As I climbed the stairs to the sexual health clinic, I felt as though I was going insane.
With each step I promised myself that if I could just get another all-clear, be handed a clean bill of sexual health, I’d change my ways. I’d become a good gay. I’d stop the string of random hook-ups, invest time in love and hold out for that ‘big relationship.’
No longer would I have to anxiously white-knuckle my way through another blood test.
This wasn’t the way life was meant to be. When I was younger I bought into an illusion that gay life was a whirlwind of casual yet mind-blowing sex. It would be carefree and void of negative consequences.
Then I racked up some field time. I gained some traction as to how sex really works. When I become aware of all the potential dangers that come with it, that illusion quickly deflated.
I attribute a large part of this ignorance to the lack of LGBTI-inclusive sex education, but that’s a whole other story.
So here I am, again. In this frosty waiting room. Sitting with my legs crossed, terror trickling down my throat and settling in the pit of my stomach. I’m trying to ignore the judgmental sneer I feel deep in my bones, praying that I’ll get away with it this time.
‘Someone I know walks in’
Then it happens: someone I know walks in. Half my brain is screaming at me to jump out of the window; the other half is urging me to bury my face in my phone screen, which I do. For the next few minutes I sit emanating one gruff, depressing sigh after another: sweating; panicking.
Then the nurse comes out. She glances around the waiting room and calls my name, ‘Christopher?’
With that she’d unmasked the anonymity I’d hoped to gain by shielding my face with my phone.
I’m idly chatting away to the nurse as she does my bloods. I have shy veins, and a horrible faint-inducing-phobia of needles, so she distracts with me a series of questions.
‘How many sexual partners have you had over the last few months?’
‘Do you feel that you put myself in potentially hazards situations?’
‘Having you been watching Celebrity Big Brother?’
Then she gets to the question I’ve been hoping to avoid the same way you do a racist relative. ‘Has anyone spoken to you about PrEP?’ she says casually, as though asking what I’m having for dinner.
I am seized by dread. This doesn’t feel like a casual conversation anymore. I’m confused; Why is she asking me this? Do I have that many sexual partners? Is my personal life that much of a mess that I need to take extra precautions?
After sharing these concerns with the nurse, who looks at me with the concern, it turns out the answer is ‘No.’ Why? Because there is no such thing as too many partners. There isn’t a scale where after you’ve bedded a certain amount of people you earn your ‘slut’ badge.
She and I sit and chat, as if we’re simply two adults having a normal conversation. Because, actually, that’s what we are doing: having a normal conversation about sexual-health.
Suddenly, my inner meltdown subsides. I realize there’s no judgment here, there’s no scrutiny.
My issue was never with PrEP. That’s not what’s caused this sudden panic. My response to the drug being accessible on the NHS in England (at least in a limited trial to those most at risk) was nothing but enthusiastic.
What’s caused the panic is the stigma attached to being on PrEP, and the negative comments other gay men are often too willing to offer about it.
The conversation continues, and I realize on an intellectual level that I’ve been lied to. Lied to by papers, by adults, by former teachers, by Facebook, and by the unwanted opinions of other gay men. This perpetual stigma attached to sexual heath is now wrapping itself around PrEP and those who choose to use it.
There’s so much misinformation about sexual health, about this drug, floating around out there.
‘You don’t need PrEP, just wear a condom!’
Condom’s aren’t 100% effective at preventing HIV infection. Yet it’s this sort of mentality that adds to the stigma. It causes people to have visions of wanton orgies worthy of vintage gay porn whenever someone tells them they’re on PrEP. That’s not fair.
Let’s take pride in talking about sexual health
Our conversation concludes with me telling the nurse that on the few occasions I have taken a random man home, I normally just actively encourage him to spoon me, before falling sleeping. Probably snoring like a warthog. And that I don’t have a bucket-load of men lining up to worship my every orifice.
The reality is I’ve only slept with two people in the last six months. It was nothing but my own fear of judgment that caused my meltdown earlier. From this we deduce that PrEP isn’t needed in my case.
As I go to leave the clinic, the guy I know gets called. We exchange a smile, and with I feel myself kicking stigma out the window I considered jumping from earlier.
We’re just a couple of guys who are looking after their health, and sexual health is just as important as anything else. And that should never merit any form of negativity or stigma.