Weighing the Positives & Negatives of Serosorting
Although serosorting originally referred to anyone who limits his sex partners to those with the same HIV status, it has become a more specific term for those who do so as a way to engage in unprotected sex without fear of contracting or transmitting HIV.
Many experts agree with the Center for Disease Control, which cautions that many men aren't aware of, or may even lie about, their serostatus. It's a giant leap of faith for anyone who is HIV-negative to rely solely on a stranger's word.
A 10-year study reported that, while up to 80 percent of unprotected sex in HIV-positive men occurred with partners known or assumed to have the same HIV status, the percentage was even among HIV-negative men. From about 2002 on, a partner's declared or assumed HIV status became one of the most important determining factors in gay men's decisions to have unprotected sex.
Limiting partners to what Eric M. Garrison, a professor at The College of William and Mary called "the 4H Club" - that is, HIV, HSV, HPV and hepatitis B - "can affect the dating mindset of the person living with the infection as well as the potential date. Having ’the talk’ can be very difficult for some, easy for others, and a neutral point for still others. If a person should fall into the ’It is/It will be difficult,’ then they might date cautiously or within their serostatus."
To make "the talk" easier, Garrison offers this advice:
• It’s OK to be a know-it-all. Learn everything you can about your STI so that when your potential partner asks you a question, your response isn’t, "I don’t know," which can be misinterpreted as "I don’t care."
• Timing is everything. Too soon, and a great person may run. Too late, and they’ll feel you led them on. Discovering the answer together can be a growing experience for both partners; however, this usually happens later in a relationship after the initial disclosure.
• Starting with a question rather than coming out with a full disclosure can add some levity to the situation and can serve as an entrée into a conversation about the importance of getting tested.
• Don’t let it bring on stress, which can lower the immune system. At the same time, be genuine and open with your emotions.
Learn to Handle Rejection
Don’t push yourself to open up about your status, advised Shawn Decker, a hemophiliac who was infected as a child, but only decided to make his status public when he was 20. In time, Decker said, it becomes impossible to hide from oneself. Meanwhile, don’t beat yourself up about it.
"I realized that acknowledging that aspect of my life wasn’t a bad thing," he told EDGE. "I knew by going public, I’d never have to worry about who knew and who didn’t or how to tell someone I was HIV-positive, and when the right time was."
As if dating in the gay world weren’t hard enough, poz guys have the added burden of issues surrounding their serostatus.
"My initial reaction after my diagnosis was that I would prefer to only date men that were also positive," Darren told EDGE "It just seemed easier. I do believe, though, rejecting someone simply because of status is hurtful and, yes, wrong. Dating and making one relationship from two people, their experiences, backgrounds, values, etc., is hard enough, in my opinion. A serodiscordant couple might, out of shared fear, eliminate certain sex acts from their repertoire that they would otherwise enjoy. There’s guilt, fear and shame."
"Just because you were rejected doesn’t mean it was just because of a virus," Garrison advised. "Get to know your good qualities and build on them. Work on overcoming your less desirable ones. Remember there are many people living with an STI who are rejected because of their nasty personalities and not because of some meddlesome, unimportant virus."
That said, don’t let rejection lead to insecurity. Being positive represents only one part of you and doesn’t negate all of the a person’s good qualities, Garrison added. If someone makes it the defining issue, he probably wasn’t worth it anyway.
The ability to handle rejection is crucial to any poz guys who are looking for love.
"When I found out that I was HIV positive I still went on dates, but was very upfront with my HIV status," Justin B. Terry-Smith, author of a children’s book on HIV, "I Have A Secret," and an advice columnist, told EDGE, "I even went so far as to tell men that asked me out at that moment. Yes, I’ve been rejected by men because of my HIV status. But I’ve also been sought out because of it. I always say if one door closes, another one will open. I didn’t mind rejection, because I figured that person was not for me."
That goes for men and women. HIV activist and blogger Maria Mejia is open about disclosing her status. She said she just doesn’t want anyone to go through what she went through and is still going through.
Mejia considers herself lucky never to have never been rejected because of her status. In fact, the HIV-negative partners she’s been with have told her that they respected her all the more for so being honest and upfront with them and giving them a choice.
Making a Connection
Those who believe that serosorting makes unprotected insertive sex OK are forgetting all of the other STIs, such as hepatitis B, syphilis, herpes and gonorrhea. "When you’re dating," Mejia pointed out, "protecting yourself is also important because you don’t want to get something else, you know?"
Each year, 19 million Americans suffer from STI infections, according to the CDC. Most infections don’t display symptoms and can go undiagnosed and untreated for months. Not realizing they’re infected, people can be serosorting and still infecting partners with conditions that severely lower the immune system and can have long-term consequences.
For whatever reason, there are poz-only dating and support groups online and in many cities. Getting involved in one or even starting one of your own is not only empowering, it’s a great way to meet other like-minded men.
Darren managed to find two groups in Chicago and is heavily involved in both, the Chicago Poz Single Men Meet ’N Greet on MeetUp and CD4 Chicago. Similarly, Mejia created two large support groups after she received her test results and couldn’t find any.
You should also ask friends to help you make connections. Also check out HIV service agencies, gay-friendly places of worship and LGBT centers. Volunteering is a great way to meet people, and don’t forget social media. You never know where lightning will strike: One couple that belongs to the Northeast Florida AIDS Network met in the lobby of a doctor’s office.
It doesn’t matter how or where you meet other like-minded individuals; the important thing is to make the effort to get out and get involved.
Darren described being in a room full of other poz guys as comforting, relaxing and accepting. He hoped the growth in attendance at both groups he’s become involved with means less people are feeling helpless and alone.
"Look for support," Mejia urged. "If you’re ashamed to physically go seek support because of the stigma, there are a lot of other options available, like my own online support group."
Under what circumstances and to whom a person discloses his serostatus is only one of the important decisions HIV-positive persons will face in the long road ahead. "Make healthy choices, both emotionally and physically," Decker said.
Take care of yourself mentally, spiritually and physically. "Your life is not over," Mejia added. "It’s important to remember that you are not ’less than. You just happen to have a condition. It’s not a moral disease, just a human condition."
This story is part of our special report titled "Live a Life Worth Living." Want to read more? Here's the full list.