on safe sex with condom use as my only option. My job might be threatened too as I am not adhering to the organization’s policies.

In the meantime, I will continue to tow the party line, pretend that condoms are the only solution to reducing HIV transmission rates, while those of us in the know will continue to make responsible, informed decisions about bare backing. Are Aids Service Organizations, the Supreme Court of Canada and the general public in denial about the latest development in research and medical evidence? Who are the risk takers and who is going to take risks and acknowledge that condom use alone, as the safe sex message, is not working.

I choose to remain anonymous as I value my job and the funding that comes to the organization I work for.

Yours truthfully,

“Virgina”InformedChoices

Monologues are independent stories. The opinions shared are the writer’s own. To learn more about PrEP, ARTs, and other prevention measures, the Beta Blog is a great resource. What HIV sources do you recommend? Have you experienced fear of PrEP? What HIV awareness campaigns are working?

Cowboy Boots & HIV

After my HIV diagnosis I basically shut down and withdrew from everyone for a long time while I struggled to make sense out of it, to understand what exactly HIV was and how I contracted it. I thought at the time it was a virus that affected only gay men, along with many other misconceptions I had read in the newspaper. My doctor, who was the only person I spoke to, suggested I meet a woman he knew who was also HIV positive. He explained that she did have a drug problem in the past but it was all behind her now. I declined the invitation initially because I did not think I had anything in common with the woman. But, after more encouragement from the doctor, I agreed to take her phone number.

I met Julia at her apartment where she lived with her girlfriend Barbara. They greeted me at the door and immediately asked if they could borrow twenty dollars. I gave them the money and Julia went downstairs to see her landlord. Throughout the evening Julia and Barbara made several trips downstairs to see the landlord and each time they came back upstairs, both women appeared to be high on some substance other than marijuana.

Eventually the landlord made an appearance wearing a pair of cowboy boots in the summer heat. He sat next to me on the sofa and started flirting with me, telling me I had nice legs as he stared at me in a way that made me feel uncomfortable. I reassured myself all was well because he was a friend of Julia. Also, I got this referral from the doctor so they couldn’t be that bad.

Suddenly there was a knock on the door and a man burst in looking wired and out of control, on a chemical drug. He was in an agitated state and began screaming at the landlord to “give me my fucking drugs”. The landlord screamed back “you will get your fucking drugs when I get my fucking money”. The argument got so heated I was convinced one of them was going to pull out a weapon and someone was going to be seriously injured or killed.

To say I was afraid was an understatement, as I glanced around for a place to hide if shots were fired.Boots-Solidarity-1

Eventually, the landlord reached into his cowboy boots and pulled out a bag of white powder and gave it to the guy, with some harsh words and threats. I peaked in the cowboy boots and noticed they were both stuffed with bags of white powder.

During the heated argument not only was I afraid about my safety and the safety of Julia and Barbara, I wondered whether the police were going to arrive. I imagined myself being led away in handcuffs during this drug bust, pleading with the officers, as I explained I was simply visiting these ladies for coffee. I even went as far in my paranoid state of envisioning my picture all over the local news and having to explain to family and friends what the hell happened as they nodded in disbelief.

Something like – “Sure Virgina, you were simply visiting for coffee when all of this went down”.

After the scene I was beyond relieved to get home and lock my door. That was many years ago. I sometimes think about Julia and Barbara and wonder how they are doing. In spite of being in a situation where I had never felt so terrified, I liked the women. They opened their home to me and shared their stories about HIV. We connected with each other on some level.

They called a few times afterwards and left messages on my answering machine at all hours of the night. I did not return the calls but now I wish I could speak to Julia and Barbara and say thank you for the hospitality, because all these years later, and after meeting many more HIV positive people, I realize we are in this battle together, regardless of who we are or where we have been.Boots-Solidarity-2

Thank you, Julia and Barbara, for reaching out to me in a time of need.

Virgina

P.S. I did give my doctor a brief synopsis of the visit with Julia and Barbara. He quietly nodded and we did not talk about it again.

Monologues are independent stories. The opinions shared are the author’s own. For more information about living with HIV, check out Rise Up To HIV and be sure to watch the online documentary, Positive Women.  

