Toronto
4 min

Anatomy of risk

Negotiating HIV when your lover's died

So let’s say you surprise yourself by falling in love with your closest friend. And let’s say you’re HIV-negative but he’s HIV-positive.



You’re not sure why you’ve fallen in love with him after all this time. But this tale takes place just before the era of miraculous drug cocktails, and his T-cells are not so great, so you know it’s partly because you need to cram the long lovely future of the sweetest friendship you’ve ever had into the two or three years he probably has left. Plus he loves you, too.



He’s terrified that he’ll infect you. You want to do as much as possible within the bounds of what you consider safe. But he doesn’t want you to suck him; he doesn’t want to penetrate you even with a condom. In the last year he won’t even let you kiss him, really kiss him.



When his health finally collapses, you clean his diarrhea off the sheets and floor and swaddle him in diapers against his will. When he falls into a coma, you lie next to him every night and jerk off amid the scent of looming death. Your orgasms are great. You hold his hand as his last breath slips away and then his mouth drops open and foam bubbles out. They take him away but you can’t let him go yet, so you don’t change the sheets for two days, and you masturbate some more.



Let’s say those last two years have been the happiest and the most miserable of your life. After 12 months you finally start going out again. You know only two things. You’re determined to stay negative. And you won’t swear off sex or love with HIV-positive men.



This astounds straight friends. Aren’t you afraid? they ask.



You roll your eyes. Of course you’re afraid. But you’ve learned that as a negative gay man, fear and desire will forever be joined. Your challenge is to figure out how they can coexist in relative peace.



You know negative gay guys who won’t go out with positive ones, no matter how appealing. And more than one positive guy has told you that he’s uncomfortable going out with you because you’re negative.



But that solution disturbs you. To screen out your available dating pool – among them lots of great, sexy guys who may stave off illness for decades with ever-more-powerful generations of drugs – seems cold and calculating to you. And it feels like a betrayal of the man you loved.



Your straight friends want a tight little formula for avoiding risk completely. But you know you have no wisdom to share, just your fears and how you navigate them. It’s a complex tango. The arrival of powerful pharmaceutical treatments makes being infected seem much less of a death sentence. Then reports of harrowing side effects and drug-resistant viral strains make it seem as bad as ever. The exhaustion from 20 years of maintaining safe-sex standards undermines your resolve.



Some guys have made a conscious decision to bareback, to have anal sex without condoms. Others just slip up in the dark urgency of the moment. Some are positives screwing other positives. Some are negatives screwing other negatives. Though the AIDS prevention crowd would prefer that they discuss their status before they have sex, lots of guys just make assumptions based on what their partner is willing to do. Many guys figure that if someone of unknown status is willing to penetrate them without a condom, he couldn’t be positive. Others figure that if someone of unknown status allows himself to be penetrated without a condom, he couldn’t be negative. Sometimes, they’re right; other times, of course, they’re wrong.



The “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy shocks many straight folks. But you figure, Why bother asking? Suppose someone tells you they’re negative. Does that mean they tested negative two years ago? Six months ago? Last week? Besides, you know they could be lying.



But here’s one thing you don’t tell your friends: If a guy does say he’s negative – even if you’re not convinced you can believe him – you relax a bit more. Sometimes you even search for evidence. Like when that burly guy with the killer laugh took you home from the bar, and you peeked in his medicine cabinet and unzipped his toiletries bag looking for HIV drugs.



The fear is not a constant. It disappears for an hour or two during sex. But sometimes, when it’s all over, you lie there and fret. Did his uncondomed dick slip too close to your butt? For you, pleasure and fretting are a zero-sum game. If you had a great time, you fret less. If it was just okay, you fret more. It doesn’t make sense, but you keep testing negative, so you must be doing something right.



You and one of your boyfriends once attended a workshop designed to eroticize safe sex. You read porn stories centered around condoms and tried to trick yourselves into believing that putting latex on each other could be an exciting part of the evening’s events. It didn’t work. Condoms were not sexy to you. Nothing will ever make them sexy.



At the other end of things, you think negatives being penetrated without condoms is nuts, but you’re a little nuts yourself so you sort of understand it. You’re horrified that people are still sero-converting, but it horrifies you more that the last time someone asked to fuck you without a condom you ached to say yes.



It horrifies you how much the edge of danger appealed to you. How much you wanted sex to be, once more, just sex; not barriers and planning and limits and control, but skin and lust and spontaneity. Maybe sometimes it’s love and the overwhelming urge to merge.



You’ve heard straight people say that gay men must have some sort of death wish. And at times, when you plumb your own dark depths, you almost agree. But then you wonder at how passion still thrives, in you and your friends and other gay men. And you feel awed at how heroic it is, and how strong you have to be, to sustain heat and desire after so many years of illness and decay. You believe you’re brave to want to touch anyone at all. But you’re not really sure.



David Tuller writes for Salon.com, where a longer version of this piece originally appeared.