For as long as gay men can remember, there’s been a crippling fear so strong it could overshadow our love for iconic musical divas—the fear of HIV.
From the moment it let loose in the ‘80s in the form of the AIDS crisis, to the smaller space it occupies now, HIV is a virus that has divided our community for generations. Yet in recent years, scientists have uncovered a powerful tool that has proven capable of changing the face of HIV prevention.
It’s called PrEP; pre-exposure prophylaxis, a pill containing two antiretroviral drugs that, when taken daily, all but eradicate the possibility of contracting HIV, by denying it entry into our bodies on a cellular level.
The debate around PrEP has been fierce, with naysayers on the offence. Who is it for? High-risk groups like gay men, who engage in sexual promiscuity? Why can’t they just keep it in their pants – or just use condoms? Won’t this pill let promiscuous gay men continue to be dumb sluts, until their combined STIs gain sentience and swallow our faces like in The Blob?
Here’s a reality: Gay men don’t use condoms one hundred percent of the time. Breakages happen, people get drunk, and some simply prefer not to use them. Those are people we need to support, not shame.
Yet what is rarely addressed in these often fumbling diatribes, are that people need PrEP, not so that they can freely “bareback” and “slut it up” - but so they can have a reprieve from the dread that has torn at their sex lives for decades.
People like me.
I’m one of countless gay men who are living in the shadow of the AIDS crisis, an ordeal that has had real-world psychosexual ramifications on the way young gay men connect. I’ve lived with that spectre on my shoulder. At one stage in my life, it impacted my every expression of intimacy.
Every sexual encounter I’d ever had was punctuated by maddening voices, whispers in my ears constantly nagging – what if the condom didn’t work properly? What if it secretly broke? What if that guy lied about his HIV status? Does he even know his status? When did he last get tested?
I’ve taken PEP – post-exposure prophylaxis, a thirty-day preventative drug regime taken after potential exposure to HIV – eight times in one calendar year. Eight times. Ask a pharmacist how much PEP costs before subsidisation. When I’m a wealthy J.K. Rowling-type, I’ll write the health department a cheque.
At one point in my life, I resigned myself to the notion that getting HIV was inevitable. Which, if you ask any sexual health professional, isn’t an uncommon thought. It became such a screaming reality in my mind, that I thought about just giving up, getting it over and done with - or perhaps killing myself, the lying echoes of the AIDS crisis ringing in my ears, telling me that HIV was unavoidable, HIV spelled death, HIV was the end.
And then PrEP happened.
I started on it six months ago. In fact, the Victorian government, Alfred Health and the Victorian AIDS Council recently announced an expanded PrEP trial in Victoria, which I’ve just joined with.
In the six months since I started my daily dosage, my anxiety has vanished. I no longer question a partners’ status, and I no longer worry if the condom breaks. I get tested seasonally – and sometimes treated. I’m intimate with men – so many men, Lord, all of the men – and I fall into bed without hesitation, without worry.
Despite advances in science and technology, progressions that have completely revolutionised the fight against HIV, there’s still a generation of gay men who are strangled by fear. They are the young, carrying campfire horror stories of illness and death told by their elders, and are terrified to engage in real and unbridled intimacy.
HIV doesn’t need to feel inevitable, and it certainly isn’t the end. So many people with HIV are living on treatment, and have undetectable viral loads, which mean that the virus can’t be transmitted. Those facts, when combined with the power of PrEP, means that we might have a future – quite soon, in fact – where fear needn’t ring in our ears every time we have sex.
I once felt the cold licks of anxiety, and lived the psychosexual aftermath of a devastating crisis. Yet thanks to PrEP - to science, to medicine, to the strength of the gay community - my fear is gone.
So many men are running scared from intimacy, just like I was. We’re a generation of young people imbued with caution about our own sexual expression. And if we speak to those people, show them that there’s a way out, we can finally begin to love freely - and unravel our years of fear.