As an HIV educator, I come in contact with various lifestyles and circumstances that place people at risk for HIV and other Sexually Transmitted Diseases. Throughout the years I've met a significant amount of teenagers who are uneducated about risk factors for HIV transmission and engaging in high-risk behavior. This find has nothing to do with sexual orientation or socio-economic status, but more about a simple lack of knowledge regarding basic modes of prevention. What also remains is a deep-rooted stigma about HIV and a fear of being ostracized if they test positive. That being said, it’s obvious that shame and fear play a huge part in how young people deal with the topic of HIV and sex.
I recall a few years ago while providing HIV testing, a young couple came in to do the right thing and find out their status. I was elated to see them taking a vested interest in HIV testing and being responsible enough to learn their status. Seeing them was a much-needed reminder that my work was not in vain. Normal testing procedures require individual risk behavior counseling prior to administering the test. This pre-test interview is conducted so the tester can gain an understanding as to the type of sexual behaviors the person engages in and, if applicable, provide additional information regarding safe sex and ways to stay HIV negative.
During the session with both parties (individually), I was informed that each was, in fact, HIV-positive but had not disclosed that detail to their partner. Further conversation revealed that in addition to being HIV positive they were not using protection during sex. The reason disclosure was not given was because neither wanted to lose their partner and both were deeply in love. I kept my composure and remained stoic in appearance but my insides were screaming.
I am sure that as you read this you are asking questions such as, "How can you love someone and not disclose that you are HIV positive?" or "How can you be HIV positive and not use protection while having sex?" Believe it or not, these types of occurrences happen every day. More often than not an HIV positive individual will have unprotected sex without disclosing their status. On the flip side it is also quite common for an HIV negative person to engage in unsafe sex without knowing their partner's status. It may seem idiotic in this day and age that either situation still occurs but it does. So, what should be done about it?
As a society, we must get past the stigma placed upon persons living with HIV. Stop ignorantly categorizing them as drug addicts, back alley sex workers, whorish homosexuals, or victims of Down-Low men. It doesn't matter if you are gay, straight, old, young, black or white; you can become infected if not responsible. Too many have fallen into the "I'm not one of those people who..." mentality and convinced themselves that they can never become infected. That type of belief is so far from the truth. HIV is the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, meaning that all HUMANS are susceptible to being infected regardless of lifestyle. It does not matter if you are on the Forbes 500 list or a housewife; if you engage in unsafe sex with a person who is HIV positive, you can become infected.
It is time to break down the walls of ignorance and shame. Has adult society been too relaxed in discussing the issues of sex, sexual health, and sexuality with its youth? I find it difficult to believe that some adults still cringe when discussing topics about sexual acts that can be of extreme pleasure. There must be a change. We owe it to the next generation to provide detailed fact-based education. Parents are clueless as to what their children are doing when out of sight. We must begin to have workshops about sex, sexual health, and sexual behaviors so that we can all deliver a truthful and accurate message. We need to take a stand and proclaim "no more new infections while I have the power to be educated and use my voice." We owe it to our communities, our families, and the generations to come. Let's stop being spectators in the fight and become active participants in the game of prevention and education.
Be a part of the change!