Negotiating sexual relationships is tricky enough as it is without having to throw HIV into the mix. Here, positive people share their experiences of playing the dating game.
Charlie: “I was convinced I would never see her again”
I’d only just started dating this girl. We’d only been together a matter of weeks, it was very early days. I was keen on her and it was going really well so I wanted to do the responsible thing and I got tested. The positive result was a shattering blow.
I was torn. I really liked this chick, but I didn’t know whether to disclose or cut her loose. I ended up cutting her loose completely. I just couldn’t go through with it. I decided to nip it in the bud and just move on. It was just too tough.
I made up some ridiculous story about needing to go back to the UK because a missing family member had resurfaced. But she’s a smart girl and she saw right through it. She wrote me a long email saying, “Look, whatever it is I just need to know.”
She thought all sorts of things: that I was married, had kids; I was gay. I stewed on it for a couple of days and ended up replying back to her saying: “Let’s meet and I’ll tell you everything.” But in the end I couldn’t go through with it.
Eventually we arranged to meet for a second time. I decided the only way I could tell her was in writing. We met in the middle of a park. I handed over the letter and walked away. I was convinced I would never see her again.
About five minutes later my phone rang. It was her and she said: “Don’t be so silly and get back here.” I was stunned. I couldn’t believe the reaction — it was a dream reaction, just incredible. I had tears in my eyes. She was so calm and understanding. That was almost two years ago — and we’re still together. It was a really intense time. It felt like my whole life was on the line. But I took the gamble and it paid off.
Sarah: “Everyone needs an orgasm”
I’ve copped everything when disclosing my status, from people being overtly nice — but not wanting to be sexually involved — through to people telling me I’m a dirty bitch and how dare I come near them. The heterosexual dating world can be quite gnarly.
Then I went through a phase of having someone who was OK with my status and being really lovely about it and breaking up with them because I thought they were too good to be in that situation with me. At first I was really shocked by the rejection. I was such a sexual person before being diagnosed — living with HIV made me feel I was cut off below the knee. I felt I could no longer be a sex-positive person.
That threw me into a massive depression; I didn’t know how to exist without sex. It put me in such a weird head space for so many years. But now the science is really heading in an amazing direction — we’re not dying, we’re not infectious —but letting everyone else know that is a bit tricky.
As a positive person you’re a full-on educator. I’m seeing a guy now and I’m the first person he’s known with HIV. At first, he was really confronted by it and it took him a long time to feel confident to even ask me questions.
What I’d say to other positive people is: you’re still allowed to feel sexy and have sex. Everyone needs an orgasm.
Jason: “HIV was never really an issue”
As soon as I was diagnosed I didn’t hold back. I was working behind a bar at the time and guys would hit upon me quite a lot and I’d tell everybody I was positive. It was never really an issue. I think it had a lot to do with how I came across. If you make a big deal of it then people will react as if it is a big deal.
I’ve seen other people stress out about it and by the time they do disclose they’re HIV the person is already freaking out. If you’re casual about your status people are OK. It all depends on how the positive person sets up the scenario.
A lot of the time the situations you put yourself in are of your own creation. So if you’re about to disclose, don’t start off by making out it’s this huge doom and gloom thing. Being HIV-positive is just a small part of who you are, so make sure that’s how you present it to someone. Don’t make the HIV thing any bigger than it really is.
Christina: “I disclosed, then there was silence”
This was the first time I was disclosing to someone I could see myself dating. I had gone over my monologue in my head for weeks. Naturally, nothing came out as articulately as I had planned, but it went a little something like this:
"Um, so... my father died from AIDS. He probably got the virus from IV drug use. And since he was unaware of his status, my mother also has the virus. And since my mother was unaware, I got tested. And it came back positive. And..."
Then there was silence. I remember wishing that it was all just a dream, that I hadn't just done this to myself. I didn't even think about his response; I just wanted to take back everything I had said and get out of there, but I felt paralysed.
Then he asked if he could hug me.
I answered his questions in a bit of shock that things were going so well. "So you have AIDS?" No, I have HIV, which is the virus that can develop into AIDS. "Are you mad at your dad?" No, I find it very difficult to be angry at a man who lost his own life because of the lack of treatment and support during his lifetime. "Do you take a lot of pills?" Yes, my medication has changed multiple times throughout my life, and yes, some have had terrible effects on my health.
"So, about the sex thing…" They're called condoms, and they should be everyone's best friend, not just people living with HIV, since there's a whole list of infections and viruses that all sexually active human beings should try to protect themselves against. My boyfriend and I have now been dating for almost four years.
Disclosure is never easy. But opening up is the only way you can find support from others. And sometimes, if it's with the right person, that moment of anxiety can lead to a lasting, loving relationship.
Bill: “It’s liberating when you tell someone you’re HIV-positive”
Before I became positive I went home with a guy I met in a nightclub and when he told me he was HIV I couldn’t continue with the encounter. Since I became positive 28 years ago I’ve had that exact same thing happen to me. There’s a lot of fear around relationships because of that.
I’ve been with guys and haven’t disclosed — I would look after them but I wouldn’t disclose. But there is always the worry that the condom might break or I might in some way still infect them. So eventually I made up my mind that I wouldn’t have sex unless I disclosed. It’s liberating when you tell someone you are HIV-positive because then they share a part of the responsibility of the encounter.
If I’m interested in a guy I get to know them for a while before disclosing. I won’t have sex, I just get to know them and see whether they are worth disclosing to. I’ve always had fabulous results doing it that way.
If you tell someone when you first meet them, they don’t know you; they don’t have any personal attachment to you so it’s easy for them to reject you. But if you’re interested in somebody and they’re interested in you, once you get to know each other there are often no barriers to having a relationship with someone you have feelings for.
So my advice to people is to get to know someone first. That way when you do disclose it’s not usually all that important any more.
Megan: “Confidence and knowledge around HIV is important”
I’ve been positive for ten years. I’ve been partnered for some of that time and single too. I’ve been lucky and had some good experiences with disclosure. I’ve had a few boyfriends over the years and told most of them. Some have been a little bit frightened at first but once I’d explained everything they were OK.
There was one guy that I liked so much that I couldn’t tell. It was so difficult. I rehearsed it over and over in my head — that’s something you go through every time you disclose. You go through how you’re going to say it, what you’re going to say. And when and if. It’s always hard. You don’t know how people are going to react.
Then there are times when I’m in a casual relationship that — because my health is good and I’m a low transmission risk —it’s like, “Should I really tell that person?” There have been times when I’ve told someone and it didn’t last and I’ve thought: “Maybe I shouldn’t have told them.” When you’re practising safe sex with condoms and your viral load is undetectable then it’s a question of your own judgement as to whether to disclose.
I believe somebody has to care about you before they’re ready to take on all that information about HIV, in order to do the work to understand the science. I also believe that it’s up to the positive person to do the research; it’s the positive person who has to be convinced. Your confidence and knowledge around HIV is important. Once you’re sure of all the evidence and the science; once you’ve read everything about it that you possibly can and informed yourself completely, you’ll come to the conclusion that the [transmission] risk is low.
In most of my relationships my partner and I have decided, with all the information currently available, to not use condoms. My current relationship has lasted almost three years and he remains HIV-negative, as have the others. These days, the science is so strong that a [negative] person shouldn’t have a problem with HIV. If they do, maybe they don’t have the brain to understand — or the heart to care.