Mo (mofic) wrote,

HIV, in fanfic and in real life

This was sparked by a few things -

* Discussions in a few places about the lack of condoms/safer sex/HIV mention in much of fanfic
* Some HIV history that crept into posts by purplepopple and in writing_sex
* The fact that I've been dealing with issues surrounding HIV in my own fiction a lot lately
* The opinion I've seen expressed in a few places that for many people, with better drugs and longer life expectancies, HIV is not such a big deal anymore.

HIV in Fanfic

I was kind of surprised when I started reading slash to see just how infrequently HIV seems to come up as a topic, and how infrequently sex scenes portray men practicing safer sex. It bothered me a bit. It seemed to take away some of the verisimilitude, since safer sex (or risky sex and worrying about the risk) is so much a part of the male homoerotic landscape. It made the sex scenes seem more fantasy-like and less real. Maybe that's part of the reason people do write them like that - they want them to sound like a fantasy, not a public health infomercial. I don't want my sex scenes to sound like public service announcements, either, but I do want them to sound real. Also I think the old AIDS activist in me wants to keep the faith or something, and talk about HIV/AIDS whenever possible.

So, I was dismayed to find that when I started writing slash I didn't write much about AIDS at first, either! I didn't feel comfortable with that stance, but it seemed to flow pretty naturally out of my writing being mostly Scott/Logan. Since Logan can't acquire disease or pass it on, there was no need for the two of them to practice safer sex. I do portray Scott as using condoms when having sex outside of the relationship, and I show another couple (Jean-Paul and Adam) as practicing safer sex for the first year of their relationship. I also present, in some detail, the decision-making process they go through when they stop using condoms, and show what happens when events (Jean-Paul's occupational exposure to HIV and Adam having sex outside the relationship) lead them to go back to practicing safer sex. I try to give a sense of how these changes in practice affect their sexual experience and their relationship as a whole. I have canon behind me in raising HIV issues in connection with Jean-Paul, since he is canonically both an out gay man and an AIDS activist.

I've thought some about why fanfic authors don't write about HIV so much, and I'd love to hear other opinions. Here are some reasons I think fanfic authors don't talk about HIV or show their characters practicing safer sex, for those who don't:

* As mentioned above, some may want to write a kind of fantasy of sexual activity without any barriers, and the lack of physical barriers is symbolic for a lack of emotional barriers in some sense.

* Many fandoms are set in times and places when men would not have been using condoms to have sex with each other (MFU, S&H) or are set in fantasy or future worlds divorced enough from our own that illnesses we have here are presumed not to be cause for concern there and then (Star Wars, Star Trek)

* Some characters are in canon impervious to illness (Superman, Wolverine) so it doesn't make sense that they'd be concerned about STDs

* Although there are lots of workshops out there on Eroticizing Safer Sex, a lot of people feel that condoms are anaphrodisiac and a lot more people feel that thinking about life-threatening illness is anaphrodisiac. Authors may worry that writing about HIV prevention will render the sex scenes not hot

* If authors are slashing two men who have no previous homosexual experience, they may think condoms are unnecessary (I don't think I've ever heard this one expressed, but it seems possible some feel that way)

* Maybe some authors feel like HIV is no longer such a serious issue, and so they don't feel a need to have their characters concerned about it and aren't concerned about it themselves. Again, I haven't heard anyone say this in connection with fanfic, but it's possible. There have been an awful lot of articles in a number of mainstream publications about people who feel that way in real life, giving the impression that gay men just aren't so concerned about HIV anymore, and giving that as one reason for increased infection rates lately. It's possible that attitude affects fanfic writers who've read those articles...

Which brings me to...

HIV in Real Life

I really don't think there are a lot of people who think AIDS is no big deal. I do think that many people who are HIV+ are able to live pretty full lives, and that's a very good thing. FTMP I think that people who are negative want to stay negative and those who are positive want to live as long as they can with the disease. There has been a lot of press coverage about "bug chasers" - people who eroticise getting infected - but I think they are such a tiny minority. I see those articles as mostly sensationalism.

I do think a larger factor, though, is safer sex fatigue, particularly among the older men who have
been practicing safer sex for over twenty years! I think it's just very hard to stick with always using protection, all your life, and I think people do slip up eventually. It's not something that our society requires of anyone but gay men, really. Well, in theory it's required of hemophiliacs. It's clear that they as a group don't do it, as many studies have shown, not to mention the evidence of their infected wives. And that's a population that grew up complying with medical dictates, which says something. It's possible that "safer sex, the first time, every time" is just an unattainable goal.

