“I tell my partners I’m HIV-negative, but I don’t actually know if I am.”
I struggled to believe what I was hearing. Adam*, a man in his early twenties and in a non-monogamous relationship, sat across the table from me, explaining why he chooses to forgo condoms when having sex with people he’s met for the first time. He admits he’s never been tested for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), but says he isn’t operating out of deceitfulness. “I’ve read that if I had HIV, I would show symptoms within a few months.”
High-risk sexual behaviour includes unprotected sexual activity or sex with multiple partners, especially if those partners also engage in risky sex or intravenous drug use. As a sex researcher who studies male sexuality, I am intrigued by the phenomenon because almost all of the men I speak with are aware that they should make attempts to mitigate risk, but seldom do. Furthermore, some incorporate high-risk sexual activities as a lifestyle choice, and express pride in doing so. Although their choices may be shocking to some, after hearing their stories, I begin to understand the reasoning behind them.
Many factors go into the decision to have unprotected sex with a non-monogamous partner. Some men have told me that condoms make sex less pleasurable to the point where some would prefer masturbating alone. Impulsivity and opportunism, combined with drugs and alcohol, render a person disinhibited in his decision-making.
When one’s number of risky sexual partners increases without subsequent adverse health outcomes, this creates the illusion that a person and their partners are immune. For men who subscribe to regular STI testing, this confidence is reinforced by the return of a negative test. For those, like Adam, who are not regularly tested for STIs, if ever, their confidence is based on failing to notice any visible symptoms.
“If I trust someone and they seem legit, I’m willing,” Edward* says. Seeming “legit” is based on first impressions of someone’s trustworthiness, and carries the expectation that his partners will disclose any relevant information. “You can tell by looking at it,” he adds, “and if you see anything, you don’t touch it.”
Despite having completed sex education as part of elementary school curriculum, Edward is unfortunately misinformed—as are, I’ve found, many of the men with whom I speak. I mention to them that sometimes people carrying STIs, including HIV, are asymptomatic, so without testing, they and their partners might not know they are infected. This usually elicits a reaction of wide-eyed, open-mouthed, silent disbelief, as though wings and a tail were sprouting from the back of my head.
Others, however, remain unfazed. Shaun* tells me he frequently attends sex clubs and does not use protection with the partners he meets there. He has also never been tested and doesn’t have plans to be anytime in the near future. “Sex is the most important thing to me,” he says. “I live for today and if I die, then I die.”
Marcus echoes this sentiment. He speaks proudly about his diverse sexual interests and his open-mindedness to try anything once. He estimates he’s had around 500 sexual partners, most of whom he’s met at bars and clubs. “Sometimes I fantasize about having HIV, so that I could have sex with anyone and wouldn’t have to worry about anything.” He also frequently engages in unprotected sex with sex workers, especially while high on drugs, because he doesn’t see the point in paying for sex unless he is able to truly enjoy it.
In extreme cases, some men will engage in unprotected sex with someone they know has HIV or another STI. Some find the perilous aspect of the act thrilling, while simultaneously believing that they will be safe from infection. Many will additionally assume that their primary partner (who may or may not be aware of these extraneous sexual activities) will similarly be buffered from the risk of becoming infected.
Most men I've spoken to voice greater concern over the possibility of unplanned pregnancy than contracting an infection that has negative implications for their health and fertility; it seems the realities of the former are far more visceral than the latter. As our interview closes, Adam mentions that he has recently started using condoms with his long-term girlfriend. Perplexed, I ask why this is the case, when he doesn’t do so with the strangers he sleeps with.
A slight panic flashes across his face. “She told me, if she gets pregnant, she’s keeping it.”
*all names have been changed
Debra W. Soh is a sex researcher, neuroscientist, and freelance writer at York University in Toronto, Canada
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