Tag Archives: stigma

3 People and An HIV Positive Baby?

The problem is so common there is a term for it. Andrew shares his personal struggle trying to deter the “bug chasers” from his “gift” (NSFW).

drewsmonologueI have been around the block quite a lot and I thought I had seen and read everything and that nothing would shock me…but I was wrong! A few years ago I was chatting with friends on Gaydar when a bisexual husband and wife started talking with me. At first all was going well- just casual chats. Soon this changed to a very sexually infused conversation so I told them I was HIV+. I thought that this would be the end of it and that I would get the usual comments back when I disclosed that I carry what some had labelled “THE GAY PLAGUE”.

But much to my shock they got even more eager and horny saying ,“Oh please fuck us bareback!”

Now don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t even here looking for sex, let alone sex without a condom. I tried getting rid of these people who seemed to be looking to become positive but this didn’t work. So I tried explaining to them the downsides to having a disease like this: the tiredness, the slow healing, stigma and losing friends and family due to misunderstandings. None of this sunk in. If anything, it seemed to turn them on even more. By this time, I had resorted to my basic instincts and frankly told them where they could insert their desires and that I wanted nothing to do with them.

Now I’m not a fan of children in anyway and avoid them and their screaming like a medieval person would avoid a plague infested rat, but on this occasion I had to act.

You see, what got anger levels way up was they had said above all else they wanted me to fuck the wife bareback filling her with my “poz seed” and making sure that she fell pregnant by me so that they could have a positive baby! I felt sick and disgusted and so scared of the fact that there were people that not only wanted to be “POZ” themselves but would actively seek to create a new life- a baby who would be born with this terrible life-altering disease.

So I did what any decent human being would; I blocked the people, warned the room, and even spoke to Gaydar themselves, letting them know that the profile in question was seeking to purposefully contract “HIV” and to get the lady pregnant with a “positive” baby.

Gaydar said that it wasn’t within their control and that they didn’t have the right to tell people what they could or couldn’t do on their website and that I should just ignore them. Now I wasn’t satisfied with this outcome so I turned to the charity which offers advice to people about “HIV” and other STIs, ‘Terrance Higgins Trust’. I thought that they would agree with me and make a stand; tell Gaydar to block these people from the site and at least help educate people more. But no. They said as well that they couldn’t control what people did and that it wasn’t their place to tell Gaydar what to do.

I was lost and didn’t know what to do about this situation aside from carrying on telling people who wanted bareback with a positive person that they would be very sorry and have to deal with so much grief both from stigma and dealing with side effects of medication. Most people saw how stupid what they wanted was and changed their minds but some still went on looking and would search out those that were known as “Gift Givers” who would infect these “Bug Chasers”, as they called themselves.

Due to this situation, I have avoided Gaydar. Once people had learned I was HIV Positive they were drawn like bees to honey and it depressed me so much seeing their stupidity time and time again that I would at times cry.

There were a few things I realised due to this terrible event. The education of sexually communicable diseases needs to be increased and made openly available along with better display of condoms in shops, and that websites and other places that people can go for sex take more responsibility for dealing with people who are actively searching for the “GIFT” of disease from those people who are infected.

Monologues are independent stories and the opinions shared are the author’s own.

 

I Always Thought I’d Be Skinny.

Like a lot of people, I always used to think someone with HIV or AIDS was going to be super skinny, so when I was diagnosed in 2005 I thought, “Yes, never fat again“. Looking back with what  I now know (Including my own waist line) I realise that this is not case. Yes, some people are skinny with it due to many reasons , but on the whole we are all different shapes and sizes, and some are like me: stocky.

Now in 2009, I made a decision to show the world that people living with HIV can be chunky as well, so I took part in the Walk for Life and all I wore was a t-shirt some new rock boots and a tight jock strap.

People living with HIV come in all shapes and sizes.

A cheeky way to remind us that people living with HIV come in all shapes and sizes.

Now I know this may shock some to know that I own a jock strap (6 actually) but I do and I walked what ended up being 12 miles and ended up in Soho London having a drink in a bar. We barely got any trouble from passers by aside from one nasty homophobic woman who worked for a rather famous London attraction.While dressed as a Victorian whore, she called me a sick pervert who needed to be sorted out.

