Just*in Time: Serodifferent Relationships & Resisting Stigma

by Justin B. Terry-Smith

Photo by Jessica Bolton

Serodifferent relationships can work, but, to be successful, partners (and those around them) need to be aware of how to empower themselves. Here are six issues to stay on top of in a relationship where at least one partner is HIV-positive and one is HIV-negative. (I say “at least” and you know why—I support polyamory!)

Do not slut-shame: It is really important that in our HIV community we do not feel slut-shamed or slut-shame anyone else. All of us need support from our friends, family, and especially our partners. When that support is diminished, we, whether HIV-negative or positive, are more susceptible to depression and other dark energies. HIV-negative people should not be slut-shamed by others because they are on PrEP and they have the kind of sex they want to, and HIV-positive people should not be slut-shamed by those who stigmatize sex.

Keep stress to a minimum: Stress likes to creep into any relationship. The one thing about stress that not a lot of people know about is that it hurts the immune system. Whether you are positive or negative, no body needs stress in their lives. A stressor may prompt someone into an action that benefits them, but this should be infrequent and not all the time.

Safe/Safer sex: There are many couples that are having this issue: The positive partner does not want to transmit the virus to his/her negative partner; nor does the negative partner want to acquire HIV. Both need to have a conversation about sexual practices. If the negative partner starts PrEP and wants to stop using condoms, yet the positive partner, even though on treatment and undetectable for a sustained period, and therefore unable to to transmit HIV, still wants to use condoms—how do they move the relationship forward? Stay educated and engaged in evidence-based facts about HIV. Without this knowledge and without communicating with your partner, fear might persist. And fear feeds stigma. Everyone has to make their own choice in their own health to take empowerment into their own hands. But don’t be scared to be empowered; be scared of the fear stigma breeds…no pun intended.

Resentment sucks: We as HIV-positive people have to take a little better care of ourselves than most. Remember our human bodies were not meant to fight a virus for years on end. Taking pills, going to the doctor at least three times a year, making sure your T-cell counts are high and you remain undetectable can definitely have its range of emotions. Having a partner who doesn’t have to make those decision or go through the challenges can be tough. But we must remember not to resent them for that. They are people just like we are, and we must understand that they are going through pain as well. Having a partner who is HIV positive can be hurtful, too, but we must understand that it isn’t a picnic in the park and we have to be patient because we’d want someone to be there for us too.

Children: Children are simple: You either want children or you don’t. If a serodifferent male-male couple seeks a surrogate, there is still the challenge of who is going to be the “donor.” Technology has made leaps and bonds and now either one can be the genetic parent, thanks to sperm cleansing. Sperm cleansing allows doctors to separate the infected seminal fluid from the semen cells, which are then inserted into one or many eggs to produce children. According to the International Assisted Reproduction Center HIV-positive sperm donation has zero risk for surrogate mothers. Also if an HIV-positive female wants to carry a child the pregnant woman must be on ART every day and stay healthy throughout pregnancy in order to not transmit HIV to the child. To further prevent infection after the child is born, the child is given ART right away for four to six weeks.

Death—that’s life: Death comes for us all and we cannot be afraid of it. Back in the the first decades of the epidemic, there were people who were infected with HIV and had only years, sometimes months, to live. Now the treatment for those living with HIV exists and is getting better all the time. Those who are on treatment for HIV have been known to live just as long as people who are HIV-negative. So, if you are negative and your main concern is that you will outlive your positive partner, think again. People also need to understand that just because you are positive you should not go through the remainder of your life with the fear of dying. People walk out of their houses and get hit by cars, have heart attacks, brain aneurysms and pass away. Do not let HIV dictate your life, whether you are positive or negative!

Justin B. Terry-Smith, MPH, has been fighting the good fight since 1999. He’s garnered recognition and awards for his work, but he’s more concerned about looking for new ways to transform society for the better than resting on his laurels. He started up in gay rights and HIV activism in 2005, published an HIV-themed children’s book, I Have A Secret (Creative House Press) in 2011, and created his own award-winning video blog called, “Justin’s HIV Journal”: justinshivjournal.blogspot.com. Presently, he is working toward his doctorate in public health. Visit his main Web site at www.justinbsmith.com. He welcomes your questions at [email protected].