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A Subculture of Death

Here is a fascinating, in a car-wreck sort of way, meditation by a promiscuous New York gay journalist who wrestles with his shame over whether or not he is being unfair to HIV-positive potential sex partners for not wanting to have sex with them. The language can be pretty rough, just so you know. The mentality is what fascinates me. For example:

As a gay man in New York with an active, multiple-partner sex life, the chances are that I have hooked up with an HIV-positive guy or five and didn’t know it. Maybe I didn’t know it because he didn’t know it. Maybe I didn’t know it because he was a liar. Maybe I didn’t ask.

Granted, I generally play it safe, keeping fluid exchange at a minimum, using condoms, opting for oral over anal almost every time, and especially with strangers. (Although, as we are coming to realize, oral sex maybe isn’t as safe as we’d like it to be). Even with that in mind, getting tested is never less than horrifying, no matter how regularly I do it. There have been times, especially after suffering from a weird flu-like bug that no one else around me seemed to contract, that I have been sure that I would test positive.

I haven’t yet. I think I’m HIV negative, but since the virus can three months to show up in blood, I can’t really be sure. In fact, none of us who are sexually active can be sure – except for those who are HIV positive.

Therein lies the hypocrisy in turning down a potential hookup who a) knows his status, and b) is honest about it in favor of one who doesn’t or is lying about it. That kind of discrimination is motivated by fear of the known while taking an agnostic approach to the unknown. It’s especially foolhardy considering that guys who know they are HIV-positive tend to be healthier and with lower viral loads than guys who don’t know they have it and are going untreated. The kind of optimism that assumes someone’s word is as good as a hard copy of a test result is potentially life-altering.

And yet, I’ve turned down guys who are open about their positive status. I watched the onset of AIDS in the ‘80s through the confused eyes of a child. I had it drilled into me that this was a disease to stay far, far away from. I also know better than to sleep with someone who announces himself as HIV positive. Or knew. Now I’m not exactly sure what to think. I feel guilty and scared, but not necessarily in that order.

If you read the whole thing, again, keep in mind that the discussion is fairly graphic. But I think it’s important to read because of what it discloses about a certain mindset. What kind of person continues to have anonymous hook-up sex with a deadly disease like AIDS out there — and feels guilty about not wanting to have sex with someone they know carries the virus? I can’t fathom it. Honestly, I can’t. And there’s this, about “Eddie,” an HIV-positive man who continues to enjoy an active sex life:

Eddie’s own journey to comfort exposes the contradictory cultural status HIV has right now: it’s both no big deal and a huge deal. It’s no big deal because the drugs that make HIV undetectable in blood have largely converted the disease into a manageable inconvenience. For many, it is not the death sentence it was. But for others it is: drugs are expensive and the high cost means that every minute, four people die of AIDS-related illness (as related in David France’s upcoming documentary How to Survive a Plague). The drugs can also have debilitating side effects, diminishing the quality of the life they are also saving. A relaxed, non-stigmatizing attitude is a nice thing for the world but complacency with a plague that continues to rage on is not.

According to CDC figures, the average cost for a year of HIV treatment is $23,000. Who is paying for that? Who is paying for a subculture that considers an incurable fatal and gruesome disease a “manageable inconvenience” that shouldn’t keep anyone from significantly changing their promiscuous sex habits?

The author writes:

So, right. No firm answers to be had here, except that abstinence is the only way to stay truly safe. And abstinence, as we know, is impossible. How terrifying.

“As we know”? Who’s “we”? And, from a morally neutral point of view (which is not my point of view, but indulge me here), is it really the case that the only extremes are total abstinence, or come-what-may (so to speak)? The impoverishment of the moral imagination here, and the slavery to desire, is profound.

What kind of culture teaches that it’s better to have an unfettered sex life than to, you know, live? A culture of death, that’s what.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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