HIV Ribbon. Image Sergey Mikheev via Unsplash

HIV Is Not A ‘Gay Man’s Disease’

It can affect straight people too

In 2019, straight men in Western Australia were more likely to be diagnosed with HIV than gay men. In fact, since the introduction of PrEP (an HIV-preventative drug) into Australia in 2016, HIV diagnosis rates have lowered dramatically in the gay community. And the trend is not just happening here in Australia, it’s actually noted across the western world.

In the United Kingdom during the same year of 2019, 41% of their total HIV diagnoses were gay and bisexual men.

In the United States of America during the same year, heterosexual people accounted for 8,617 out of 36,801 HIV diagnoses.

And a study last year noted that women are bearing the brunt of global infections, with 50,000 women being diagnosed with HIV across Europe in 2018.

All this shows that HIV has never solely affected gay men. If you have unprotected sex, you are at risk of contracting HIV — regardless of who you have sex with. In fact, any activity where blood or semen is shared poses a risk.

But with rates remaining high among the gay and bisexual male community, the stigma of HIV being a ‘gay man’s disease’ is still prevalent. And this cannot be further from the truth. In fact, some argue that HIV is a predominately sexist virus, which explains why heterosexual women are more prone to catching it than straight men.

This is also seen in the fact that gay and bisexual men who bottom are more at risk of catching HIV than those who top. That being said, straight men can still catch HIV from HIV-positive women through vaginal sex.

But the entire misconception that HIV is a ‘gay man’s disease’ is perhaps causing many straight people to think that they are not affected by it. And this is a dangerous thought, as well as wrong. The fact is, if you have unprotected sex with any other human, you have a good chance of contracting HIV.

A Discriminatory Virus

According to the American Psychological Association, disadvantaged communities are most at risk of contracting HIV:

“Both domestically and internationally, HIV is a disease that is embedded in social and economic inequity, as it affects those of lower socioeconomic status and impoverished neighborhoods at a disproportionately high rate,” the APA states.

“Research on socio-economic status and HIV/AIDS suggests that a person’s socioeconomic standing may affect his or her likelihood of contracting HIV and developing AIDS.”

Socio-economic status is not just determined by income, but also education, financial security, and “subjective perceptions of social status and social class” — according to the APA. This shows that reducing HIV rates requires more than just access to contraceptives; we also need effective education and communication around HIV prevention. Especially if we want to eradicate the virus.

One alarming statistic among many new HIV infections is the rate of late diagnoses. In regards to the 50,000 women across Europe who were diagnosed with HIV, 54% of them were diagnosed late. And the major concern with late diagnoses is the growing number of people whom they could infect without knowing.

This is why proper and effective education around sexual health is paramount. Especially in our schools.

As a gay man, I was taught about STI prevention, but very little at high school. Most of my knowledge came from a gay youth group I attended, telling me all I needed to know about sexual health. It wasn’t just wearing a condom, but knowing what positions are riskier, which ones are safer, and knowing how to ask a prospective partner their HIV status.

And then I learned about PrEP, which is not surprising as a gay man. This drug is widely promoted among the gay male community, but it’s apparent that it’s less known to straight people. Yes, gay men and bisexuals may be more at risk in general, but not everyone in the gay community shares the same amount of risk. Some gay men are not as promiscuous as others. Some are in monogamous relationships. And some are hellbent on using condoms every single time.

In fact, there are lots of gay men who don’t even like anal sex — which is the riskiest position for HIV infection.

On the flip side, I’m sure many straight guys are just as risky as gay men. Some may be skipping on condoms because their lady is taking the pill. Or maybe they want to try anal, and they think, “well, you can’t pregnant that way”, not realising that unwanted pregnancy isn’t the only risk.

I’m absolutely certain that there are some straight people out there who have unprotected, risky sex. And this means they have a high risk of contracting HIV.

This is why we should be directing some of our sexual health discussions around HIV towards the straight community — primarily those who are most at risk. From what I’m seeing, I feel most of the discourse around HIV is focused on “men who have sex with men” (MSM), which discounts the fact that straight people can also spread HIV.

The fact is anyone can catch HIV regardless of their sexual orientation and all it takes is a bit of risk. It’s about time we address this on a more equitable level.

Image: Sergey Mikheev via Unsplash

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