Throughout the day, people loved having pics taken with me and even the police had a good giggle at my bare bum getting so much attention. Not one person that day guessed I was HIV+ though. This is sad in a way that we have such compartmentalized views or ideas on how someone who is ill should look and act.

So when you go out please try and not label people just because they maybe skinny or stocky, as any of us can and do have HIV/AIDS, or some other kind of condition and we do not deserve to be judged just as you all don’t deserve to be either.

So much love to you all. Drew

 

Monologues are independent stories. The opinions shared are the author’s own. 

Dear Husband, When Will The Condom Come Off?

The reality of TasP (treatment as prevention) is having a profound effect of serodiscordant couples today. Scientific evidence shows that under certain conditions, the risk of HIV transmission is so low that doctors now recommend some serodiscordant couple have condomless sex if they want to get pregnant. But for many, updated evidence cannot match the deep-seeded fear of contracting HIV. Armed with sources and facts, this monologue is a personal letter from an HIV positive woman confronting her husband’s apprehensions to start having condomless sex. 

DearHusbandDear Husband,

We have been in this relationship for a year and you know how I feel about you. I think you are the most wonderful man in existence, in my unbiased opinion. We share many interests, we have fun together, and in spite of my HIV status, the sex has been great. There have been no major challenges with my status until now.

As I long for a time when I could have condomless sex and exchange body fluids, an intimate act that feels like none other, condoms are an increasing reminder that we have a barrier between us. Regardless of how much lube one uses there is no condom available that does not feel like a condom. The female condom is okay but as my colleague noted, it is like having sex with a garbage bag inside you, complete with the noise of the crumpling latex.

I did get pregnant the good old fashioned way with my first child from a previous relationship and she is not HIV positive, nor is her father. I want to have another baby, but somehow that conversation gets diverted each time I initiate it. As you very well know, I do want to get pregnant naturally and our doctor recommended we try the good old fashioned way, like other hetero-couples wanting to have a child. We are in a committed, monogamous, trusting relationship. We know each other’s sexual health and HIV status. Scientific evidence presented at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI) and discussion leading up to CROI left me feeling hopeful that soon the condoms would be put to rest.

Gus Cairns explains the outcomes of the latest PARTNER study which is showing promise while waiting for the final results in 2017. The PARTNER study is an international collaboration taking place in several European countries and is funded by the National Institute for Health Research in England and coordinated by Copenhagen HIV Programme (CHIP), in collaboration with University College London (the sponsor) and The Royal Free Hampstead NHS Trust, London.

“When asked what the study tells us about the chance of someone with an undetectable viral load transmitting HIV, presenter Alison Rodger said: “Our best estimate is it’s zero” (In Cairns 2014).

Seeing all of this evidence presented, along with knowing about my HIV negative child, makes me anxious as we wait for the time when we can stop using condoms. I trust you and I know you trust me but your refusal to accept new scientific evidence resulting from research studies, information that is not really new, as I was told years ago that under certain conditions I am not infectious, is making me question many things about this relationship. Mark S. King raises the question of whether people living with HIV will ever be considered safe sex partners. He refers in his writing to the ways in which people living with HIV are viewed as “suicide bombers” (2014). While reading his articles, I realized just how much work is ahead for the HIV community. But does there need to be such effort with us as I wonder if we are continuing to make informed decisions?

Who would have thought a condom could create so much stress in our relationship. Stress I was not prepared for and did not see coming as I believed you would eventually accept the evidence presented and change practices accordingly. After all, we are not in a one-night-stand as random strangers not knowing each other’s sexual history, where a condom would be used without question. We have evolved in our relationship. Or so I thought. But the continued use of condoms makes me question whether or not you can finally rid yourself of the fear of HIV transmission.

On a global scale, Bob Leahy (2014), who initially was not sold on the idea of treatment as prevention (TasP), now supports it completely, but he does remind the HIV community of “the huge amount of work that needs to be done, with advocacy at all levels being a sizeable component”, to convince institutions of the need for supporting and implementing TasP. As individuals, you and me are part of the TasP model.

