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November 8, 2009

Trying to Understand the Anger: Analyzing Responses to My Pozphobia Piece on Qweerty
FILED UNDER: "Gay Men's Health & Culture"
TAGS: bloggingEric RofesHIV / AIDSHIV PreventionInternetpublic healthserosorting
By Trevor

A few days ago, I published a piece that managed to re-posted on numerous blogs (here, here, here, to name a few) that critiqued the use of "serosorting" as a rationale for refusing to have sex with Poz men when condoms are used. A flurry of interesting and highly productive conversations came out of this piece that center around a number of problematics: Rationality vs. Emotionality (as noted in Daniel's response piece); Responsibility vs. Recklessness; and Individual Rights vs. Collective Ethics, to name a few.

But alongside these productive conversations came what I see as a highly vitriolic and slanderous response that emerged in the responses on Qweerty -- a kind of mainstream gay blog that gets quite a bit of traffic. I see a big part of the issue here as resulting from the title the folks at Qweerty assigned the repost:

queerty_hivpoz_1109.JPG

As you can see, they've suggested here that I called people who refused to sleep with Poz men "assholes." I didn't, and I don't think that -- just to be totally clear. I don't know much about Qweerty, but in the past I've certainly seen comments there that suggest a pretty conservative readership when it comes to sex. But I had no way of anticipating the anger and vitriol that has spilled out in the comments against me and my arguments. I certainly understand that these issues are highly emotional, but most readers did not engage the arguments -- they opted instead to call me names. Ouch.

But I'm a big boy. I can take a bit of name-calling. You work long enough in HIV prevention, and you realize that someone's going to smear your name if you say anything that differs from the party-line prevention soundbites. So in the interest of making something productive happen out of this violence, I wanted to take a moment to see if there were underlying logics in the nearly 100 comments that were enabling the anger -- logics that anyone interested in unpacking the politics of prevention should be interested in. Here we go.

1) "I take it this was written by someone Pos." & "hell no. he sounds like som sort of con man": A number of readers suspected that I must be HIV-positive for writing this. I think this is INCREDIBLY telling about the kind of divisive and polarizing kinds of conversations that are all too common in our communities. I'm not HIV-positive, but why does this matter so much? The subtle underhanded suggestion here is that I must be HIV-positive because I seem to be trying to coerce negative men into having sex with me.

2) "Trevor, you have no idea about the breadth of the stigma associated with HIV+ status; and only the few of us very long-term poz, and their friends and boyfriends, who witnessed and were subject to it do.": Let me try to translate: I've got the misery, keep your hands off. This is clear boundary-drawing, attempting to say that I have no right to discuss this issue because of my negative status. All too common when discussing issues of stigmatized minorities.

3) "What a nut. He seemed to also want to outright say -- but didn't -- that it was the duty of negative guys show their commitment to positive guys by fucking them.": Like the comments in #1, these readers presumed that I believed there was some kind of charitable commitment necessary for neg guys to be coerced into fucking poz guys. Again this is really not the point. The point is that there are prevention discourses circulating that making refusing sex with poz men seem entirely logical, and I'm challenging the logical bases by which that refusal becomes obvious or rational. Fuck whoever you want, but don't pretend like it's obviously just about self-preservation

4) "Hoppe is using the same tired rationalizations the community used in the eighties. I'm glan [sic] folks are seeing through this bulls-t. We have to stop aids in our community now. We've known the transmission method for years. And the available strategies have been obvious for years: positives only with positives, negatives only with negatives, honesty and caring for everyone, peer group pressure on thoughtless barebackers, condoms always for negatives except in a monogamous relationship when trust is rock solid. If anyone's feelings are hurt by this, tough s-it.": I think this comment speaks for itself. Here the claim is made that the only strategies for prevention transmission are 100% serosorting, shaming people who don't use condoms, and only allowing for unprotected sex within relationships. And I say: Tell that to the 68% of new infections that are estimated to be the result of condomless sex with people's primary partners. And obviously the pathologization of "thoughtless barebackers" is the kind of shaming that does nobody an ounce of good.

5) "I'm fed up with having to dance around the constantly shifting, ever increasing sexual minefield that horny, unconcerned poz men represent.": In this readers's mind -- and in many others -- the responsibility for transmission rests squarely on the backs of poz men. As if neg guys share none of that responsibility. As if the men leaving the backroom are akin to murderers. This is worse that stigmatization, it's criminal slandering -- and its the kind of hateful logic that Public Health scholars and institutions have too often served to promote and help disseminate in their efforts. I'm not saying poz guys are totally without any responsibility here, but c'mon.

and finally, my absolute favorite:

6) "Is it wrong to refuse to take a ride on a train you know has no brakes? Jesus, how can anyone write such a self serving, irresponsible idiotic article?": Wowzer! There's a lot going on here. First, it obviously equates having sex with Poz guys to getting on a train headed for certain death. I don't think I need to explain why that's the most disingenuous comparison I've heard in months.

