Up Close and Personal With AIDS

HIV is a sexually transmitted infection that has scared people since 1981, the year that marked the first official reporting of what would become known as the AIDS epidemic. Since then, research and medicine have made considerable advancements towards improving the quality of life for HIV patients. Yet, one thing has remained the same: the stigma.

In the 1980s, when the HIV epidemic broke out, very little was known about how HIV was being transmitted. People were scared of those infected because they were afraid of contracting the disease.

The sentiment, unfortunately, persists today. While key ways of preventing the spread of HIV and promoting its awareness include showing visibility and getting tested for HIV regularly, the stigma continues. “I dated a guy for a while who was HIV positive,” a senior at UC Berkeley said. “I liked him for him and definitely saw past this disease. The problem was, I was paranoid, and as time went on, this paranoia built on. Even though he was on meds and there was a low possibility of me contracting the infection, I was scared.”

In the podcast “The Heart,” writers, artists, and audiomakers share personal documentary work. In the episode “Happens to the Best of Us,” radio host Kaitlin Prest and HIV-positive artist Jordan Arsenault discuss HIV and the troubles of having a sex life while being HIV positive.

Despite medical advances, Arsenault struggles with being rejected by people based on his condition. In the United States and Canada, it is a criminal offense to have sex with someone before telling him or her you have HIV. Canada changed the law so that people with undetected viral loads don’t have to disclose it if they use a condom every time.

In the podcast, Arsenault talks about an experience he had with a man named Sebastian. He told him that he was HIV positive before they further progressed in the bedroom. Regardless, Sebastian said he could not go through with it because he had previously had sex with an HIV-positive man. The condom had broke, and Sebastian went on PEP, or post-exposure prophylaxis — the Plan B of HIV.

“My attempt at being transparent fed into his paranoia. […] The stigma is probably the worst part about being HIV positive,” Arsenault said. This experience drove him to start the SILENCE = SEX campaign in the media, which attempts to educate the public that rejecting people based on stigma encourages silence, which in turn is harmful to other parties engaging in sexual relations.

The situation is tricky. HIV visibility is needed for the propagation of awareness and engagement in healthy sexual relationships. But it is this same visibility that scares HIV-negative people away. Of course, they have the right to think about their own sexual health and safety and reject engagement, but how can society fix this stigma?

Today, contracting HIV is not a death sentence anymore. HIV treatment has evolved to not only improve a person’s health but to also effectively prevent HIV transmission. The treatment, called antiretroviral therapy (ART), reduces the viral load in bodily fluids down to undetectable levels.

An observational study called PARTNER studied 548 heterosexual and 340 gay male couples who engaged in unprotected sex, with no condoms and no pre- or post-exposure prophylaxis, while their viral loads were undetectable. After the study was conducted, it was noted that none of the HIV-negative partners contracted the disease from the HIV-positive partner with whom they enrolled in the study.

Although the chances of HIV transmission with the use of ART are lowered to less than 1%, the fear comes from the fact that it isn’t exactly 0%. Research and medicine in the field of HIV and AIDS are still improving. We can only hope that these advancements help eradicate not just the disease in the future but the social stigma as well.