Why is it that public health and AIDS educators seem to assume that gay men can't handle the truth?
I. Sex Has Emotional and Social Value for Gay Men.Read the whole thing.
First, HIV education should begin by acknowledging what I consider the most fundamental truth of all — that gay men's sex lives have both emotional meaning and social value. In other words, HIV education must proceed from the basic assumption that sex has the same value for gay men as it has for all human beings. HIV education should recognize that gay men are the moral and social equals of straight people. The simple truth is that our sex lives are not some kind of lesser version of "real" (i.e., straight) sexuality.
The reason HIV education sometimes fails to recognize this basic truth is, as Odets pointed out, that homophobia devalues gay male sexuality. To reduce the risk of HIV transmission, gay men are often advised to severely restrict their sexual practices or even to abandon certain practices altogether. We've been told to just give up anal sex because it's too risky, and we've been advised that if we have oral sex, we should do so only with condoms.
Does anybody seriously think straight people would be asked to give up vaginal intercourse as a preventive measure? Why is so much more demanded of gay men? Why do so many fail to recognize that our sex lives aren't just matters of physical pleasure? Sex has deep emotional and psychological value to us, just as it does for straight people. It's how we express love and achieve intimacy. So it pains me that HIV education sometimes treats gay men's sex lives almost as if they're superfluous.
This is especially hard for me to accept as an HIV+ gay man, because I think sex may be even more important for poz guys than for gay men in general. The stigma of HIV infection can create feelings of unworthiness and undesirability in poz men. For those of us afflicted with such emotions, sex can be tremendously affirming and validating. It can serve as an antidote to the isolation caused by the disease. For a time after my diagnosis, sex certainly served that function for me. That a man still desired me despite my serostatus was proof that HIV did not necessarily mean an end to my romantic life.
So I guess I'd ask that HIV education acknowledge as a basic truth that sex for gay men isn't just a collection of physical practices to be modified. It's how we relate, connect, and yes, love. Understanding that is where HIV education needs to start.
This isn't to say that gay men don't need to modify their sexual practices in the face of HIV. It is, of course, absolutely critical that we do so, and most of us have. But gay men are far less likely to listen to HIV education that treats their sex lives as nothing but a set of dispensable behaviors. HIV educators and public health officials therefore would do well to acknowledge the emotional and social importance of what they are asking gay men to change or give up.