Protest Unjust HIV Prosecution! July 8th

On July 8th a woman is put on trial for aggravated assault (one of the most serious offenses in the criminal code) because she did not disclose her HIV status to her sex partner. In Canada, people living with HIV are legally required to disclose their status to their partner before having “sex” that involves “significant risk” of transmitting the virus (Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network). However, the law has prosecuted numerous cases in which sex posed no significant risk of HIV transmission, including the July 8th “JM” trial. Justice is being mismanaged.

The law has not kept up with scientific advancements and understanding about risks of HIV transmission. Courts do not routinely considered important information about exposure such as whether the person was taking antiretroviral treatment, what the person’s viral levels were at the time, whether protective barriers were used, and what sexual act occurred, as some involve less risk than others.

Support JM & Protest on July 8

According to activists at AIDS ACTION NOW, the charges of “JM’s” case refer to “oral sex with an undetectable viral load” and despite the extremely low risk (almost zero percent) the court “is refusing to drop the oral sex charges”. She is also being charged for allegedly engaging in unprotected vaginal sex. However, her viral load was “undetectable at the time and she claims a condom was used”. Read the full statement by AIDS ACTION NOW.

There will be a protest against unjust prosecution of people living with HIV at the courthouse in Barrie, Ontario at 13:00 on July 8th. For more info visit the event Facebook page or contact aidsactionnowtoronto@gmail.com.

Image from documentary film, Positive Women, Executive Producer Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network. Available to watch online.

Image from documentary film, Positive Women. Directed by Alison Duke; Executive Producer Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network. Available to watch online.

Want to learn more?

The issue of HIV disclosure is so complex and poisoned by stigma. One can live a happy, sexual life living with HIV. Yet this is seldom represented or discussed in public discourse. More stories need to be shared about peoples’ experiences with disclosure and being prosecuted.

We’ve launched a series of monologues about different experiences with HIV disclosure and safe sex, such as Virgina’s letter to her sex dam. Our interview with folks at the HIV Disclosure Project (Why Not Have Sex With Someone Living W/ HIV?) describes how people who disclose their status put themselves against enormous risks including risk of verbal and physical abuse, risk of rejection and isolation, risk of discrimination by being “outed”, and violations of basic human rights.

There is an important 45 minute documentary, Positive Women, which is free to watch. The film explores how the law of HIV non-disclosure actually fails to protect women and reinforces discrimination against people living with HIV.

For more information about HIV disclosure and criminalization visit Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.

Why Not Have Sex With Someone Living With HIV?

 “Positive Sex ideally would involve disclosure being met with acceptance and understanding, not rejection and stigma. Positive Sex would involve the elimination of terminology that is discriminatory on the dating scene and a shift within the public whereby people would consider dating a person living with HIV, without fear or stigma.”- Gail from the HIV Disclosure Project.

The HIV/AIDS pandemic of the 1980s led to a surge of condom campaigns. Now when we hear the term “safe sex” we immediately associate it with male condoms, the Pill, unwanted pregnancy, STIs. HIV transmission is discussed in sex education, but what’s neglected are the specifics about HIV as it is today: how it is manageable, what “undetectable” means, why terms like “clean” are harmful, what the hell is PReP (Pre Exposure) and PEP (Post Exposure Prophylaxis). And we certainly never discuss the possibility of having a healthy sexual relationship with a person living with HIV.

The reason is because, frankly, there is still fear associated with the virus. People like Gail, Jessica and Jolene, founders of the HIV Disclosure Project, know that HIV stigma persists just as it did 30 years ago. It permeates our fears of “death, dying, contracting the virus through protected sex, casual contact, fear of dating a person who is living with HIV as others may think they are positive as well (guilty by association). Fear that people living with HIV are highly contagious”, Gail describes in our interview. “Many people know the facts about transmission and yet are afraid that there might be some “unusual” accident which will lead to infection.”

The Stigma Cycle

Safe sex messages have traditionally been built on fear and as a result, the campaigns have failed miserably; from that fear is born stigmatization and prejudice against people who are HIV-positive. People who choose to disclose their status risk being verbally and physically abused, risk rejection and isolation, risk discrimination by being “outed” (loss of control over who knows their status), risk discrimination in the workplace, schools, with housing, health care and violations of basic human rights. People are deterred from getting tested and treated regularly; it results in silence about one’s status; thus the virus continues to be transmitted. “It’s what we refer to as the Stigma Cycle,” Gail explains.

