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Sullivan: "I Got HIV, and I Look and Feel Great!"
02/04/2003

Andrew Sullivan gives some consideration to the problem of sex and HIV. "One of the worst elements of that [Rolling Stone] piece is that it sensationalized and polarized an important issue: how we manage to reduce HIV transmission in an era where an HIV diagnosis is nowhere near as scary as it used to be." (Note: reducing HIV transmission = important)

Then there's this advertisement for HIV:

Sexual segregation between HIV-positives and HIV-negatives has some advantages in creating a firewall between the two groups, but in time, it has apparently only further decreased fear of HIV. The pozzies look great, seem in good health and no longer live in terror of getting the disease. Some degree of "HIV-envy," while not as pathological as "bug-chasing," and if only because having it means you can't be scared of getting it any more, is still a real issue. Again this problem strikes me as close to insoluble. I've been HIV-positive for ten years now, and my immune system is healthier now than when I got infected. I look better than I did when I was negative, have experienced deep spiritual and emotional growth as a result of my HIV experience, and live every day now with a vigor and gratitude I never felt before. I'm just one of thousands of productive, healthy people with HIV who are daily - albeit unconsciously - transmitting the message that an HIV diagnosis is no calamity. Having been a beneficiary of the solution to HIV, I am now unwittingly part of the problem.

Note that first "but." Let me retype that with a bold: "Sexual segregation between HIV-positives and HIV-negatives has some advantages in creating a firewall between the two groups, but in time, it has apparently only further decreased fear of HIV." In other words? Perhaps actively avoiding sexual encounters between those infected and those not infected is not such a beneficial ethic?

Allow me to remind Sullivan of the definition of "bug chasers" in the Rolling Stone article that led to the 25% figure: "Some men consciously seek the virus, openly declaring themselves bug chasers, he says, while many more are just as actively seeking HIV but are in denial and wouldn't call themselves bug chasers." Would that be HIV envy? Given Sullivan's description — which is much more glowing than merely "not a calamity" — there appears to be much of which to be envious.

Here are his final thoughts:

Sex is messy and dangerous. But it's also one the greatest and most exhilarating gifts our nature has given us - and free societies respect the freedom to explore it. Resolving that paradox is an impossibility as social policy, and always has been. But ameliorating it must be within our reach. So how? I wish I knew. Or do we have to get used to a certain level of HIV-infection the way we have become used to herpes, and every other sexual disease which has affected mankind, gay and straight, for millennia?

To sum: 1) actively avoiding sex between partners of differing HIV status may not be worth the effort; 2) being a "pozzie" is, in many ways, an attractive option; 3) it might be advisable to just accept HIV as yet another sexual disease, manageable if not curable. To be blunt, I've never heard somebody discuss how much having a different sexually transmitted disease improved his life; this is not a small point. I'm reminded of Noah Millman's recent prediction regarding Sullivan. Before I give it to you, here's one more nugget from Sullivan's musing:

Let's say that science found treatments that reduced the rate of fatality from lung cancer due to smoking by, say, 80 percent. Let's also say that these treatments became progressively easier to tolerate. What would you predict would happen? More to the point: How would you conduct a public health message that still credibly warned against the risks of smoking?

Okay, here's Mr. Millman's prediction:

If it turns out that hundreds of people are infected every year because of bug-chasing - forget the scare headline of 10,000 - then Sullivan will change his position. He'll argue that there's an ethics of bug-chasing: the ethics of choice. If you can smoke, and thereby expose yourself to serious health consequences down the road (and the taxpayer to the costs of caring for you) then what is so awful about contracting a manageable disease by engaging in a pleasurable sexual encounter?

Not far off, at all, and the prediction is less than two weeks old. Millman goes on:

Sullivan has been trying to straddle the "culture of life" and the "culture of choice." This story could force him to one side of the fence or the other. No wonder he wants it to go away.

Did you catch Sullivan's line about sex (emphasis added): "the greatest and most exhilarating gifts our nature has given us." I thought Andrew was a Catholic...

ADDENDUM:
Mr. Millman takes Sullivans piece as an opportunity for a reasonable and balanced discussion of gay marriage, only touching on the implications of the rest (the bulk) of Sullivan's post. Why the softened approach? Doesn't Millman see that he was right?

Posted by Justin Katz @ 10:52 PM EST