Instant Intimacy
What HIV has done to my sex life
by John Francis Leonard

Recently, my editor asked of our magazine’s writers what the biggest change our diagnosis has made to our lives is. I gave this a lot of thought and realized that my column had very often dealt with those changes and I had written about them in great detail. I wanted to give a fresh answer, something that I hadn’t considered before, but had nonetheless had a profound impact on life, as I had lived it, previous to my diagnosis. What came to mind was the fact that my status had greatly affected my outlook on sex with other men and how I both approached it and experienced it. Suddenly gone from my sexual repertoire was the one-night stand, an approach to sex in a casual manner. When I was diagnosed, I immediately felt that I was obligated to disclose my status to my potential partners. At the time, there was no idea of U=U; one still operated under the idea that one was potentially infectious. Now that I know that under successful treatment with an undetectable viral load, I cannot transmit HIV, I still feel the obligation to inform my partners.

What this disclosure has done is change the dynamics of sex for me. My HIV status is a deeply personal and sensitive piece of information. Once I’ve disclosed it, I am automatically on an intimate level with someone, whether or not I’ll ever see them again, whether or not I’ll remember their name the next day. I have to completely put myself out there, make myself vulnerable and ultimately, risk rejection or a very negative reaction. I’m also put in the role, albeit reluctantly at this point, of educator and counselor. It’s been a game changer to say the least.

Pre-HIV, sex was a game I played. I enjoyed it, yes, but it was ultimately about the conquest; it fed my ego. I felt that being a successful, attractive gay man obligated me to “trick” as much as possible. Sexuality is so different for each of us, for someone with a healthy sexual appetite and attitude, many casual sexual encounters is not an unhealthy thing, we’re all different. But for me, my sex life was rooted in years of childhood sexual abuse and an unhealthy lack of self-esteem. Don’t get me wrong, I had a lot of fun and met some great men along the way, but, ultimately, my sex life wasn’t serving to make me happy. I had several serious relationships, but they were largely centered around my sexual attributes and looks.

Now I see sex very differently. For me, sex is only enjoyable when it is coupled with intimacy now. As a single gay man in the age of the online hook-up, that’s been difficult to navigate. I got onto the apps initially and occasionally navigated my disclosure and managed to hook up for casual encounters, but was left unsatisfied and with disappointing results. I also strove to establish relationships online and got close, but ultimately was met with failure repeatedly. But the fact is that I am still a man with a healthy sex drive—what to do? One positive thing that’s happened over the past few years is that more and more men are on PrEP and perfectly comfortable having sex with someone who is positive and undetectable. I’m often surprised now and certainly inured to the men who haven’t evolved, so I’m seldom left disappointed. What’s worked for me is a “friends with benefits” approach. I’m on an intimate, often loving level with someone who I’m not expecting to be involved with permanently or seriously.

The perfect example of this is a dear man who I’ve written about in this column before. Brett and I love each other very much and express it openly and honestly, but we only see each other to have sex. Yes, we cuddle, yes, we kiss, but I’d be a liar if I said the true nature of our relationship went beyond getting together for sex, and that’s just fine. We know each other so well, for going on seven years now, that the sex keeps getting more intense and more intimate. I’m totally comfortable with him and my only complaint is that I sometimes wish we could get together more often. I’ve accepted the fact that we’ll never have a serious relationship, we’ll never go on a date per se, but that’s just fine with me. He fills my needs sexually, and, yes, on a certain level, emotionally. We both see other people, but we laugh about how they never measure up sexually with what we share together.

It’s been a long journey and there have been many changes in my life due to my HIV status, but this one, this “automatic intimacy” I’ve talked about has actually perfectly aligned with my personal and spiritual growth. You have to look at life that way sometimes if you are to clearly see your blessings.

John Francis Leonard is an advocate and writer, as well as a voracious reader of literature, which helps to feed his love of the English language. He has been living with HIV for fifteen years. His fiction has been published in the ImageOutWrite literary journal and he is a literary critic for Lambda Literary. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.