AIDS Day 2011: HIV and Dating in the Digital Age
The web has revolutionized the ways gay people connect, from socializing to dating to hooking up. And for the HIV-positive community, it's presented new ways to deal with the hurdle of status disclosure.
On many dating websites, users can check "positive," "negative," "don't know," or "ask me" boxes on their profiles. There are even dating websites exclusively for the HIV-positive community. However, for all the solutions the net has to offer, there are challenges, and stigma has taken digital form.
"I disclose first thing just to get it out of the way," says Carlos Hernandez. The 40-year-old Angeleno recently re-entered the dating world and is trying online dating for the first time.
When and how to disclose is a big topic at the HIV-positive men's support group he runs at the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center. The process can go over smoothly for some, but for others, it can be a deal breaker or lead to accusations of mistrust.
"I think the longer you wait, the more dramatic the situation can become," Hernandez said. "But some guys choose to disclose after they decide whether it's something they want to pursue. They figure as long as they've had protected sex, they don't have to disclose."
"Must be Disease-Free"
Like many positive men seeking love online, Hernandez has run into some deterring language on the profiles of potential dates. On many sites, especially those geared toward hookups, it's not uncommon to find users who are interested only in "clean" or "drug and disease-free" partners.
"I hate it. I think it's a little rude and hurtful," he said.
What's more, "clean" isn't exactly as clear or direct as asking about HIV status. In addition, people could be more likely purposefully to lie about their status.
"If you're an HIV-positive person and you come across this kind of stuff, you're like 'Okay, fine.' But because you're constantly seeing these terms, over time you start to think, 'I'm diseased. I'm dirty,'" said Camilo Arenivar. "It starts to take a toll on your self-esteem."
Arenivar is a founding member of the Los Angeles-based POZ Power Coalition, part of The Wall-Las Memorias Project, which works to combat HIV stigma. After several members reported running into deterring language online, the group decided to hold a workshop on dating after diagnosis.
Running into "disease-free only" rejection cannot only affect self-esteem, Arenivar says, but also dramatically narrows the dating market.
"It feels like you already have to mark these people off because basically they're basically saying, 'What I want is not you,'" he said. "So much progress has been made for people living with HIV with medications and things like that, but it's still pretty traumatizing in the dating world."
But "D&D free" posts are more a reflection on the poster, says Altadena-based therapist Greg Gearn, who sees many HIV-positive clients.
"I hear a lot about that and what I say to clients and patients is to not take it personally," he said. "It tells you much more about the person who wrote that profile, about how they would fit into your life and what they know about HIV, which tells you they're probably not a good match."
Kiss and Tell vs. Tell and Kiss
Disclosure is often broken down into two methods: "tell and kiss," where the positive person discloses his status immediately, or "kiss and tell," when status isn't disclosed until a few dates in -- or after sex.
But Gearn says it can more accurately be broken down as "Do you want to have a relationship?" or "Are we going to have a hookup?"
"From my perspective as a therapist, I think the most important question if you're having difficulty disclosing your HIV status with a person is you need to look at why you're having sex with this person."
And even if users are willing to share their status online, there's still the issue of whether or not they are being truthful or if they are aware if their status has changed.
"Some guys are still saying they're negative, but haven't been tested in over a year!" Hernandez said.
Daters should also consider the possibility that people who state they are negative may have since had an encounter that turned them positive. Others might simply be dishonest.
"Unfortunately that's how a lot of people become positive," Gearn said. "They're dealing with people who are not being honest. Some don't know, but some just don't care. They hook up and they're never going to see you again."
Donald Johnson, creator of PozMatch.com, the first HIV dating website, says sites like his solve some of the anxieties surrounding disclosure and transmission.
When he created what was originally LivingPositive.com in 1998, there were only a handful of AOL groups where HIV-positive people could connect. Today, there are dozens of dating websites just for people with HIV or STIs. There's even HIV speed dating.
"Even if you practice safe sex, there's always a risk and that's always in the back of your mind," Johnson said. "So by dating within the HIV community, it takes away that stress and it makes it easier to have as much of a normal life as possible."
Dating within the positive community can help people feel less isolated and prevent them from running into some of the stigma and rejection seen on other dating websites.
"When you're looking for a connection, an HIV dating site is where you need to be," Johnson said. "You're going to find peers that understand, you're not going to have that fear of rejection, and you're being socially responsible."
But HIV specific sites don't necessarily help people navigate the real world, Gearn says.
"If you find someone, great, but it doesn't help people negotiate that chance encounter," he added.
As technology and HIV treatment advance, so does the dating world. Daters can now download apps to their smart phones and on some websites, designate their HIV status as "undetectable"; meaning their virus is undetectable in their blood.
But stigma and public perception have yet to make significant strides. In the meantime, groups like the POZ Power Coalition are finding ways to breakdown stigma.
"It creates a second closet for gay people," Arenivar said. "There's not a clear-cut answer, but we think education, awareness, and visibility are areas that we can start with."