Neg-otiating poz spaces: Four mistakes we don’t have to make

What do you think — is PnP a poz space?

The party scene never belonged exclusively to HIV-positive guys (and nor do all such guys party), but it’s not wrong to say that PnP is uniquely poz-friendly. For a long time, chemsex was radically more welcoming than nearly all other social or sexual spaces for queer men. Long before Truvada ever started trending in the mainstream, PnP offered a sexual rubric in which HIV-positive guys were normalized and even celebrated. For lots of guys who had endured  decades of sexual rejection, shame and stigma, partying represented a rare moment to let down their guard. For some, it provided an avenue towards reclaiming sexual enjoyment and confidence despite a serophobic world that would rather mark certain bodies as unfuckable. 

Among the key reasons for this, of course, is that there simply is a higher proportion of poz guys in the scene, meaning there’s greater understanding, less stigma, and less fear about transmission and disclosure. The 2015 Sex Now survey found that about six times as many HIV-positive guys reported partying with T, G, or K than their HIV-positive counterparts (21.3% and 3.4% of respondents, respectively, according to CATIE’s math.) 

 But also consider the effects of the drugs themselves. Guys often report that partying, regardless of which letters of the alphabet they prefer to enjoy,  makes them more likely to do or try things they wouldn’t have otherwise. Such loss of inhibitions often gets framed as evidence that drugs cause harmful risk-taking or worse, fundamentally compromise one’s ability to consent. But in my eyes, such data show that PnP encourages self-exploration, confidence, surprise, and even connection across social differences. Some guys find the drugs relieve some of the hesitancy and hang-ups that we’ve inherited about HIV. 

This can be true for HIV-negative guys too. To me, if the party scene is the context where HIV-negative guys confront their hang-ups and get over discriminatory preferences about bodies, race, or indeed, HIV status, that’s probably a good thing. How then, given the poz-positive history of the subculture, can we understand the impacts of the last few years in HIV science and treatment? It might not be so clear cut. The study showing the steep 6:1 ratio of poz guys partying was done in 2015 — one year before any form of PrEP was officially approved for use in Canada. 

A lot has changed. Research studies can rarely keep up with us, but anyone in the scene will tell you that more guys are partying now, and also that PrEP and U=U are increasingly common parlance when it comes to HIV prevention. While the relationships may be more correlation than causation, more HIV-negative guys like myself are now navigating these expressly poz-friendly spaces for the first time. 

It matters how that plays out. I, for one, have certainly said or done things that weren’t received well by my poz buds. However well intentioned or well informed we may be, we can make mistakes if we’re not careful. 

What’s the best way to take care? Think ahead, of course. In that spirit, here are four common mistakes I hope to avoid going forward:

  1. Defaulting to Neg

Take care not to make assumptions about anybody’s status, especially in the party scene. Sometimes HIV-negative guys speak as though everybody has the same HIV status, or should. I sometimes encounter people saying things like, “Isn’t everybody on PrEP now?” or “It’s not like we have to worry about that anymore,” in social or sexual settings. Sure, PrEP may now be a norm for a lot of neg guys, especially in social circles with greater privilege and access to medication, and U=U is better understood. But these statements are inevitably false — no, not everyone’s on PrEP, and yes, some people do have to worry about this. Perhaps more importantly, though, their logic also depends on denormalizing HIV-positive people. Flippant jokes or generalizations tacitly signal that people living with HIV must not belong here, or aren’t understood. We could all be more cautious not to speak in ways that default to an HIV-negative audience.

2. Skipping the talk

For many years, “the talk” about sexual health was a requisite pit stop before having sex with a hookup, date, or someone else new. What are you into? What’s your status? Condoms? You’d go through the list, however uncomfortable it could be, making sure everyone was on board before pressing play on the action.  This ritual would usually only get skipped in certain spaces like bathhouses, cruising grounds, or anywhere else organized by the thrill of anonymity and discretion. Even then, regret and shame could linger for longer than planned when one would forego this step — what if, what if, what if?