Sex is not as spontaneous as it could be because we always have to ensure beforehand that condoms are nearby. The act of getting the condom ready and reaching for it is a constant, nagging reminder that screams out – “Watch out for HIV the big boogy man waiting in the corner reminding us to constantly be on guard”. I fantasize about the day when we can simply wake up in the morning and have sex without any reminders, with complete intimacy and trust without anxiety and fear.

What would I do if I were in your position?

I cannot say with certainty that I would embrace the idea and abandon the condoms without any lingering fear and doubt. I just do not know. I would like to think I would understand the science of HIV and realize that there is no real risk; that I would abandon my trepidation and in turn abandon condoms eventually. Maybe I would, and maybe I would not, preferring to hang on to the comfort and security of the condom.

Condoms are for one night stands, random sex, having sex with partners whose status is unknown, for avoiding all other sexually transmitted infections. We have none of those concerns. I have to be honest as I share my thoughts. I have thought on a couple of occasions of pursing sex with someone else who wants to have condomless sex. I need to feel the intimacy and deep connection to a man as we have sex that is uninterrupted with reminders, good old fashioned spontaneous sex. I never thought a small piece of latex could cause so much stress and doubt in a relationship. I want to maintain the status quo but on the other hand I want to have sex without condoms.

The last thing I want to do is transmit this virus to you. But as Marc-André LeBlanc (2014) so eloquently explained it, you are in fact safer with an HIV positive partner than with one whose status is unknown. I am beginning to give up hope as I try to explain that in fact, you -my partner- are safer with me as an HIV positive woman with stable, well controlled health status. I am getting impatient. There is growing tension in the relationship. If you cannot trust me and scientific evidence then I am going to begin to wonder if you have really addressed your fears, in depth, about HIV.

The province of British Columbia as an international leader in developing a model of the Test and Treat strategy, recently collaborated with China in offering services for them to implement to reduce HIV transmission through TasP, (Povidence Health Care: 2014), providing further evidence for the need to recognize how treatment does prevent transmission of HIV. I am on and adhere to treatment and am well controlled.

I understand completely and if the shoe were on the other foot. It may take some convincing on my part to trust and believe what is being presented. I am no different from anyone else and my personal perceptions and ideology take time to adjust to scientific evidence which is presented. My education about HIV came from the old fear based strategically targeted place. It is not easy to let go of those fears. They are embedded in our institutions and in our individual psyche, very deeply, I am finding out.

Len Tooley who does HIV testing, explains how “sexual health is often framed in the idea of risk instead of rewards. He goes on to explain how “this may present HIV and those living with it as the worst possible outcome imaginable, which is not only stigmatizing but often irrational and false since many people with HIV are, in fact, just fine” (In Straube: 2014).

So, will you let me know when the condom can come off?

Sincerely,

Your partner and lover.

Monologues are independent stories and the opinions shared are the author’s own.

References
Cairns,Gus. 2014. No One With An Undetectable Viral Load Gay Or Heterosexual Transmits HIV in First Two Years of PARTNER Study. March 4

Leahy, Bob. 2014. The TasP Train Has Left The Station. April 10

Leblanc, Marc- André. 2014. FUCK POZ GUYS! February 10

King, Mark. S. 2014. When People with HIV Became Suicide Bombers  April 2

King, Mark.S. 2014. Will HIV Ever Be Safe Enough For You? March 11

Providence Health Care. 2014. China joins forces british columbia conquer hiv/aids. November 27

Straube, Trenton. 2014. Against All Odds. POZ April/May

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.

#MySexPositivity with Ashley Manta

See sex positivity through the eyes of empowerment guru, Ashley Manta, and you’ll start to redefine your weakness for strength. By a personalized, “be yourself” approach to sexuality & gender, her work unveils taboo topics like STIs, sexual violence and body confidence. Adaptive and progressive as the sex positive community may be, Manta argues that it lags behind in the way of STI awareness and prevention. Words like ”clean” and “dirty” are not in this teacher’s vocabulary; “vulva owner” and “body safe dildos” are.

