HIV makes sex messy. Confusion about who does what, who wants to do what, who can do what, can quickly slip into mystifying jargon. Since HIV makes us talk about the ‘tough topics’ we weren’t taught to appreciate in secondary school, sometimes we’d prefer not to talk at all. But perhaps the mess has less to do with HIV. As numerous activists and organisations have pointed out recently, something is bubbling in our actions and mentalities, something that can’t initially be denied by saying: stop. There is something more in our statuses.
We have activists, like Greg Owen, Dan Glass, David Stuart, and others, who are talking about their statuses, who are encouraging us to talk about their statuses–who are more or less putting the rhetorical junctures of ‘status’ and ‘status-making’ on the map. Those people are at the fore of the movement to tackle, unpack, negate, and educate stigmatisation of HIV serostatus. They perpetually ask us to look inward. They say: there’s something we need to acknowledge in ourselves. We have a problem about the way in which HIV is talked about in the media, how gay men (in particular) volley the term like an epithet, and how the government looks idylly toward a cure and consistently fails those most at risk and already living with HIV.
In a recent article in FS Magazine, Matthew Hodson, chief executive of GMFA, enumerated the importance of critically attuned communication about HIV-positive men who have sex with men (MSM). Hodson laid out eight tactics for speaking sensitively, thoughtfully, and ‘appropriately’, some of which I excerpt here:
(1) Don’t ask them how they contracted the virus.
(3) Don’t assume they’re a power-bottom.
(5) Don’t assume he will/does feel inferior due to his status.
(6) Don’t assume he wants to talk about it.
Hodson is clear: assumptions dictate our initial reactions. We read bodies the moment we perceive them, and we create additional gradations when language enters our intimacy. But what’s plain about Hodson’s voice is his position. Hodson speaks on behalf of the HIV-positive activist. He tells us what works, what doesn’t, because the HIV-positive person is, in many ways, the most authentic and accurate voice speaking to the effects, stigmatisations, and emotional trauma of living with a life-long illness.
Surely those experiencing and living with HIV are, first and foremost, subjects of this specific virus. But what peaks my intrigue is the attentiveness to which people living with HIV give their positions on sex, love, and desire. They are, for lack of better words, the ‘go-to’ experts on troubled desire in a prolonged era of HIV and AIDS. And it is through their accounts that we start to see the relative silence on the part of HIV-negative persons.
Is it that HIV-negative men simply don’t care? Is it that HIV-negative MSM are necessarily ill-equipped to speak about HIV, to talk about the men they want (and convince themselves they cannot have) all thanks to a virus, which is now a condition of life? Is it for fear that mixed-status desires border on recognition of our historically racist behaviours? Or is it that we do not challenge or think critically about our negative statuses? Is there a possibility that negativity is, in fact, the lack, the newfangled deviant, and that which much be approached with great expediency?
In a Cap City Kink article for World AIDS Day 2015, Christopher Hetzer expounded upon his experience(s) contracting and ‘dealing’ with HIV positivity. Hetzer provides a telling list of active dating tips for the HIV-positive man. His suggestions range from the mental and emotional effects of dealing with HIV to finding the courage to step back into the dating/sexual ring. He lays bare a clear list of what HIV-positive people can do to keep their mixed-status relationship(s) ‘healthy’:
(1) Take your antiretroviral therapy consistently and correctly.
(3) Be HONEST and RESPECTFUL with all partners.
(4) Continue to talk about HIV, STIs and sex.
(5) Have some CONDOM SENSE!
(6) Be safe when exploring each other’s sexual fantasies.
Hetzer points out a few simple suggestions for HIV-positive partners in mixed-status relationships so that they can make the most of their sexual- and self-knowledge. In this way, Hetzer positions the HIV-positive partner as an active agent in the relationship, cognizant of their status whilst necessarily provoking intimate, and necessary, dialogues about medicine; honesty, respect, and boundaries; condoms; and sexual fantasies. Even emphasis placed on ‘honest’, ‘respect’, and the humourous ‘condom sense’, suggests the frank (and playful) tools one can (and must) bring to a loving mixed-status relationship. Yet there’s a deep implication that the HIV partner takes up the responsibility for talking about and politicising sexual statuses simply because they have the ‘HIV experience’. This may not be true of all mixed-status relationships (dialogue is key), but the initial agentic and explanatory HIV-positive subject is imbued with assumptions that they must speak.