Phew. I think I need to take a few days off from blogging. This was quite an intense ride. In the end, I'm reminded of something my mentor Eric Rofes wrote before he died (see pp. 6-7 of THRIVING, PDF found here):

I recently published on a gay news website an editorial viewpoint that attempted to open up new ways of thinking about HIV prevention, crystal use, and gay men who occasionally have sex without condoms. I was attempting to offer new vision. I understood the risk of attempting to offer new thinking and introduce complex concepts in a brief article on a popular website, but I did my best to inject some fresh thinking about risk-taking and the hazards of social marketing into a discussion which has become predictable and, at times, trite. At the same time, despite my awareness of the challenge I was taking on, I had not expected the rage reflected in some of the letters of response from readers. A sampling follows:

Patrick Syring from Arlington, Virgina, wrote:

"Your advocacy for barebacking and party drugs is abhorrent and disgusting. Gaymen like you tarnish the rest of us who play safe and cherish life more than you do. I hope you die painlessly but quickly."

Anthony Altieri wrote:

"Your article is one of the stupidest things I have ever seen in print. You are obviously a fucking idiot...You cannot blame people's self-destructive behaviors on prevention campaigns. Have you ever heard of a little thing called "personal responsibility"? Probably not. There are plenty of reasons people make unwise decisions: addictive behavior, loneliness, desperation, isolation, lack of purpose in their lives, lack of education, but I am confident you will NEVER find a case of 'I have uprotected sex and use drugs because I saw a poster telling me to use a condom.' The aids [sic] epidemic has been ongoing since the early '80s. DEAL WITH IT. USE A CONDOM YOU FREAKING MORON. Please do us all a favor, unplug your computer and refrain from subjecting the world to any more of your bullshit. Go sit quietly in your bedroom with the lights off, avoiding the realities of life. You seem to be pretty good at that anyway."

Why do conversations among gay men about HIV, barebacking, crystal use, and bathhouses get so ugly and divisive? Why are they argued in such a vehement manner? Are they simply another example of internecine warfare driven by personality conflicts, ego battles, and bad manners? How can we make sense out of distinct visions that seem to underlie these debates: one which argues that the crisis moment of AIDS has passed for gay men and one which berates gay men for taking a single step beyond the bomb shelter we've inhabited since the early 1980s? Why is gay men's sex so frequently the target of such contentious debate and demonization? How did we reach a point where there are such deep divisions among gay men about sexual health and safety? And in what ways do vehement responses to new vision effectively serve to keep out of our movement fresh, innovative thinkers offering fresh analyses?

Amen.

PERMALINK | Posted at 11:19 PM | Post a Comment (10)

10 Comments

In my post I'm talking about bounded rationality, not "emotionality". But the vitriol you quote here is a really great example of reactance -- an emotional response and fear control strategy that defers any sense of personal vulnerability. I describe something similar in the monograph chapter on community-based prevention: men who react to the questioning of their pozphobia by invoking rights discourse against positive men conceived as predators. I can understand HIV being a heated issue but I've seen exactly the same thing brought into debates about sexual racism, and there I really wonder where the heat comes from.

Author Profile Page Daniel Reeders User Profile | November 9, 2009 2:22 AM

I read the whole comment you quote in #5, and it is particularly obnoxious. I've heard these views, and the pure hatred that attends them, from people who self-identify as prevention experts.

Author Profile Page Shawn Syms User Profile | November 9, 2009 6:44 AM

Wowzer is right! Some of these responses are pretty awful. Thanks for starting this conversation, Trevor. I'm excited to read some of the other linked discussions your original post started. I think I'll skip the Qweerty page!

I've always wondered how much the vitriol that you and Rofes point out has to do with the emotional socialization of men, particularly gay men . These conversation are potentially very emotionally triggering for us all. For men who have only ever been allowed to express emotion through anger these kind of responses seem right in line. Reading your selected comments the emotion--anxiety, fear, loss, etc--is right below the surface. Too bad we can't engage each other more meaningfully and talk about how these emotions impact our sexual decision making.

Author Profile Page Mitchel User Profile | November 9, 2009 11:00 AM

Trevor, I am so sorry you had to endure these careless remarks on Qweerty. Talk about a lack of dispassionate reflection; it seems many readers are only interested in knee-jerk reactions. I especially appreciate academic freedom at times like these. You have the support and respect of your fellow scholars, and the space in which to continue these discussions in the future. Keep up the good work.