1) Identify one or two trends, or influential people in the Sex Positive community that you identify with (or are inspired by) and those trends which you relate to not-so-much.

One of the trends that I love in the sex positive community right now is the emphasis on collaboration over competition. For a long time, sex educators and bloggers were operating from a model of scarcity where there must be a finite number of potential readers or audiences and thus we must push each other down to get our message out. Now we are supporting one another in every possible way. I first noticed this when I attended Tristan Taormino’s “Sex Educator Boot Camp” at CatalystCon East in March. She pointed out that we’re all in this together and by supporting each other, we’re creating a thriving community. Doing something as simple as keeping a blog roll or a “sex positive resources” page on one’s website is enough to show visitors “hey, I’m not the only game in town and I want you to find a voice that really resonates with you.” I would always prefer that someone hire me because they vibe with me and not because they think I’m the only option they have. There are so many amazing educators with different experiences who bring rich conversations to any audience. I want people to experience all of them, not just me.

A trend that I’m less crazy about is the “consent is sexy” messaging. As a sexual assault survivor and someone who has done extensive work in sexual violence prevention, I appreciate the intention of the message. It’s a catchy phrase and it does get people talking about consent, which is a good thing. My concern is that it’s an oversimplification. Consent is not always sexy—sometimes it’s downright awkward. Having a conversation about boundaries, STI testing, and other pre-sex talking points can be incredibly difficult. That does not make it any less necessary. I think it’s important to let people know that these conversations can be challenging and that good sexual communication takes practice. “Consent is sexy” can make it sound like having an explicit talk about boundaries is akin to an aphrodisiac. It’s just not that simple. I worry that people will hear that message, make an attempt to start the conversation, and then become discouraged when it gets awkward. I would like to see more nuances in discussions about consent rather than trying to boil it down to a catch phrase.

2) How do you define “sex positivity” for yourself and your work? In other words, what is your primary passion and how do you distinguish your writings and interests from other branches of thought within the sex positive movement?

IveLearnedToLeanIn-1As a sex educator, I categorize my work as sex positive because I take a “no-shaming” approach to education. I believe sexuality is healthy, normal, and entirely optional. Rather than take a “sex is awesome everyone should do it” stance, I prefer to communicate a “be yourself” message. I would hate to alienate people who are asexual or not at a sexual point in their lives. At the same time, I make every attempt to celebrate sexuality in those who do choose to be sexual. I also believe sex positivity means sexual inclusivity, so I try to make my language about gender and sexuality as broad as possible. That means saying “vulva owners” instead of “women” and “how to please your partner” instead of “how to please your man.” We live in an incredibly heteronormative, ableist, and cisgender normative culture and I want my writing and teaching to model inclusivity.

My primary passion is teaching. I believe that by sharing my experiences, I give others permission to do the same. My friend and colleague Kate McCombs calls it “being a beacon of permission.” I would like to take sexuality out of the realm of giggles and whispers and bring it into daily conversation. I’m a huge fan of Brene Brown’s work, which emphasizes vulnerability as being the key to connection (TedTalk video). As much as appropriate, I try to model that in my writing and teaching. I use my birth name instead of a pseudonym, share my story of being a sexual assault survivor, and write about living with Herpes and struggling with body confidence. I’ve learned to embrace discomfort and “lean in” to awkward conversations, because those are the ones that tend to bring the deepest connections with others.

3) What directions do you think sex positivity will take within the next 5 – 10 years? Or what topics and with what platforms would you like to see sex positivity develop more thoroughly within the next 5 – 10 years?

When I think about how much things have changed in just the past 5 years, I get so excited about the future! One of the things I see happening in the sex positive movement is a greater reliance on technology for getting the message out to the world. Social media, video chat, webinars—these tools are going to bring sex positivity to a greater audience than ever before. I believe we’re going to get to a point where distance is no longer a barrier to bringing an educator into a classroom.

As more information begins to disseminate among the general population, I think there will be a trend toward body safe materials in sex toys and products. Currently the sex toy industry is completely unregulated, and I think with a growing awareness of the dangers of chemicals in certain types of toys, there will be a push for more regulation or oversight.

