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Casual Sex: Everyone Is Doing It

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Part research project, part society devoted to titillation, the Casual Sex Project reminds us that hookups aren’t just for college students.

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Zhana Vrangalova had hit a problem. On a blustery day in early spring, sitting in a small coffee shop near the campus of New York University, where she is an adjunct professor of psychology, she was unable to load onto her laptop the Web site that we had met to discuss. This was not a technical malfunction on her end; rather, the site had been blocked. Vrangalova, who is thirty-four, with a dynamic face framed by thick-rimmed glasses, has spent the past decade researching human sexuality, and, in particular, the kinds of sexual encounters that occur outside the norms of committed relationships. The Web site she started in 2014, casualsexproject.com, began as a small endeavor fuelled by personal referrals, but has since grown to approximately five thousand visitors a day, most of whom arrive at the site through organic Internet searches or referrals through articles and social media. To date, there have been some twenty-two hundred submissions, about evenly split between genders, each detailing the kinds of habits that, when spelled out, can occasionally alert Internet security filters. The Web site was designed to open up the discussion of one-night stands and other less-than-traditional sexual behaviors. What makes us engage in casual sex? Do we enjoy it? Does it benefit us in any way—or, perhaps, might it harm us? And who, exactly, is “us,” anyway?

Up to eighty per cent of college students report engaging in sexual acts outside committed relationships—a figure that is usually cast as the result of increasingly lax social mores, a proliferation of alcohol-fuelled parties, and a potentially violent frat culture. Critics see the high rates of casual sex as an “epidemic” of sorts that is taking over society as a whole. Hookup culture, we hear, is demeaning women and wreaking havoc on our ability to establish stable, fulfilling relationships.

These alarms have sounded before. Writing in 1957, the author Nora Johnson raised an eyebrow at promiscuity on college campuses, noting that “sleeping around is a risky business, emotionally, physically, and morally.” Since then, the critiques of casual sexual behavior have only proliferated, even as society has ostensibly become more socially liberal. Last year, the anthropologist Peter Wood went so far as to call the rise of casual sex “an assault on human nature,” arguing in an article in the conservative Weekly Standard that even the most meaningless-seeming sex comes with a problematic power imbalance.

Others have embraced the commonness of casual sex as a sign of social progress. In a widely read Atlantic article from 2012, “Boys on the Side,” Hanna Rosin urged women to avoid serious suitors so that they could focus on their own needs and careers. And yet, despite her apparent belief in the value of casual sex as a tool of exploration and feminist thinking, Rosin, too, seemed to conclude that casual sex cannot be a meaningful end goal. “Ultimately, the desire for a deeper human connection always wins out, for both men and women,” she wrote.

The Casual Sex Project was born of Vrangalova’s frustration with this and other prevalent narratives about casual sex. “One thing that was bothering me is the lack of diversity in discussions of casual sex,” Vrangalova told me in the café. “It’s always portrayed as something college students do. And it’s almost always seen in a negative light, as something that harms women.”

It was not the first time Vrangalova had wanted to broaden a limited conversation. As an undergraduate, in Macedonia, where she studied the psychology of sexuality, she was drawn to challenge cultural taboos, writing a senior thesis on the development of lesbian and gay sexual attitudes. In the late aughts, Vrangalova started her research on casual sex in Cornell’s developmental-psychology program. One study followed a group of six hundred and sixty-six freshmen over the course of a year, to see how engaging in various casual sexual activities affected markers of mental health: namely, depression, anxiety, life satisfaction, and self-esteem. Another looked at more than eight hundred undergraduates to see whether individuals who engaged in casual sex felt more victimized by others, or were more socially isolated. (The results: yes to the first, no to the second.) The studies were intriguing enough that Vrangalova was offered an appointment at N.Y.U., where she remains, to further explore some of the issues surrounding the effects of nontraditional sexual behaviors on the individuals who engage in them.

Over time, Vrangalova came to realize that there was a gap in her knowledge, and, indeed, in the field as a whole. Casual sex has been much explored in psychological literature, but most of the data captured by her research team—and most of the other experimental research she had encountered—had been taken from college students. (This is a common problem in psychological research: students are a convenient population for researchers.) There has been the occasional nationally representative survey, but rigorous data on other subsets of the population is sparse. Even the largest national study of sexual attitudes in the United States, which surveyed a nationally representative sample of close to six thousand men and women between the ages of fourteen and ninety-four, neglected to ask respondents how many of the encounters they engaged in could be deemed “casual.”