To fight the stigma born out of fear, the HIV Disclosure Project facilitates open discussions about how to make the dating scene more inclusive of people living with HIV. “We provide a safe, non-judgmental space for people living with HIV to role play, practice a variety of techniques for disclosing if they choose to, while aiming to empower individuals to have options, externalize stigma and challenge public perception of people living with HIV. We want to have PSAs (public service announcements) that ask the question – Why not have sex with someone who is living with HIV?”

HIV DisclosureThe HIV Disclosure Project

The idea for the Project started with three colleagues- Gail, Jessica and Jolene -who saw a need for a supportive workshop where people living with HIV could “discuss, disclose, practice disclosure, find comfortable and timely ways to gauge when to disclose or not, and to process feelings that derived from stigma and rejection,” Gail says.

“People living with HIV also needed a space where they could challenge and change dating terminology which perpetuated stigma and fear of HIV, including terms such as “clean”, “disease free” and “dirty”. New terminology was needed to describe one’s status that excluded negative connotations and included acceptance, tolerance, and a willingness to consider dating a person who is living with HIV.”

At the time, there were no written manuals on disclosing HIV to sex partners. Granted funding from ACCM (AIDS Community Care Montreal), the three colleagues wrote a manual titled “Positive Sex” and designed a pilot workshop that resulted in much success. The Disclosure Project received further funding from the CIHR (Canadian Institute on Health Research) through CTAC (Canadian Treatment Access Council) where Jolene works as Program Manager. Workshops are now being implemented across Canada in collaboration with ACCM. Jessica facilitates these workshops.

I asked Gail how we might de-stigmatize sexual relationships for people living with HIV. The answer might seem controversial but it reflects upon the fear tactics that are often utilized in government supported sex ed programs and why we need to adopt Positive Sex frameworks in public health.

“What needs to be reinforced in the mainstream are the basic facts about HIV transmission and repeated public service announcements and education which tells the public that it is socially acceptable to have safe sex with a person living with HIV, that having sex with a person living with HIV does not mean they are going to contract HIV. There are many sero- discordant couples who have been in long term relationships where the HIV negative person remained negative.”

“Positive Sex” is the new “Safe Sex”

Image from http://www.ctac.ca/positive-sex

Image from http://www.ctac.ca/positive-sex

Gail, Jessica and Jolene bring up an important point about the meaning of “safety” that is taught in sex education. What’s often overlooked are issues of emotional safety, such as consent and self-esteem, that are both cause and effect of sex. Few curricula teach consent or communication in a way that is relevant to sexual diversity. Instead, outdated sex education shames discussions of sexual pleasure and desire, and the different types of relationships humans are a part. The Disclosure Project views this type of shaming in opposition to what is positive sex.

As Gail explains, “Positive sex to us means finding ways to successfully disclose one’s HIV status while not feeling threatened, stigmatized or experiencing any negative reactions while disclosing. Positive Sex also involves challenging and changing public perceptions of people living with HIV. In the past, safe sex campaigns were based on fear and as a result, thirty years into the pandemic, there are many misconceptions that perpetuate fear and stigma which need to be challenged.”

“Positive Sex ideally would involve disclosure being met with acceptance and understanding, not rejection and stigma. Positive Sex would involve the elimination of terminology that is discriminatory on the dating scene and a shift within the public whereby people would consider dating a person living with HIV, without fear or stigma.”

To learn more about The HIV Disclosure Project follow them on twitter @sexpartnersHIV. Like their Facebook Page for daily prose, thoughts and poems related to HIV and disclosure.

For information on HIV transmission, prevention, safety and risks refer to ACCM and CTAC.  There are a lot of them, but other helpful resource are: CareXO.com, the YAHAnet (Youth, the Arts, HIV & AIDS Network) and The Life Foundation. There is also an excellent article by The Body.com with medical information about the risks HIV transmission when having sex with someone who has undetectable viral levels.  Keep yourself informed!