I would love to see the notions of “clean” and “dirty” disappear from conversations about STIs. This is an incredibly stigmatizing way to talk about having or not having an STI. Because it starts at an institutional level (not those words specifically but the emphasis on “STIs are bad”), I’d like to see Public Health and Sex Positive communities take a different approach to prevention and management. That will eventually trickle down into social norms. Having an STI is not the end of the world. Being ignorant about STIs is dangerous. There are consequences to not treating something like Chlamydia. That’s why we need to raise awareness and encourage testing. At the same time, I think we’re going to start realizing that STIs are part of being sexually active. The prevalence of HPV is skyrocketing and more than 20% of the US population has Herpes. I don’t think that shaming people who have an STI is going to aid in prevention. If anything, it makes people less likely to talk about it. I think we need education about STIs and barrier options and greater access to testing and treatment.

A project that tackles STI stigma is The Herpes Opportunity. Recommended by Ashley.  

Opinions shared are the author’s own. Want to participate in this interview series? What is your sex positivity?



Sexual Health & Relationship Education via Life Stories

A riart Grrrl, a folklorist and a condom monologuer get together to discuss the phenomenon of real-life storytelling in the context of sex education

The three authors of this post come from different trajectories in the field of sex and sexuality but we share the belief that real-life storytelling should play an intrinsic role in sexual health and relationships education (SRE).

storytelling pieceHere we discuss the need for real-life stories that address safer sex practices and how to navigate health risks in relevant ways. Dr. Jeana Jorgensen and Xaverine Bates both explain that sharing real-life stories has transformative power to validate perspectives which may be overlooked or silenced in public discourse. Storytelling has the ability to convey scenarios that one may never have imagined before. Hence, they raise awareness about social issues and invite people to learn and unlearn ways of looking at bodies and desires. As stated by Xaverine Bates, founder of riart Grrls and aGender, “The power of storytelling is crucial for truly effective sex and relationship education (SRE), with a firm emphasis on emotional health in order to foster a deep understanding of what constitutes a healthy relationship.”

Taboo Manages How We Talk about Sex

Dr. Jeana Jorgensen, folklorist and writer at MySexProfessor.com, argues that due to social taboo towards talking publicly about sexual experiences, these life stories

“are limited to settings where the teller doesn’t have a professional or personal stake in the listeners’ reactions. I think this is unfortunate, because personal narratives are really potent genres for education. When someone tells a personal narrative, they not only educate the listener (by conveying facts about their life), but they also invite the listener to empathize with them and consider their values.”

Jeana continues, “So, because of the taboo on oversharing about one’s sexual activities in many settings, people tend to share personal narratives on sexual topics within their peer groups, age groups, friend groups, and hobby groups. This guarantees that if you’re making yourself vulnerable by sharing sexual information, you’re probably doing it to a sympathetic audience. But it also means that you risk living within an echo chamber, and you’ll only hear stories that confirm your own set of values. To that end, I think it’s really important for people from diverse backgrounds to learn each other’s stories and thereby gain empathy for how different life circumstances can lead to a variety of life (and lifestyle) choices.”

The internet is one place where people subvert this taboo and overcome issues of access. At Condom Monologues we’ve circumscribed a bully-free space that aims to be as inclusive as possible allowing anyone to ask questions and share their experiences with safe sex (see our archive). Whether the admins agree with the storyteller’s values or choices is not the point. However, we do not represent everyone’s experiences and have our limitations. One can never control how stories are appropriated and re-purposed in the digital world, and that is a risk all storytellers face. But there are ways to protect identity as well as mediate discussion around sharing stories, such as workshops like aGender (explained below).

Teaching Which Facts with What Stories…

The taboo Jeana highlights also affects the way in which sex education informs students. Narratives in class are rooted in political interests and social fears around sexuality. Pleasure and desire are rarely mentioned even as a side-issue. Instead, young people are fed a platter of warnings and doom-laden data about STI epidemics and teen pregnancy. One need not look further than this and that mandatory abstinence-only assembly to be told horror stories about how boyfriends used “condoms that had holes in them” or told girls that if they use birth control “your mother probably hates you.”

