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Sex in the time of AIDS

Thirty years ago, on June 5, 1981, the Centers for Disease Control published a notice of a strange illness affecting five Los Angeles gay men, two of whom died before the report could be published. The illness soon acquired the designation AIDS, along with a burden of fear and misinformation that it has never quite shaken.

The decades of terror and rage and sacrifice and nobility that followed have been chronicled elsewhere, but for the sake of those living with HIV as well as the millions dead worldwide, let us honor those activists who defied silence and hostility and the law to insist that we take action. Because of those in-your-face activists — many dead before they saw the results of their courage — we know that HIV existed decades before its discovery, and that its spread can be prevented through simple, cheap measures, most notably condoms. Because of those activists we are able, if not to cure the disease, at least to manage it. Because of those activists, patients gained a greater voice in their care decisions. Because of those activists, I am alive and so, perhaps, are many of you.

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Globally, the incidence of HIV infection is spread equally among men and women, suggesting an epidemic that is heterosexually transmitted. In the United States, however, gay and bisexual men — a minority of the population — account for more than half of all new infections, an unhappy reality that, like it or not, has implications for how, when and with whom we choose to have sex.

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In conversations on the subject (and I have had a lot of them), one middle-aged gay man claimed he had separated unprotected sex from questions of morality. Another argued passionately that gay men must choose between unrestrained sex and the spread of the virus. The first speaker felt that so long as he’s not spreading the virus to someone else, putting himself at risk for contracting HIV is a matter of placing today’s pleasure first. Whereas the latter said, “Since when did having unprotected sex which might result in virus transmission become a right?”

The front page of a December 2010 issue of San Francisco’s Bay Area Reporter, the largest circulation gay weekly in the Bay Area, graphically portrayed the issues at stake. The lead story reported the success of newly developed drugs in fighting HIV. Below it was a story about two porn stars, one HIV-positive, the other HIV-negative, who have unprotected sex on camera. Paul Morris, owner of the studio that financed the video, wrote this in an email to the B.A.R.: “In good part due to the residual damage of ongoing and pointless viral panic, young queers are taught that as they grow up their futures will be limited: they can look forward to being a strident, safe-living prude, an assimilationist heteronormative married person, or a drag queen.” Adjacent to his comments was the obituary of an HIV healthcare activist, dead at 53 from AIDS and hepatitis C.

OK, so when your living is tied to sin — as in videos that eroticize unprotected sex — you tend toward an expansive view on the subject. But every mention I hear of unprotected sex calls to mind the beloved dead, who gave their lives so that we might choose not to expose ourselves to the virus. And then we go and throw away their gift.

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Tolstoy, that libertine turned celibate, wrote, “Depravity — genuine depravity — consists in freeing oneself from moral relations with women with whom you enter into physical relations.” Is that statement a bit of quaint Victoriana from the pen of an elderly man for whom “physical relations” were largely history? Or is it a restatement of the truth that resides at the heart of one of our oldest stories: Each of us faces anew the choice between paradise and the apple. We can discipline our appetites or we can give them free rein, but choosing the latter invites unpredictable consequences, up to and including death — literal or spiritual.

Not that unsafe sex is a 30-year-old danger. Syphilis has been among us for millenniums, and then there is pregnancy and childbirth, which in the absence of prenatal care, access to safe surgery and abortion has always been among the principal causes of mortality among fertile women.

AIDS has presented us with a strange and terrible opportunity to reconsider our cultural obsession with sex — an opportunity to remind ourselves that life and love offer infinite variety and richness apart from notching the gun. In addition to understanding sex as the be-all and end-all of earthshaking passions or as a pesky genital itch you might as well scratch, might we also regard it as a simple manifestation — one among many — of sincere and humble affection?

And yet absent casual, constant titillation, how would we sell soap? How would we make money, lots of money? How would men manifest their power over women? How would the institutionalized church instill guilt in its congregants? How would we keep our lives interesting?

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In “Letters to a Young Poet,” Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “Sex is difficult; yes…. Almost everything serious is difficult, and everything is serious. If you only recognize this and manage, out of yourself, out of your aptitude and ways, out of your experience and childhood and strength to achieve a relation to sex wholly your own (not influenced by convention and custom) then you need no longer be afraid of losing yourself and becoming unworthy of your best possession.”

Lovely, eloquent — and to be considered in the context that Rilke seldom lived with his wife but instead wrote her letters from the company of his mistresses. For him, evidently, that constituted “a relation to sex wholly [his] own (not influenced by convention and custom).”

In matters of sexual contact, we need not more knowledge — though, depending on how we use it, more knowledge may be good — but more wisdom. Intimacy imposes considerations of thoughtfulness and compassion. The deaths from AIDS taught me the power inherent in sex and the role of affection and tenderness in human interaction. Consuming others and casting them aside, even if by mutual agreement, is by definition unsafe, for the heart and soul if not for the body.

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How do we complement the titillation promoted by popular music, advertising, film and television with the reality of the difficult journeys of true love — love of ourselves, love of each other, love of the planet? I keep in mind those dead from AIDS, witnesses in a great cloud around us, as a challenge to work out what to say to my students, our children, myself about the appropriate relationship between sex and love, which like life must not be dictated from outside and above but must every day be made anew.

Fenton Johnson is the author of “Keeping Faith: A Skeptic’s Journey among Christian and Buddhist Monks” and “Geography of the Heart,” a memoir of his partner, who died of AIDS in 1990. Find him at www.fentonjohnson.com.


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