PrEP seems to have changed that.  In his 2019 piece about PrEP for Maisonneuve, Ottawa-based HIV activist and scholar Alex McClelland describes how, almost overnight, some guys who once might well have blocked, berated or dumped him for being positive now suddenly didn’t want to discuss the matter while cruising the apps:

Another guy initiated this time: “Hey, how goes?” I disclosed my status within the first few minutes. He responded, “It’s ok, I’m on PrEP.” The discussion then turned to logistics—as far as he was concerned, we no longer had to talk about risk. I’ve heard this from guys many times: that my viral undetectability is of no interest. They are on PrEP, so it doesn’t matter what’s going on with anyone else … The moment to have a bonded connection over our shared relationship to HIV, negative or positive, is no longer on the table. For some of us who have lived with HIV for a long time, this can be refreshing, and for others, disconcerting. 

Indeed, the talk is (or was)  an opportunity to talk about more than just HIV status — to negotiate consent, privacy, condom use, boundaries, and expectations. It offers a chance at some fleeting accountability, even trust. Is there really less to “worry about,” on either side of the sero-divide? Maybe for some. Is that the point? Not entirely. 

So where does this leave us in when it comes to PnP? In some cases, party scenes are just like those cruising scenes – less talk, more fuck. But you might be surprised by people’s chattiness (thanks, crystal meth!). And remember that despite the name “party,” lots of guys using chems are meeting up one on one, where you may indeed have more opportunities to talk. 

Whether negotiating sex ahead of a hookup or just shooting the shit in a group while Kyle is endlessly searching for  the *perfect porn* (he always does this), HIV may or may not come up. When it does, I encourage HIV-negative guys to slow down before you brush it off or dismiss the topic as unimportant. It may well be that your next HIV-positive fuck bud doesn’t want to go too deep into the thing, but it’s not fair for one person to steamroll over it.  It’s not only about you, after all, it’s about both (or all!) of the guys involved.

3. Demanding education (or counseling) from poz partners

Ask any sexually active poz guy, and chances are they’ve had to comfort, coach, counsel or educate potential hookups, dates, partners, and fuck buds. All this accidental counseling is a lot, and often happens before ever actually having sex with the guy (or, after all that, not getting the chance to).  Yes, by all means, have the talk! But it’s important to know your shit, and think things through for yourself outside of a certain person or context.  It’s not fair to put poz guys in the position of having to be our educators and therapists, nor is it nice to set up dynamics where someone you’re into now has to convince you to have sex after all. 

I’d add that, even if you’re sure you know all about HIV and stigma and viral load, be thoughtful about the kind of questions you may ask. It’s not cool to interrogate someone about their latest CD4 count, or expect them to recount the story of their diagnosis for your satisfaction. Will the answers to those super invasive questions actually change how you feel, or are you crossing a line for no reason? 

4. Gossiping and Calling the cops (TLDR: don’t do it!!) 

I shouldn’t have to say this, but it’s super important. Do not ever call the cops on somebody with regards to their HIV status. Even if you think somebody didn’t disclose their status when they should have. Canada has the world’s worst track record when it comes to criminalizing people with HIV. The consequences are brutal and lifelong, even when no HIV transmission occurred or was even possible. In Canada, people charged with HIV nondisclosure get sent to prison (where they experience poor medical care and sometimes increased violence ), are added to a sex offender registry for life, and are often named, shamed, and vilified by the media and their communities. There are cases of people dying from AIDS and suicide as a result of criminalization. Is this a fair punishment for skipping the talk, something HIV-negative guys do all the time? There are also numerous cases where people who consented and understood the science of HIV transmission have later used someone’s status against them as revenge, ruining lives beyond repair. You should know that even if you decide you don’t want to press charges, the government can and usually will pursue them regardless. It’s not worth it. Don’t do it.

Likewise, gossiping or outing people’s HIV status without their permission can have terrible consequences. People’s status is theirs to disclose, and not your business to share with anyone.

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I don’t want to be all dour, so I’ll end this with a note of encouragement. We’re all figuring our shit out,  and you too may have made mistakes or misunderstood something in the recent past. Rather than feel embarrassed, let’s learn from it! It makes us better lovers. Poz guys have done a lot of the heavy lifting for us, including decades of activism and advocacy around access to the ARV drugs that we use for PrEP and U=U. It’s time to do our part to bury the stigma and respect each other, especially as we try out new things and meet new people. Let’s do this. 

Jonathan Valelly
Queer writer, organizer, and harm reductionista based in Toronto.