We all make countless assumptions every day. We assume that in the morning the kettle and toaster will do their jobs, that the car will start or that our train will arrive at the station. We make assumptions about our partners, our family members, our colleagues and our friends, and about strangers. Our assumptions about our environment and the people around us are often based on nothing more than irrational notions, concepts, beliefs and attitudes which are very rarely based on fact. For centuries people believed the earth was flat. Some still do. A homoprejudiced individual assuming that gay men are necessarily bad people believes it to be true. What we assume, believe or simply take for granted is not necessarily The Truth.
Gay men also make assumptions about each other. We assume that the popular party boy doesn’t ever feel lonely, that the quiet couple must be so content, that the muscled hunk is uber confident and that the guy who sometimes wears leather must be into kink. We assume that the plain-looking guy in the corner will be oh-so-boring with absolutely nothing of interest to say and that the older guy is simply a dirty old man who’s out to perve the twinks. We assume that the muscled guy is a top and that the shy queen over there has to be a submissive bottom. We often make outrageously superficial assumptions about each other based on our race, age, bodies, our clothes, who we associate with and even where we live. And then we relate to each other accordingly, establishing our cosy little networks of who’s in and who’s out, who’s hot and not, who’s likely to be our next top.
An important area in which we make similar assumptions relates directly to our sexual health. We somehow assume that some guys are either HIV positive or negative, invariably based on their appearance. The formula goes something like this: appearance + age = HIV status. We magically assume that if a man looks healthy and beefy he is more likely to be negative. We also assume that younger guys are less likely to be positive because (we assume) they’ve not had sex with as many guys as an older man may have had and therefor have a reduced risk of infection. And then we relate to each other accordingly. Let’s face it: many of us who think we’re HIV negative are more likely to bareback with a sexual partner we assume to be HIV negative.
We magically assume that a potential sex partner actually knows whether he’s positive or negative, and that he’d tell us if he is positive. Fact: most HIV infections occur when one partner is very newly infected and is therefore unlikely to know that he’s positive. If he doesn’t know he’s positive he’ll obviously tell you he’s negative and you may be tempted to toss the condom.
When someone is newly infected his viral load (the concentration of the virus in his blood and in his cum) rapidly increases very substantially before it settles down again after a few weeks. This occurs because his body hasn’t produced the necessary antibodies to control the virus yet, which is also the reason that he’ll likely test HIV negative at this point: the HIV test itself detects the presence of antibodies, not the virus. In contrast, someone who knows he’s HIV positive and is on treatment is likely to become virally suppressed (the concentration of the virus in his blood and cum will be lower), provided he takes his medication correctly. Even then the concentration of the virus is measured in his blood, not in his cum – which could be significantly higher. And since I’m seemingly on a tangent about body fluids, remember that ass juice (anal secretions resulting from stimulation of the rectal lining during sex) also contains a significant concentration of the virus, a good reason for tops not to bareback
Which raises that niggling little subject of undergoing regular HIV screenings if you’re negative. How sure are you – right this second as you read this – of your own HIV status? Or do you simply assume that you’re negative? Perhaps you assume that you’ve never played with a guy who’s positive, or that you’ve never been exposed to the virus, or that you’re in a monogamous relationship, or that you’re simply too cute or too healthy or too busy or too whatever to be bothered with this.
I suggest you check those assumptions before you next assume the position. A good place to start is to know your own HIV status before you continue making assumptions about others’.
Glenn is the programme manager of Health4Men, a project of the Anova Health Institute that provides free sexual health care to gay and bi men through a network of clinics in Woodstock, Khayelitsha, Bellvile, Yeoville and three clinics located in Soweto. Services include HIV and STI screenings plus free treatment (including free ARV treatment), counselling, support groups, prevention programmes and dissemination of free condoms and compatible lubricant. Visit www.health4men.co.za for more details or call the Green Point office on 021 421 6127.