What I want to suggest is that we must politicise the negative accounts of status. HIV-positive narratives are only one way to think about HIV; there are more we can include. HIV/AIDS statuses are not the only form of sexually-transmitted disease that asks us to think deeply about our desires and sexual actions. But it is through the perpetual, and now increasingly devastating, HIV/AIDS epidemic that the age-old binary again comes to light: the normal and the deviant; the ‘clean’ and the ‘dirty’; the sexually promiscuous and the (‘non-adulterous’) committed; and the knowing and the unknown.
The assumptions indebted to such binary thinking are now available to the public thanks to decades worth of critical queer theory concerning racism, identity politics, gender, and sexuality. To extend such research into the public sphere, I believe it is important now to think about HIV in terms of negativity. HIV and AIDS are charged with positive (and dialectical) implications that have pervaded media and medical speak since the rise of the epidemic in the 1980s. Each day since we have had to negotiate our actions based on status. Status is a subject marker we all have, we all access and negotiate, and which changes over time. That is, status follows us through all stages of life.
It is through status that we often negotiate and talk about our sexual actions. For that very reason, it is necessary for MSM not to rely only on HIV-positive men to control the movement and dissemination of desire marked by positive statuses. In fact, in doing so, we engender an ideological system of racism: a hierarchy of desires predicated upon status, desire, and comfortability — which is to say, we claim not only that the HIV-positive subject is in some way different than the HIV-negative subject, but also that the HIV-positive subject must inform us of their difference.
Perhaps there is no difference. Or, perhaps HIV-negative MSM are the difference. Perhaps those who are without HIV stigma are the gap that substantiates the divide between positive and negative desires. Just as we cannot control who we long for, who we lust after, and/or who we love, we rarely can determine the impulse of status. Status, I contend, is everything: everything to the modern sexual body, which is now overwhelmed with the potential to desire. Status is indebted to desire.
It is by putting pressure on the divide between HIV-positive and HIV-negative agency that we can sift through the negative representations we inadvertently (and sometimes inevitably) place upon people living with HIV/AIDS, and bring about more positive behaviours and desires. In doing so, we begin to see who is tasked with talking about HIV/AIDS and who can simply abstain from agency. No one should be exempt from agency. Desire is an act of agency. It is a force. If it is true that most people desire, we cannot demand that HIV-positive persons teach us about their desires. We desire, too. We cannot remain quiet once we have learned, and we cannot ruminate about experiences which aren’t ours or which we can’t necessarily change.
HIV-negative MSM have desires, and they can (and should) be positive. Positive desires proliferate at the moment when we learn so much about others that we find ourselves in the cracks they open in themselves.
Positive desires are informed. That is, the desires we find in self-revelations are often the most intimate, the most complex, and (I would argue) the most fulfilling. Focusing on the status of HIV-negative persons is one lens through which we build fulfilling definitions of status, desire, and intimacy. It’s also a crucial educational tool that we can do at the individual level. Holding to account our HIV-negative positions ensures that everyone has access to desire. We can further come to terms and act upon ourselves, in a sense, by politicising and appreciating our desires for what they are: not as opposition to HIV-positive statuses, but as statuses that are self-contained and multiple.
The task of rethinking status is as simple as turning positive-dependent agency on its head and asking HIV-negative MSM to stand out in support of sex regardless of status. At the same time, we must acknowledge that status is everything. Status doesn’t disappear because we say we are blind to status. Language erases, in a sense, but erasure doesn’t mandate self-realisation. So it is here, at this paradoxical occupation, that we can confidently ask HIV-negative MSM to reflect how their status effects, reflects, and adds to HIV-positive desires. Those who are negative can support positive lives by legitimating HIV-positive desires, by fighting for sex-positive medicines (including PEP and PrEP), and making a concerted effort to learn about, engage, and disseminate information about positive sex.
By way of positive sex, we learn more about what it means to have desire at all. Desire makes most of us whole, in a sense, only if we are informed and curious about our bodies (inside and outside), and what these preventative medical measures can do to enhance our chances to live happily and healthily. Prescribing a one-sided politics — that is, by focusing solely on HIV positivity as the authoritative voice on desire in the age of epidemic — allows HIV-negative men to abstain from thinking about positive desire. We must attempt to close this particular sexual division in our queer communities.