KnowledgeIsPowerEducators rarely offer information about safer sex beyond vaginal-penis intercourse. Diverse sexuality and the spectrum of (trans)gender identity are excluded. Addressing issues such as STI stigma, homophobic, transphobic and sexist language, cyber-bullying, sexting and sexual anxieties are inadequate at best.

Medical information is often presented without context nor provide students with diverse options on how to apply these facts in real-life sexual relationships. And that’s if we can call them “facts” to begin with! In the US, only 13 states require sex education to actually be medically accurate, according to a 2012 study by the Guttmacher Institute. Meanwhile, in the UK, Xaverine explains that “there is currently a bias towards the biological side of SRE” which “favors plain biological facts” without focus on issues of enthusiastic consent and emotional confidence.

What Young Adults are Saying

Students’ experiences in sexual health class are telling. As a college instructor, Jeana hears young people share their experiences in sex education which, she explains, “constitutes their own type of personal narrative. The topics that people remembered tended to be biological rather than emotional; physiology was covered, but not necessarily relationships or pleasure.”

Xaverine agrees. She points to testimonies by 19-21 year olds who participated in women’s-only focus groups that examined the effectiveness of SRE (Kavanagh, 2011).

For example, one participant said,

I was like scarred by sex education at secondary school, they came in with like these big blown up pictures of STIs and stuff and said, you know, if you have sex and stuff this is what will happen to you. It was horrible…(ibid, p-13).

All focus-group participants commented on the lack of relationship education in schools with an emphasis purely on the biological. As one put it,

I think relationships and morals and respect need to be put back in place, for everyone, not just males or females, and I don’t believe in the saying nothing (abstinence teaching) because I think if everybody was to turn around to me and be like, you’re not doing this, you’re not doing that, I’d do it…I’d rebel (ibid, p-15).

“Comprehensive” SRE is in dire need of revision. Negligence of these topics results in an unsafe, non-engaging space that silences and restricts young people’s sexuality and gender identity. Students are left inarticulate about what they want, what they need and how to manage risks. Thus the vicious cycle of sex-shaming continues and proliferates the spread of STIs and unhealthy sexual relationships.

Changing Narratives

Failures in sex education programs are the reason why organizations like aGender exist. In an attempt to move beyond standard curricula, Xaverine states that “opportunities need to be made for young people to talk about their fears, expectations and experiences of sex and relationships in a healthy and supportive environment…without fear of embarrassment or repercussions from peers, teachers, parents or carers. This is what we are aiming for at aGender.”

“aGender is beginning its pilot project this month, which consists of a series of workshops to complement an exhibition, txt, at Claremont Studios in St Leonards, which will be a collection of contemporary visual artworks that incorporate written word. The exhibition will explore the tension and complexity created when a word is used not only for its literal meaning but also as a visual cue to lead through to layers of subtext and implied meaning. In light of the current reports on the psychological impact of texting, sexting and cyberbullying on young children, SMS messaging and the power of seemingly innocent words to imply malicious, threatening messages- it is anticipated that the challenging nature of the artwork will be both engaging and inspirational for them both as viewers and as participants in the workshops.”

Storytelling as a Transformative Process

Storytelling has played an important role even during the preliminary stages for aGender. Xaverine explains,

“As part of our research in planning the workshops, which cover texting, sexting & cyber-bullying, we have had many discussions within our focus group about how best to tackle such a difficult subject. As a result, we have shared many of our own experiences of sex education, our own relationships, previous abusive situations and much more, all through the medium of storytelling.”

Image from Xaverine Bates' blog depicting one of her live art performances on gender stereotyping and class.

Image from Xaverine Bates’ blog depicting ‘Peepshow 2’, one of her live art performances with Miranda Sharp on gender stereotyping and class.

She continues, “It will be fascinating to hear the young peoples’ stories . We are planning to have a multi-platform element to the workshops, incorporating social media of their choice (e.g. instagram, twitter, etc.) to encourage young people to engage with the subject in the days between workshops. This way we will hopefully elicit more stories that they may feel uncomfortable in telling us directly, as many feel more comfortable revealing personal information via social media, which ironically is one of the reasons that the problem of sexting has arisen in the first place – the illusion of anonymity and neutrality has enabled young people to feel that exposing themselves in their bedrooms is acceptable to post online, to potentially thousands of viewers. This false sense of security is what leads to the repercussions as seen in aggressive bullying and cyberbullying.”