From its beginnings, sex research has been limited by a social stigma. The field’s pioneer, Alfred Kinsey, spent decades interviewing people about their sexual behaviors. His books sold, but he was widely criticized for not having an objective perspective: like Freud before him, he believed that repressed sexuality was at the root of much of social behavior, and he often came to judgments that supported that view—even when his conclusions were based on less-than-representative surveys. He, too, used convenient sample groups, such as prisoners, as well as volunteers, who were necessarily comfortable talking about their sexual practices.

In the fifties, William Masters and Virginia Johnson went further, inquiring openly into sexual habits and even observing people in the midst of sexual acts. Their data, too, was questioned: Could the sort of person who volunteers to have sex in a lab tell us anything about the average American? More troubling still, Masters and Johnson sought to “cure” homosexuality, revealing a bias that could easily have colored their findings.

Indeed, one of the things you quickly notice when looking for data on casual sex is that, for numbers on anyone who is not a college student, you must, for the most part, look at studies conducted outside academia. When OkCupid surveyed its user base, it found that between 10.3 and 15.5 per cent of users were looking for casual sex rather than a committed relationship. In the 2014 British Sex Survey, conducted by the Guardian, approximately half of all respondents reported that they had engaged in a one-night stand (fifty-five per cent of men, and forty-three per cent of women), with homosexuals (sixty-six per cent) more likely to do so than heterosexuals (forty-eight per cent). A fifth of people said they’d slept with someone whose name they didn’t know.

With the Casual Sex Project, Vrangalova is trying to build a user base of stories that she hopes will, one day, provide the raw data for academic study. For now, she is listening: letting people come to the site, answer questions, leave replies. Ritch Savin-Williams, who taught Vrangalova at Cornell, told me that he was especially impressed by Vrangalova’s willingness “to challenge traditional concepts and research designs with objective approaches that allow individuals to give honest, thoughtful responses.”

The result is what is perhaps the largest-ever repository of information about casual-sex habits in the world—not that it has many competitors. The people who share stories range from teens to retirees (Vrangalova’s oldest participants are in their seventies), and include city dwellers and suburbanites, graduate-level-educated professionals (about a quarter of the sample) and people who never finished high school (another quarter). The majority of participants aren’t particularly religious, although a little under a third do identify as at least “somewhat” religious. Most are white, though there are also blacks, Latinos, and other racial and ethnic groups. Initially, contributions were about sixty-per-cent female, but now they’re seventy-per-cent male. (This is in line with norms; men are “supposed” to brag more about sexual exploits than women.) Anyone can submit a story, along with personal details that reflect his or her demographics, emotions, personality traits, social attitudes, and behavioral patterns, such as alcohol intake. The setup for data collection is standardized, with drop-down menus and rating scales.

Still, the site is far from clinical. The home page is a colorful mosaic of squares, color-coded according to the category of sexual experience (blue: “one-night stand”; purple: “group sex”; gray: the mysterious-sounding “first of many”; and so on). Pull quotes are highlighted for each category (“Ladies if you haven’t had a hot, young Latino stud you should go get one!”). Many responses seem to boast, provoke, or exaggerate for rhetorical purposes. Reading it, I felt less a part of a research project than a member of a society devoted to titillation.

Vrangalova is the first to admit that the Casual Sex Project is not what you would call an objective, scientific approach to data collection. There is no random assignment, no controls, no experimental conditions; the data is not representative of the general population. The participants are self-selecting, which inevitably colors the results: if you’re taking the time to write, you are more likely to write about positive experiences. You are also more likely to have the sort of personality that comes with wanting to share details of your flings with the public. There is another problem with the Casual Sex Project that is endemic in much social-science research: absent external behavioral validation, how do we know that respondents are reporting the truth, rather than what they want us to hear or think we want them to say?

And yet, for all these flaws, the Casual Sex Project provides a fascinating window into the sexual habits of a particular swath of the population. It may not be enough to draw new conclusions, but it can lend nuance to assumptions, expanding, for instance, ideas about who engages in casual sex or how it makes them feel. As I browsed through the entries after my meeting with Vrangalova, I came upon the words of a man who learned something new about his own sexuality during a casual encounter in his seventies: “before this I always said no one can get me of on a bj alone, I was taught better,” he writes. As a reflection of the age and demographic groups represented, the Casual Sex Project undermines the popular narrative that casual sex is the product of changing mores among the young alone. If that were the case, we would expect there to be a reluctance to engage in casual sex among the older generations, which grew up in the pre-“hookup culture” era. Such reluctance is not evident.