One thing to remember is that the slogan of the early safe sex (it wasn't "safer" then, just "safe") pioneers was "Stay alive for the cure." Condoms were meant to be a temporary measure, a way to avoid getting this while we convinced the government it was worth putting money into research on a disease that was killing a bunch of faggots. That's truly what we thought we needed - money for research. And then there would be a cure, and then everyone could go back to their old sexual practices.

Looking back, I think it's clear that there was a very short time in human history (from development of antibiotics that effectively combatted syphilis until the onset of HIV) when acquiring a fatal disease was not a risk of sexual contact. I don't think anyone now thinks that's a normal state of events or one we'll get back to. If a cure is found for HIV, there will be another disease. But anyway, if you grew up at a time when what was then called "venereal disease" was not considered that serious and certainly not fatal, that felt like the normal state and it was GRID/AIDS that seemed the aberration. So, those sexual pioneers exhorted gay men to stay alive for the cure. And none of them are around to recognise the irony in their stopgap measure lasting longer than they did. I also think sometimes younger people don't have the long view and think of HIV as the aberration, as this awful thing that the generation before them "gave" them. I've heard a lot of resentment and kind of envy from young gay men, wishing they were growing up in a time of freewheeling sex without worry about disease.

I worked as a volunteer on the first National AIDS Hotline in the 1980s. We had totally wonderful inservice training monthly, covering counselling techniques as well as updated information on disease and transmission (it was a time when there was new information *all the time*). I still remember a lot of those inservice lectures and the wonderful men who gave them. I don't think one of them is alive today :-(.

I do think a few things are going on now that contribute to rising infection rates. One of them is safer sex fatigue, as I've mentioned. There is evidence of men taking chances who have played safe for years. Another is the feeling that anyone engaging in anonymous sex is probably already infected. Some men practice what is called sero-sorting - they have unprotected sex but specifically seek out other infected partners. There are real health reasons not to do that, but it sort of has a common-sense appeal if you don't know enough to know not to.

Another issue is the role of recreational drugs. The increasing use of crystal meth by MSM has a big role in AIDS infection. It lowers inhibitions and deadens pain, which is a bad combo. It leads to more unprotected anal sex and to rougher sex and more bleeding. Other drugs (alcohol and illegal ones) can contribute to risk taking behavior, too.

I went to a lecture a few months back by a guy who has written a book about HIV+ people and disclosure. He considers questions like: Whom do they tell? When do they tell? How do those who don't tell justify it to themselves? One thing he said that kind of stuck with me is that we in public health are giving two kind of contradictory messages. OT1H we advocate disclosure, we say it's the responsible thing to tell potential sex partners that you're positive. OTOH we say always use a condom; don't count on knowing your partner's status. So this leaves the infected individual sometimes thinking that he's better off not telling (since it will turn some guys off) and he might as well not tell (since they'll play safe anyway).

Some gay male couples (where both are uninfected) engage in a practice called Negotiated Safety, which is supposed to permit giving up condoms within the relationship. It can be done within the context of a monogamous or non-monogamous relationships. It got a bad rap in its early days, but seems to be having a resurgence now. The worry was always that men wouldn't keep the compacts and disclose, but I found some recent research suggesting they do. In my fiction I show Jean-Paul and Adam working out a Negotiated Safety pact (and not doing it very well, at that. As Adam says to Jean-Paul, "I'm pretty sure the negotiation part isn't supposed to happen during sex.")

I don't know what the answer is. I don't think sex is ever going to be a truly safe human endeavor, but I think that's true of most human activity, yk? And I think the abstinence-until-marriage-and-faithfulness-after crowd is just really going against human nature in so many ways. How best to navigate sexual desire and activity and stay safe is a really hard question, both for the individual and the society. I don't have an answer to it.

So, I'd love to hear anyone else's views if you've gotten this far.

How do you cover HIV in fanfic as an author?

How do you like to see it covered as a reader?

Do you think discussing real world issues concerning STDs is a turnoff in fanfic?

Is it likely that a galaxy far far away or other settings would not have to deal with issues of sex and illness?

I'd love to hear opinions on any of this. I'd also really like recs for fanfic that handles issues of HIV and AIDS well. Ones I've particularly liked are shadowscast's Once a Thief fiction and also her That Seventies Show fanfic (which doesn't deal with HIV directly, since it's before the epidemic, but leaves the reader with a bit of a sense of impending doom, since it's on the horizon) and minisinoo's X-Men novel Special, which is not slash but does deal with HIV very directly.
Tags: hiv, musings, writing

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