HIV with Reckless Abandon
When we first heard from Ricky Jess, our jaws just about hit the floor. It wasn’t just the details of his story, but the way in which he wrote it. His days of unprotected sex with hundreds of men, whether infected with HIV or not, are over. His euphoric experiences of smoking crystal meth with his sexual partners have come to an end. Yet, when we read Ricky’s story of his life experience in Toronto’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” bare backing sex scene, we could sense the visceral nature with which he wrote each word, describing the pleasure derived from smoking sweet crystal before the raw penetration with whomever he shared the pipe. It was as if as he typed each word, he was reliving the experience. He wrote in the present tense, instead of the past. The feeling of raw sex; he loves it. Getting lost in a haze of drugs beforehand; it feels so, so good. Even though it is behind him, he carries it with him. The intensity of his experiences denies him the ability to put the euphoria of those sensations behind him. As he remembers those experiences, he becomes them.
Ricky Jess is an HIV positive gay male. He is sweet and kind and incredibly optimistic. Ricky has had unprotected sex with hundreds of men, many of which he met through online social networks specifically for men who are HIV positive in Toronto. The way Ricky described this to us was that anyone who is having unprotected sex in the gay community is either HIV positive, or doesn’t care if they become infected. As I’m sure by this point you’ve become confused and uncomfortable, don’t worry, we’re right there with you. As the details of this community unraveled into something sounding more like a dark scene from Requiem For A Dream, our eyes widened and the confusion thickened. How could a community like this exist? Are there really people out there who are putting their lives at risk for temporary satisfaction of raw, unprotected sex, otherwise known as bare backing? Could it be true that everyone participating in this sexual and drug induced sub-culture assumes the person they’re about to sleep with is HIV positive, and they either don’t care or also carry the infection? What about young gay males who haven’t had the opportunity to express their sexuality and find themselves exploring a website with a seemingly infinite amount of guys willing to show up to their apartment on a moments notice to have sex? There is so much about what we’re hearing that rubs us the wrong way that we don’t entirely know how to react. It simply can’t be fact that everyone is in the loop, that everyone knows the extent of the risk. HIV is an infectious disease that kills what are called CD4 T cells. To make a very complicated thing overly simple, it weakens your immune system, which makes your body susceptible to all sorts of different illnesses that would otherwise be defeated by a healthy immune system. HIV can be controlled with prescribed medication, almost to the point where the infection is all but gone. However, if the HIV viral load in an infected person grows to a certain point, it becomes impossible for the body to recreate enough CD4 T cells for the immune system to ever properly recover. That is when HIV becomes AIDS.
Jeremie, Brian and I are facilitators. We strive to facilitate story telling and to provide a platform through which people can share their experiences of being sick, and how that sickness came to be. While we talk with our guests, the last thing on our minds is to pass judgment on them. They sit down at the microphone willingly and voluntarily. We have a responsibility to provide them with a space in which they feel comfortable divulging details and experiences that have brought laughter, tears, pain and mental hardship. This responsibility was truly put to the test when we sat down with Ricky. As the days went by since our conversation with Ricky, we struggled with how we handled it. We wondered if we should share this episode with our listeners. We came to the same conclusion as we do with all of our episodes. This is a conversation that needs to be had. This is a subject that needs the blinds to be ripped open so the light can shine in. If we don’t have this conversation, who will?