Read updates about how the work shop went.

aGender’s project is one example in which artful use of information and communication strategies can re-engage public awareness and find new ways to talk about being a body, being sexual, and negotiating healthy relationships. Jeana also pinpoints the transformative phenomenon of personal storytelling and listening. She describes how sharing experiences of sexual assault can help challenge shame and affirm agency over one’s narrative. Jeana states,

“One of the most powerful things I’ve witnessed when it comes to sexual storytelling is the importance of processing trauma through storytelling. Specifically, sexual assault survivors are often able to work through what happened to them by narrating the events in a way that is transformative and therapeutic. One of my mentors at Indiana University, Dr. Nicole Kousaleos, did her dissertation on how women who have survived sexual abuse can, in narrating their stories, experience greater agency in their lives. Narrating a story is also an invitation for listeners to respond, and in this case, the audience can help reinforce that the survivor was not to blame (since one of the biggest stigmas that prevents sexual assault survivors from speaking out is the tendency in our culture to victim-blame). I’ve observed this phenomenon informally, among multiple friends and acquaintances, and thus I believe that overcoming the shameful silence surrounding sexual assault is an important part of the healing process for many people.”

“Additionally, since one of the functions of personal narratives is to create intimacy and empathy, listeners can learn more about the reality of sexual assault. The numbers are already shockingly high -such as the CDC’s estimate that nearly 1 in 5 American women have been raped at some point in their lives- but numbers are abstract, whereas people telling their stories are concrete, real, human. Storytelling about sexual violence puts a face on the problem and helps to humanize it, and that’s why I believe it’s so powerful.”

Conclusion

People are inherently story-driven. The way we understand the world is through narrative. That is why first-person stories are very powerful in facilitating awareness and understanding, especially when they offer an experience of the world never previously imagined. What’s lost in the public discourse of SRE are the real, everyday lives of youth and adults, and making medical facts relevant to their complex needs and desires. The three authors here advocate for more opportunities for people to engage in safe and participatory spaces to actively listen and reflect upon stories.

Because there are so few authentic first-person narratives in sex education (especially a lack of non-heterosexual voices), storytelling provides us with non-stereotypical and often unexpected representations of people, gender roles and relationships. Stories should not be seen as merely anecdotal but as a potential source of knowledge for both the storyteller and the audience.

———–
Kavanagh, K. (2011) ‘Priming Pubescent Sexualities; Sex and relationship education, without the relationship education?’ [unpublished].
For recent reports on cyberbulling and sexting refer to Ringrose J, Gill R, Livingstone S & Harvey L (2012). “A qualitative study of children, young people and ‘sexting’”. NSPCC.

The Person on the Other Side of Your Herpes Diagnosis

Upon her sex partners herpes diagnosis, Pilar Reyes reflects on her personal path from initial anger to condoms enthusiast. The opinions shared are the authors own.

FuckItWe had been sleeping together on and off for a few months when he got herpes. At first, it was the usual immature reaction: panic, followed by anger, followed by bitter text messages that said, “We’re never fucking ever again!” But that wasn’t true, because despite the echoes of my high school sex education that had planted the seed of “anybody who has an STD is a dirty, bad person,” the sex was still good, and I still wanted to fuck him.

So I did my research. The Internet threw a lot of information at me, but at the end of the day I knew one thing for sure: condoms, condoms, condoms. We had always used condoms before the diagnosis, and it seemed that now using protection was imperative. The herpes virus is spread via direct physical contact. The herpes virus can shed from the skin and be passed from person to person even in the absence of a physical outbreak. Even with the use of condoms, herpes can still be passed on, although the use of condoms greatly diminishes that risk.

I looked at the odds, I looked at my needs, and I came to the conclusion that the risk was worth the reward. Armed with the knowledge that I could potentially spread an STD to my other sexual partners, I did the responsible thing and let them know. Of course, when they found out, they decided to stop sleeping with me. That was fine, because it wasn’t that serious anyways. I guess that’s the thing about casual sex – at the risk of STDs, it becomes a less worthwhile pursuit.