Author Profile Page Patrick User Profile | November 9, 2009 8:16 PM

Just a couple of things here:
The vehemence displayed in these responses shows just how emotional this issue still is. And it should be. AIDS may not be the horrific disease it was some 15 years ago, but it's no picnic. Even with the new cocktails, you're still likely to have your life cut 10-20 years short. Middle aged HIV positive people on these meds are experiencing health problems common to people in their 80s, including memory loss, loss of bone density, kidney and heart problems, etc. I don't think you're taking into consideration much of what people are really afraid of: illness and death. It's often that simple.

I have to say, your original blog did come off as a bit cavalier here and there, talking about "outrageously low" risk and "exposure does not equal transmission". You have to realize that the average gay guy on the street is not privy to the breadth of statistical data that you reference. Most of them know HIV is a serious illness and some still see it as the death sentence it may have been at one time. HIV should not be likened to a manageable illness like diabetes. I do think your liberal use of data sends the wrong message, particularly to young, gay men out there who may run with the phrase "exposure does not equal transmission", which is, really, a very irresponsible attitude.
If a gay man said to me "I would never sleep with an HIV positive guy" my first question would be "How do you make that work?". Do you only have sex in monogamous realtionships after you have built trust and both been tested? Are you engaging in sex with strangers and/or acquaintances and if so, how do you figure one's HIV status? Do you always simply ask or put your requirements out there? It seems you were very ready to be offended by this and equate it with bigotry and racism and it is simply not the same thing. You didn't even consider that this might work for some people. I think it's always a good idea to talk about status when you're going to have sex with someone. You can talk all you want about percentages and risk rates and likelihoods. But the rate of HIV infection between two HIV negative people is always going to be 0%. I believe we need to be sensitive to the needs and struggles of HIV positive people, but we also have to respect the fact that many people feel neg-neg serosorting is a viable option for risk reduction. Politicising that decision is unfair. HIV positive people taking it personally is unfair. I have a question to everyone who is bothered by this particular form of serosorting: Would you have sex with someone who told you they had untreated syphilis or crabs? Be honest with yourselves. Those are curable.

Author Profile Page Mark S User Profile | November 12, 2009 3:22 PM

Trevor:

I think you still miss the point of the many angry responses posted on Queerty. Not every post was filled with anger; mine was No. 11.

Anyone who has a sincere attitude of well-being for others, is not interested in spreading HIV/AIDS. Everyone who is not sincere, well, he is the asshole. [Those few morons who have got it in their heads that they have some fucked up duty to expose others to this disease are, by definition, socially psychotic.]

HIV+ guys who are rejected as sexual partners due to their HIV status do not judge their rejector as an asshole. We hold that judgement to those rejectors who behave badly when informing others about their determination. I have never been offended when someone I was interest in said something like, "Oh you're poz; sorry, man, but I'm not willing to risk exposure."

Frequency of sexual relations is irrelevant. If the HIV+ guy became infected under limited (few) frequency, he knows all too well that this virus finds its way quite easily, even when playing safe. In cases of high frequency, that guy too understands that playing safe is not the same as risk free.

The anger to your column is different based on the reader's HIV status. The anger from many of the HIV- guys is to your questioning their judgement for protecting themselves. Their judgement, over their body, belongs to them and it is obnoxious, and "assholey", for someone to belittle or attempt to deny them their right to choose how to treat their own body. You recite numbers and studies that show that the risk is small. What you are really saying, though, is that your need for sexual pleasure outweighs your partner's health. Dumbfounding, and deserving of an angry response.

Anger from HIV+ readers, like me, is the silliness you convey in attempting to quantify the risk. The risk factor (whether its 1:132, as you suggest, or even 1:1000), is does not change the fact that HIV/ADIS is a difficult serious detrimental disease with medical conditions that invades every part of one's life. You generalize that POZ gays are more concerned with getting their rocks off, willing to tell the lies men tell to get sex, than being concerned about further exposing their disease. Well, that makes me angry to be so characterized. There is no one who I would want to have sex with that I would wish this disease on.

Assholes are assholes for being an asshole.

Author Profile Page Mike in Brooklyn User Profile | November 13, 2009 1:54 PM

Alright, I've been entirely silent in this conversation thus far both because (1.) my life is so busy I can barely keep up with READING the blog(s) and comment(s)...much less posting my own thoughts...and (2.) because, quite honestly, I've been hesitant to throw my hat into this ring.