The reminder that people of all ages engage in casual sex might lead us to imagine three possible narratives. First, that perhaps what we see as the rise of a culture of hooking up isn’t actually new. When norms related to dating and free love shifted, in the sixties, they never fully shifted back. Seventy-year-olds are engaging in casual encounters because that attitude is part of their culture, too.

There’s another, nearly opposite explanation: casual sex isn’t the norm now, and wasn’t before. There are simply always individuals, in any generation, who seek sexual satisfaction in nontraditional confines.

And then there’s the third option, the one that is most consistent with the narrative that our culture of casual sex begins with college hookups: that people are casually hooking up for different reasons. Some young people have casual sex because they feel they can’t afford not to, or because they are surrounded by a culture that says they should want to. (Vrangalova’s preliminary analysis of the data on her site suggests that alcohol is much more likely to be involved in the casual-sex experiences of the young than the old.)  And the old—well, the old no longer care what society thinks. For some, this sense of ease might come in their thirties; for others, their forties or fifties; for others, never, or not entirely.

This last theory relates to another of Vrangalova’s findings—one that, she confesses, came as a surprise when she first encountered it. Not all of the casual-sex experiences recorded on the site were positive, even among what is surely a heavily biased sample. Women and younger participants are especially likely to report feelings of shame. (“I was on top of him at one point and he can’t have forced me to so I must have consented . . . I’m not sure,” an eighteen-year-old writes, reporting that the hookup was unsatisfying, and describing feeling “stressed, anxious, guilt and disgust” the day after.) There is an entire thread tagged “no orgasm,” which includes other occasionally disturbing and emotional tales. “My view has gotten a lot more balanced over time,” Vrangalova said. “I come from a very sex-positive perspective, surrounded by people who really benefitted from sexual exploration and experiences, for the most part. By studying it, I’ve learned to see both sides of the coin.

Part of the negativity, to be sure, does originate in legitimate causes: casual sex increases the risk of pregnancy, disease, and, more often than in a committed relationship, physical coercion. But many negative casual-sex experiences come instead from a sense of social convention. “We’ve seen that both genders felt they were discriminated against because of sex,” Vrangalova told me. Men often feel judged by other men if they don’t have casual sex, and social expectations can detract from the experiences they do have, while women feel judged for engaging in casual experiences, rendering those they pursue less pleasurable.

Perhaps this should come as no surprise: the very fact that Vrangalova and others are seeking explanations for casual-sex behaviors suggests that our society views it as worthy of note—something aberrant, rather than ordinary. No one writes about why people feel the need to drink water or go to the bathroom, why eating dinner with friends is “a thing” or study groups are “on the rise.”

It is that sense of shame, ultimately, that Vrangalova hopes her project may help to address. As one respondent to a survey Vrangalova sent to users put it, “This has helped me feel okay about myself for wanting casual sex, and not feel ashamed or that what I do is wrong.” The psychologist James Pennebaker has found over several decades of work that writing about emotional experiences can act as an effective form of therapy, in a way that talking about those experiences may not. (I’m less convinced that there are benefits for those who use the site as a way to boast about their own experiences.) “Often there’s no outlet for that unless you’re starting your own blog,” Vrangalova points out. “I wanted to offer a space for people to share.”

That may well end up the Casual Sex Project’s real contribution: not to tell us something we didn’t already know, or at least suspect, but to make such nonjudgmental, intimate conversations possible. The dirty little secret of casual sex today is not that we’re having it but that we’re not sharing our experiences of it in the best way.

Complete Article HERE!

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The New Hanky Code Is an Actual Thing. Do You Know It Yet?

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The hanky code (aka. “flagging”) was a ‘60s and ‘70s era way for gay men and BDSM fetishists to covertly signal their sexual interests in an age when seeking and having gay sex could get you arrested, beaten up or fired (it can still get you fired, by the way). Though it has largely fallen out of disuse, several queer artists have created new hanky codes in new and interesting ways.

What was the old hanky code?

Different colored handkerchiefs signified what sex acts you wanted (red for fisting and yellow for water sports, for example) and the pocket position indicated whether you were a dominant/top (left pocket) or submissive/bottom (right pocket).

