The HIV Experience
After over twenty years at the baths, I’ve educated myself on the boundaries of safe sex and sexually transmitted infections. In particular, HIV and AIDS, as I have two close friends who live with HIV. Both have been living with this disease for over a decade.
I know this is a cliche, but remember, for every man you sleep with, you are also sleeping with his past sexual conquests. Many men with HIV do not disclose this information to a prospective hook-up, especially in a bathhouse. If nothing unsafe happens, why mention it? With the “U Equals U” campaign, there is even more reason not to disclose one’s status. For those who don’t know what “U Equals U” is. It stands for “Undetectable Equals Untransmittable.” If a person’s HIV viral load is undetectable, they cannot sexually transmit the virus to someone else.
Then you have PRep (pre-exposure prophylaxis) for men who are HIV-negative. Men take this medication to lower their risk of HIV infection when having sex. Outside of that, you also have guys who don’t care if they are infected with HIV. These are men who have unprotected sex in the hopes of getting HIV. They are called bug chasers and want to get infected to be part of an exclusive club. In some gay circles, it is fashionable to be HIV positive, as this is no longer a death sentence. But a mark of pride.
Many HIV-positive men sport a Biohazard Tattoo to inform everyone they are HIV Positive and aren’t ashamed. So if you see a guy walking the bathhouse halls sporting a Biohazard Tattoo, you instantly know his status.
With all the new drugs on the market, many men feel safe having unprotected sex with other younger guys. Many gay men view these drugs (WRONGLY) as living an everyday life with HIV and AIDS, the same way people live with diabetes. Finally, there is a feeling of fatigue. They are tired of being safe, using protection, and continuously thinking about safe sex. These younger gay men want SEX: the natural feeling of being inside someone, pure skin-to-skin contact.
It would not surprise me if 75% of the guys walking the halls of a bathhouse had HIV. These men know they are HIV Positive, and a handful is on disability insurance. Because a disability check barely covers the essentials in life, going to any place to mix and mingle with other gay men is expensive. Many positive men on LTD (long-term disability) go to the baths at noon, when most have a reduced rate. The rates vary from sauna to sauna, but $12.00 is a special price during lunch at my bathhouse.
At that rate, men on disability can escape from their problems, albeit temporarily, for 6 hours. They can cruise, enjoy eye candy, and get laid like everyone else. Being on disability might sound like a fabulous permanent vacation, but it gets boring. You had school or a career as the center of your universe for your whole life. You test positive for HIV, and while most men can go on to live their everyday lives, some cannot. Either they cannot find employment or become susceptible to a recurring illness connected to their HIV status. Either way, they qualify for disability, and a huge weight lifts off their shoulders. But soon, these men realize the world is passing them by. With friends at work, men on disability have to find things to occupy their time during the day. As a result, the baths become a part of their daily life to have some structure. Most men on disability go to the baths at the beginning or end of every month. That is when their check comes in the mail.
However, the rest of the men going to the baths might not even know their status. Health issues are not at the top of the list for most gay men. So many men don’t even go for a yearly check-up. However, HIV infections are increasing alarmingly, especially among young men. In the past, many gay men got HIV by accident (condom breaking) or by slipping up (not thinking in the heat of the moment). In junior high school decades ago, there was a bombardment of safe sex and AIDS literature. That is not happening now. As a result, so many young gay men are lax in their safe sex practices. Coming out as a gay man can be a period of great upheaval. Already suffering from low self-esteem, we want to fit in and find a companion. On that search, it may reduce motivation for safe sex as a gay man might do anything to satisfy a potential boyfriend. Age is another factor. Many young gay men perceive AIDS as a disease of older men. As a result, men ages twenty or thirty have not had many dealing with end-stage AIDS patients or even people living with HIV.
To their credit, bathhouses have continued to promote and educate their clientele about safe sex, HIV, and AIDS. Go to any bathhouse in America, and this is what you will see:
AIDS and safe sex posters on the walls.
Condoms and lube are readily available at the front desk and lounge.
Porn films where condoms are featured.
There is even an area with AIDS education pamphlets and materials at the baths. Volunteer healthcare workers visit the baths every month to educate the community. It is a great way to reach out directly and educate gay men about their sexual practices. From anonymous AIDS and STD testing (right there at the baths!) to discussions about safe sex, the healthcare workers are there not to preach or be judgmental but to educate. It attempts to promote safe sex to the younger generation at the baths.
But unfortunately, many younger gay men still do not get it. I cannot tell you how much barebacking goes on at the baths (especially in the darkroom). Hence the continued HIV and AIDS outreach program at the baths. Even outside the baths, there is a blasé attitude about safe sex. For instance, in my city, we have an AIDS memorial down the street from one of the most popular gay bars. Every year on World AIDS Day, there is a candlelight vigil. New names are added during the memorial for those who have died of AIDS. Besides that day, the AIDS memorial is better known in gay circles as the best place to have park sex. If two guys meet at the bar and want to have a quickie, they trot down to the memorial. There are trees, shrubbery, and other camouflage that surround the shrine. The monument features benches, nooks, and corners, perfect for that discreet quickie encounter. It is not unusual to pass by the AIDS memorial at 2 AM and see scores of young guys going at it. Most of the time, you will see guys leaning against the AIDS memorial getting blown while others are sprawled atop a nearby picnic table getting fucked. That is how unaffected and complacent younger gay men are about HIV and AIDS.
Many older gay men are disgusted and sickened by the thought of younger gay men having sex at the AIDS memorial. They consider it in poor taste and an insult to the memory of those who have died of AIDS. The younger generation counters the outrage by saying they honor those men by having sex at the memorial. These men died from AIDS from having unsafe sex. Having sex at the AIDS memorial is a re-generation of their lives, almost like a re-birth. These men died of AIDS, and now the younger generation is having sex in their memory. It is completing a circle of life, thus bringing closure.
So should the risk of being infected with HIV concern you? Check what healthcare coverage you have, even if you lose your job. See what you are entitled to, then decide. As living with HIV is not cheap.