Which was why my partner and I became less casual and more serious. After a brief hiatus, and after the initial outbreak cleared up, I realized that the sex wasn’t the only reason I was coming back. Maybe it was the shared experience of dealing with a new STD diagnosis together, or maybe it was the fact that I hadn’t completely ditched him because of his herpes, we decided, fuck it, we clearly care about each other. Let’s stop fucking around and start dating.

It would have been really easy to instead close my legs and walk away at that point. Certainly all my friends had advised me to do so, but when I had done my initial medical research, I also came across an online community devoted to debunking the STD shaming that is pervasive in modern culture. At first I was surprised that I had never come across this point of view before. As a feminist and an avid anti-slut shamer, it just made sense. Given my initial reaction and my friends’ reactions to the situation, I realized that , much to my chagrin, our attitudes to STDs were not exactly PC. Sure, I have friends with HIV and herpes, but they were certainly not people that I would have even considered having sex with. Of course, that’s a completely unfair perspective, because all it takes is a condom to diminish your risk. So long as a person is honest when disclosing their STDs, there shouldn’t be a problem.

To give this story a happy ending, my partner and I are still together. We have safe sex every time, and, while I still do not have herpes, I’ve come to realize that if I get herpes, then I’ll have herpes. It won’t be a life shattering event, nor should it be, for myself or anyone else. Sure, I certainly don’t want an STD, nor does anyone else, but much like a cold or like acne, often times STDs are merely inconvenient medical conditions. With proper education, you can diminish your risk. Fuck it – just use a condom every time.

Monologues are independent stories. The opinions shared are the author’s own.

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.

‘V-Gals’: The other WWII enemy

The Daily Mail and MSN Now published an exhibit of 1940s sexual health posters raising awareness about the spread of gonorrhea and syphilis.  What’s striking is the way these images packaged moral stigma.  Women, particularly sex workers, “loose” women and “victory gals” were portrayed as the sinful source of venereal disease.  Copying war-style propaganda, some posters depicted sexualized women as the enemy for comrades to brave against.  Like this one displaying an assembly line of blonde temptresses- all the same; all out to fuck you and your country.

WWII Public Service Announcement.  After condoms are finally made legal in the USA Army. Image from the DailyMail.co.uk

WWII Public Service Announcement. After condoms are finally made legal in the USA Army. Image from the DailyMail.co.uk

Loose equals Loaded with disease!  Read STI stigma.  Image sourced from the DailyMail.co.uk

Loose equals Loaded with disease! Read STI stigma. Image sourced from the DailyMail.co.uk

Many campaigns, like this one, used fear tactics and warned soldiers not to be fooled by the attraction of “loose” women- for they are not what they seem.

And, of course, we won’t mention the risks of unprotected sex for men who have sex with men, because that doesn’t exist in the armed forces (sarcasm).

Another aspect to put into perspective is the history of condom stigma, especially in the United States during the first World War.  These PSAs were made just after condoms became legalized and issued to the Armed Forces.

But during the First World War, the reality of STIs dealt with differently.  It was widely believed that venereal disease was the price one paid for sinful choices.

Condom Censorship

Thus, the American Social Hygiene Association objected to issuing condoms to soldiers- so during the First World War, they weren’t. In fact, since 1873, the U.S. government illegalized any advertisement of contraceptives. That same set of laws also banned the sale of condoms and allowed for condoms to be confiscation from personal mail in up to thirty states (Collier, 2007).

quote boxIt wasn’t until World War II that the use of condom became prominent among both European and American soldiers.  Keep in mind that condom technology at the time was not regulated and the pleasure factor was close to nil.  Lubricant wasn’t invented until 1957.  Defective latex and breakage rates were high.  It wasn’t until the 1960s that North America and most of Europe established a quality standard controls for manufacturers to follow (Perera 2004).

Read here for more on the foible history of condoms and other contraceptives.

Visit the Daily Mail and MSN to view more WWII sexual disease propaganda.

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!