Here’s a simple hanky code color chart:

The old (simplified) hanky code chart

As the hanky code became better known, marketers began creating meanings for every bandana color imaginable (dark pink for tit torture and leopard print for tattoo lovers, for example), but it’s likely that few people actually knew the entire spectrum because — as you’ll see in the chart below — who could possibly remember all 65 variations or tell the difference between orange and coral in a dark bar?

The waaaaay over-complicated hanky code

What is “the new hanky code”?

In our modern age of legalized gay sex and social apps, the hanky code has become more of a fashionable conversation starter at leather bars rather than an active way to solicit sex. Nevertheless, around 2014, a queer Los Angeles art collective called Die Kränken (The Havoc) began discussing what a new hanky code might look like.

Incorporating the sexual inclinations and gender identities of their members, Die Kränken designed 12 new hankies and created an exhibition entitled, “The New Rules of Flagging.” Their new hankies included ones for polyamory, outdoor sex, the app generation, womyn power, Truvada warriors and “original plumbing” (which was either a reference to the transgender male magazine or to urine and bathroom sex).

You should see all 12, but here’s some of our favorites:

Bossy bottom

Queens

Queer Punk

In addition to displaying the hankies, Die Kränken gave surveyed and interviewed attendees to figure out what hanky best fit them. He then invited the attendees to perform a short, pre-choreographed dance demonstrating the spirit of each hanky. The Truvada warrior’s dance, for instance, had people mimic a scorpion crawling up their arm before confidently brushing it off and flinging invisible pills into the air.

We asked Jonesy and Jaime C. Knight, two members of Die Kränken, why their hankies were so much more explicitly designed than the in-the-know ’70s era hanky code. They more or less responded, “Because we wanted to design something cool.” Their handkerchiefs aren’t for sale, sadly.

“The New Hanky Code” is also a hilarious stand-up routine….

In his 2014 stand-up routine, gay comedian Justin Sayre, plays the Chairman of the International Order of Sodomites who announces, “The board is thrilled to announce that we will be bringing back the hanky code, but this time, it’s to talk about your damage.”

“Long have these issues laid in the shadows of a second date,” Sayre says, “but no more. We’d like to put it out there.”

In Sayre’s new hanky code, wearing a handkerchief in your right pocket means that you self-identifying as having a particular issue whereas the left pocket means you’ve only been called out on it, “so it becomes a playful game amongst friends.”


 
According to Sayre, white hankies now signify racists, gray equals boring, yellow is for commitment-phobes, baby blue means you have mother issues, pink stands for ingrained homophobia (i.e. “masc-seekers”), mustard means you drink too much, magenta is poor personal hygiene and so on for conspiracy theorists, those who don’t like The Golden Girls and others.

In Sayre’s version, people can make up their own personal hankies (like charcoal for workaholic and eggshell for undiagnosed) and also assign hankies to one another. “We ask you all to be kind when assigning colors to other people,” he concludes. “because remember: You’ll be wearing them too.”

… and there’s also a Hanky Code film for queer fetish fans too.

Hanky Code is also the name of a 2015 queer indie film made up of 25 shorts from different international queer directors that each explore a different color and fetish from the hanky code. It’s quite artistic, avant-garde and even a little graphic (the segment on piercing almost made our squeamish editor pass out), but it’s a fine piece of film that re-interprets the decades-old hanky code for a new age.


 
Complete Article HERE!

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It’s time to end the taboo of sex and intimacy in care homes

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Imagine living in an aged care home. Now imagine your needs for touch and intimacy being overlooked. More than 500,000 individuals aged 65+ (double the population of Cardiff) live in care homes in Britain. Many could be missing out on needs and rights concerning intimacy and sexual activity because they appear to be “designed out” of policy and practice. The situation can be doubly complicated for lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans individuals who can feel obliged to go “back into the closet” and hide their identity when they enter care.

Little is known about intimacy and sexuality in this sub-sector of care. Residents are often assumed to be prudish and “past it”. Yet neglecting such needs can affect self-esteem and mental health.

A study by a research team for Older People’s Understandings of Sexuality (OPUS), based in Northwest England, involved residents, non-resident female spouses of residents with a dementia and 16 care staff. The study found individuals’ accounts more diverse and complicated than stereotypes of older people as asexual. Some study participants denied their sexuality. Others expressed nostalgia for something they considered as belonging in the past. Yet others still expressed an openness to sex and intimacy given the right conditions.

