by Bianca Laureano
For World AIDS Day and the week that followed I did several HIV education presentations for high school students in the Bronx. I love doing these presentations, and especially in the borough where I live, because it gives me an opportunity to work with youth that are a part of the same community. Often as a guest speaker it’s sort of a “treat” for students to hear from folks other than their teachers or academic faculty. What I realized this month was that there are some messages, inaccurate and hurtful, that students are still receiving. I wondered if I was the only one (it can’t be that I am), and as an educator I had to share.
Here are some of the top questions and myths I receive and challenge/rectify when providing HIV education in high schools (many of which include students of Color and/or working class students):
MYTH: Saliva is one of the top 5 bodily fluids that transmit HIV.
When I talk about HIV and bodily fluids I discuss: blood, semen, vaginal secretions, breast milk, and pre-ejaculatory fluid. Students, without fail, will mention saliva (or spit) as a bodily fluid. I often thank the student for their suggestion, share it’s a common belief, and go into a discussion on how one would have to consume so many gallons of saliva a person living positive with HIV must create. First, it’s hard to find someone who can produce that much spit and second I have yet to meet anyone who is that thirsty to drink all of those gallons in one sitting!
This belief that HIV is transmitted via saliva is so old school! I’m talking when we first began to see and try to understand what HIV and AIDS was and how it impacted our bodies. Folks would not drink after others who were living positive, make them drink out of paper cups, have separate utensils for them to use, and not want to come near, let alone kiss them. We’ve known better for decades, yet, this stereotype is still alive and well.
MYTH: People living with HIV don’t have sex anymore.
There is this idea that folks who are living positive will never, ever experience sexual pleasure again, especially with other people! I often share that if this were the case would we not see a reduction in the new infection rates? It is also a good opportunity to share how many folks who are living positive (an estimated 25%) don’t know they are living positive and thus are not aware of their status and may be transmitting the virus to others. This is also a good time to talk about how to properly use condoms, dental damns, latex gloves and other barrier methods, and abstinence. Just as many people have different definitions of what abstinence means (many students think it means “not having sex” when really it means “waiting to have sex” and that waiting period is usually one where people do not have sex, but it’s not the same as celibacy).
This idea also assumes that pleasure is only for people who are HIV negative. Unfortunately, this idea is dangerous. Who else will be thought to be not good enough to experience pleasure? A good conversation about pleasure and how sexual experiences may be more pleasurable when people feel comfortable, have open and honest communication, and know their partner’s HIV and STI status. This may mean getting to know someone, practicing abstinence, and developing skills to discuss these topics.
MYTH: You can prosecute someone who is HIV positive for transmitting the virus to another person during a consensual sexual encounter.
No. I often explain that it is important to keep in mind the topic of consent. It is also important to keep in mind that if this were true it would need to be proven in a court of law that the person pre-mediated and/or had intentions to infect others with HIV through unprotected sexual activities. Often students hear stories but do not realize these stories may also be connected to domestic violence, rape, assault, and other non-consensual encounters. AVERT, an international HIV and AIDS organization, has a great discussion of criminal transmission and laws in countries all over the world.
Good discussions about consent and testing also come about from these ideas and questions. Often the young people rationalize this question and idea to discriminate and hurt the positive person instead of recognizing the power and accountability the other person has in the situation. When people consent to engage in sexual activities together what does that mean? How do we get consent, what does it look and sound like? How do we learn that we have power when it comes to consent and in choosing to have sex of any type with folks means we are taking the responsibility to make a specific decision? A part of that decision is connected to communication, testing, holding ourselves accountable, and being clear about our personal boundaries. This story of William Brawner, a Black man who was a student at Howard University and living positive, spoke out on having numerous sexual partners while at Howard is also a story that comes up with regards to consent. It also speaks to HIV positive people still having active sex lives and the responsibility we all have to be aware of our status and of our partners.
Unfortunately, this music video and song is not helpful in sending this message.
MYTH: Magic Johnson doesn’t have HIV anymore.
Yes he does. Magic Johnson is a wealthy Black man living in the US who has US citizenship. These are all important to keep in mind because they play a role in his status and his health. As someone who has access to eating foods that are “healthy/organic,” have a personal chef, physician, access to many things you and I don’t have impacts his live in positive ways. Magic Johnson has what is called an undetectable viral load. This means the amount of HIV that is detectable in his blood is minimal, but that does NOT mean he is cured from HIV. He is still positive and can still transmit the virus to other people. I often use this as another example of how condoms do work! Magic Johnson is married and his wife, as far as we know, remains HIV negative. If they are still having sex with one another it is most likely while using barrier methods to keep her HIV negative.
MYTH: People catch HIV.
No they don’t. You catch a ball, your shirt may get caught on a nail, but people do not catch HIV. Instead, HIV is transmitted, just as knowledge is. It is passed from one person to another in specific ways. Using the term “catch” to connect to HIV transmission is a judgement. It places blame on the person who is living positive, regardless of how they became positive and is an attempt to shame them for living positive. I also see this use of language as a way to scare people and I’m not a fan of the “scared straight” approach.
MYTH: HIV isn’t a big deal because people are living longer and it’s not a death sentence.
Wrong. The virus impacts each body differently. Not all people will have the same response to HIV medication and treatments as others. What works for Magic Johnson may not work for someone else (or many other people!). The medication and treatment many folks may need to stay as healthy as they can while being HIV positive, is toxic! Taking medication is not fun. Many of the side effects for some HIV medications are things that folks do not enjoy (i.e. diarrhea, vomiting, nausea), but they may also result in death. A side effect of some of these medications is death. That’s a big deal! Not to mention the cost of medication is not cheap!
MYTH: HIV is only something that happens to gay men.
Is this 1984? (pun intended). A homophobic presidency under the Reagan administration that sent the message that HIV in the US was something that impacted gay men only ignored the infections of heterosexual, poor, people of Color, sex workers, and people all over the world! HIV impacts us all and all of us may be at risk for HIV transmission if we make certain choices in our lives. A student asked me “why do people think only gay people can get HIV?” and I had to give a short history lesson. I also talked about assumptions that all gay men have anal sex, when in reality anybody with an anus can have anal sex! It’s a stereotype, and stereotypes like this are not helpful and harmful for us all.
MYTH: Lesbians don’t have to worry about HIV.
No. Everybody must be aware and know their options in living as best they can as an HIV positive person, or as a healthy HIV negative person. Lesbians are not immune to HIV (or any other STI), and the assumption that they are is problematic. If we are sharing and exchanging bodily fluids that may transmit HIV, we are at risk, regardless of the sex assigned at birth and gender of our partners.
At the end of all my presentations I hope that youth realize the power they have. It is such an important and valuable power that many adults often try to take away from them. It’s beyond choice, it’s power. And I believe when we share with youth that we, as adults, recognize and honor their power, they may do the same which may impact their choices and lives.