However, I do want to step in here with just a thought...because I actually think that so many people who have read and responded to Trevor's original blog post have so personalized both his thoughts and their own that they ALSO have missed the point:

Certainly nobody, including Trevor I would imagine, is claiming that any person should not have the right to protect themselves sexually in any way they see fit. What I think a bigger part of the point here is, however, is exactly the MANNER in which these decisions are both MADE and COMMUNICATED----and whether the assumptions underlying a health model that presumes it is in negative men's "best interest" to just universally avoid positive men sexually aren't destructive and divisive....even when that mindset may seem very logical to many. And furthermore whether a mindset of 100% segregation by serostatus (which so many posters seem to support) doesn't undermine the very basic science and lived experience of 30 years of education and experience with safer sex, sexual positioning and risk reduction.

I'm not sure I can really add much, nor will I try, to persuade anyone in one direction or the other on this debate...and certainly many others who are, in my opinion, more articulate and well-versed than I have already done so.....but I do want to raise an issue on behalf another community of men who I have not seen raised in this conversation---and yet who are often victimized by the kind of rhetoric we are witnessing unfold here: negative men who DO choose to partner with men who are positive.

I am the positive half of a seven year sero-discordant relationship. My negative partner has also been reading these blogs and comments....and he has largely felt offended, marginalized, judged & saddened by the implied characterization as reckless, stupid, irresponsible and self-destructive of all negative men who are NOT willing to unilaterally disqualify all sex/relationship partners who might be anything other than negative.

At the core of this conversation, indeed stemming HIV infections is important...and every person has the right to navigate their own risk as they see fit...but, in my opinion, Trevor was and is 100% right to shine a light on the fact that the attitudes and behaviors that have been adopted by many queer men in the name of self-protection are, indeed, divisive, destructive, hurtful & stigmatizing.

Author Profile Page Erik L. User Profile | November 13, 2009 4:16 PM

Erik L, I disagree with you. There has not been a single "attitude" or "behavior" described that is intentionally divisive, destructive, hurtful or stigmatizing. Yes, some responses have been vitriolic, assuming HIV negative men who have sex with HIV postive men are barebacking, wreckless, "stupid", etc. But the focus of the article was on the choice to avoid positive men sexually. Trevor's language should be noted: he describes HIV negative men as "refusing" to have sex with HIV positive men, as opposed to "choosing not to". The term "refusing", you have to admit, has some weight to it, as if there is an underlying arrogance in the decision. He describes the tactics as "exclusionary", giving the choice a somewhat descriminatory quality.
The bottom line is, HIV positive men have a communicable condition that is, at the very least, difficult to manage and, at worse, life threatening. Some people who understand the logistics of infection feel comfortable with the choice to have sex with HIV positive men while using protection. Others feel the risk is too high. It is sad that the second choice feels hurtful, but I think you and Trevor are adding a value to that choice that isn't always there. A lot of these men who choose not to have sex with HIV positive guys do understand the logistics of transmission, they do understand the reliability of condoms, they do understand the range of non- and low-risk activities one can engage in. But they still chose not to. They are not being hurtful or devisive, they are not sticking their heads in the sand, they are making a choice that they are comfortable with. Most HIV advocates defend barebacking as a personal choice and urge people not to judge. Why are you so reluctant to do the same in this scenario?

Author Profile Page Mark S User Profile | November 17, 2009 12:11 PM

So when one of respondents to the queerty article made comments to the effect of "You poz guys need to realize your sex life is over" indicating that as poz men we have a public health duty to adhere to lifelong celibacy post-diagnosis (an attitude of which, unfortunately, I am sure he is not the sole represantitve)....that isn't divisive? stigmatizing? or hurtful?

I guess we'll have to agree to disagree on that one LOL

Author Profile Page Erik L. User Profile | November 17, 2009 9:08 PM

Erik, I was referring to your statement: "the attitudes and behaviors that have been adopted by many queer men in the name of self-protection are, indeed, divisive, destructive, hurtful & stigmatizing". This seems to me to be a reference to those men who choose not to have sex with HIV positive men. I was not referring to the respondents to the Queerty post. Many of those statements were, as you say, divisive, stigmatizing, hurtful, etc. And, of course, it is ridiculous to expect HIV positive men to adopt lifelong celibacy. But when an HIV negative man says "I won't have sex with you because you're HIV positive and, for me, it's not worth the risk" it's unfair to take that attitude as hurtful, stigmatizing and devisive. Rejection never feels good, but it's a matter of personal choice. If we were hooking up online and decided to meet face to face and you said to me "Sorry, but this isn't a match", I might be hurt. But I wouldn't assume being hurtful was your intent.

Author Profile Page Mark S User Profile | November 18, 2009 8:41 AM


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