I remember being in my twenties and being so afraid to ever be asked this question. The question just seemed so loaded in the moment and always came up right before we were about to have sex—adding pressure to the already intense moment. Even when I was having sex and was HIV-negative, I still would feel this lump in my throat. Back then, I used to hope that this question would never get asked and I was totally wrong for that. Wrong because that fear was taking away from me being sexually responsible and accountable for my own actions.
A fear that eventually would lead me down the path to contracting the virus myself.
First, I need to own my own shit. I wish I knew then what I know now and had been better equipped with the education and resources to know just how serious that question is. I remember thinking that asking a person what their status was could be seen as disrespectful. It was almost like I was alluding to the fact that I didn’t trust the person I was about to have sex with. So, I would rarely ask, even if I was using condoms the majority of the time. I put my trust in people I really didn’t know and many of them were putting their trust in me—based on nothing really but the hope that we could trust each other with no real relationship.
The Black Queer community is at risk for HIV and other STIs at a much higher rate, with the CDC estimating that fifty percent of Black men who have sex with men will acquire the virus over their lifetime. With staggering statistics like this, it is even more important now than ever that we get over our fears of disclosure prior to sexual intercourse and do a better job of accountability for ourselves. That also includes the other partner being willing to not only ask, but to share for their own safety as well.
A conversation that I see happen often is around whether a person “has” to disclose or “should” disclose if they are HIV-positive. This is dangerous and faulty for many reasons. For one, this puts the burden of disclosure on the HIV-positive community and removes the responsibility for all parties involved to be concerned about their own sexual health. HIV-positive people cannot be responsible for everyone’s health and should be held to the same consent standards as those who are negative or living with the virus unknowingly.
It’s why the question of “What’s your status?” is so important for all involved in the room so that people can make a choice. People are operating under the guise that omission is lying when discussing disclosure and that is not okay. Despite science stating that those who are living with HIV and undetectable cannot transmit the virus, people still feel this should be an automatic disclosure. Someone’s status is a private matter. Now if someone is to ask a person who is positive what is their status, it is on the positive person to answer truthfully or state that they don’t wish to disclose. Lying should never be tolerated. The question prior to intercourse around each other’s status should still be asked.
This still gives the person who is negative the option of further engaging or choosing not to have sex. If a person tells you they are positive, you can ask if they are undetectable or virally suppressed. If the person chooses not to answer, you then have the power to take it upon yourself to take the risk, or to not engage in sex. Don’t let your horny outweigh your logic.
The problem is that we are so fearful to even ask the question of “What’s your status?” that most never get to this point of having the option to make this decision. Then you have those who will come back and regret the decision to have sex with a positive person should they find out later, but not hold themselves accountable to never asking the questions around status in the first place.
This is a conditioning that I hope to break. For years I have engaged with people who never ask me what my status is. Despite me talking about being positive publicly and being a face in a campaign it doesn’t guarantee that everyone will know who I am or that my status is positive. I could do everything in my power to ensure that people know and still have the burden of disclosing over and over again, and that’s not fair.
We must work to get to a place where sexual accountability and responsibility becomes that of all parties involved in the acts. This means that we should both be asking questions around status, condom use, PrEP, undetectable status ,and whatever other qualms we may have before engaging in intercourse. We have to stop looking at this discussion as disrespect and begin looking at it as a necessary component of sexual intercourse.
George M. Johnson is a journalist and activist. He has written for Entertainment Tonight, Ebony, TheGrio, TeenVogue, NBC News, and several other major publications. He writes the Our Story, Our Time column for A&U. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram @iamgmjohnson.