Insights

The most common story among study participants reflected the idea that older residents have moved past a life that features or is deserving of sex and intimacy. One male resident, aged 79, declared: “Nobody talks about it”. However, an 80-year-old female resident considered that some women residents might wish to continue sexual activity with the right person.

For spouses, cuddling and affection figured as basic human needs and could eclipse needs for sex. One spouse spoke about the importance of touch and holding hands to remind her partner that he was still loved and valued. Such gestures were vital in sustaining a relationship with a partner who had changed because of a dementia.

Care staff underlined the need for training to help them to assist residents meet their sexual and intimacy needs. Staff highlighted grey areas of consent within long-term relationships where one or both partners showed declining capacity. They also spoke about how expressions of sexuality posed ethical and legal dilemmas. For example, individuals affected by a dementia can project feelings towards another or receive such attention inappropriately. The challenge was to balance safeguarding welfare with individual needs and desires.

Some problems were literally built into care home environments and delivery of care. Most care homes consist of single rooms and provide few opportunities for people to sit together. A “no locked door” policy in one home caused one spouse to describe the situation as, “like living in a goldfish bowl”.

But not all accounts were problematic. Care staff wished to support the expression of sex, sexuality and intimacy needs but felt constrained by the need to safeguard. One manager described how their home managed this issue by placing curtains behind the frosted glass window in one room. This enabled a couple to enjoy each other’s company with privacy. Such simple changes suggest a more measured approach to safeguarding (not driven by anxiety over residents’ sexuality), which could ensure the privacy needed for intimacy.

Conclusions

Our study revealed a lack of awareness by staff of the need to meet sexuality and intimacy needs. Service providers need guidance on such needs and should provide it to staff. The information is out there and they can get the advice they need from the Care Quality Commission, Independent Longevity Centre, Local Government Association and the Royal College of Nursing.

Policies and practices should recognise resident diversity and avoid treating everyone the same. This approach risks reinforcing inequality and doesn’t meet the range of needs of very different residents. The views of black, working-class and LGBT individuals are commonly absent from research on ageing sexuality and service provision. One care worker spoke of how her home’s sexuality policy (a rare occurrence anyway) was effectively a “heterosexuality policy”. It may be harder for an older, working-class, black, female or trans-identified individual to express their sexuality needs compared to an older white, middle-class, heterosexual male.

Care homes need to provide awareness-raising events for staff and service users on this topic. These events should address stereotyping and ways of achieving a balance between enabling choices, desires, rights and safeguarding. There is also a need for nationally recognised training resources on these issues.

Older people should not be denied basic human rights. This policy vacuum could be so easily addressed over time and with appropriate training. What we need now is a bigger conversation about sex and intimacy in later life and what we can do to help bring about some simple changes in the care home system.

Complete Article HERE!

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Undoing the STIgma: Normalizing the discourse surrounding STIs

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April is STD/STI Awareness Month.

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Let’s talk about sex. It’s fun, it’s natural.

Now, considering that April is STD/STI Awareness Month, let’s take it one step further and talk about sexually transmitted diseases and infections, or STDs/STIs.

They’re not so fun and not “natural,” per se, but they can and do happen to many people. In fact, according to the American Sexual Health Association, or ASHA, “one in two sexually active persons will contract an STD/STI by age 25” and “more than half of all people will have an STD/STI at some point in their lifetime.”

Yet for the most part, society hasn’t entirely accepted the reality of STIs. Instead, mainstream conversations about STIs rely on seeing them as punchline. This quote from “The Hangover” is a good example: “Remember what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Except for herpes. That shit’ll come back with you.”

If STIs aren’t portrayed as comical, then they’re seen as shameful.

“Some people believe that having an STI is horrible and people who have them are bad,” explained John Baldwin, UC Santa Barbara sociology professor and co-author of “Discovering Human Sexuality.”

In other words, there is a stigma associated with STIs.

“It’s not a death sentence.”

– Reyna Perez

Reyna Perez, the clinic lead for UC Berkeley’s Sexual Health Education Program, or SHEP, defined STI stigma as “shame with oneself (about) having an STI or amongst other people.”

“(They think) they’re ‘dirty’ or (use similarly) negative terms,” Perez said.

She went on to explain that campus students often think contracting an STI is the end of their sex lives and lives in general. But this is not true.

“It’s not a death sentence,” Perez said. “Most of them are curable or at least treatable.”

Despite the prevalence of STIs, people don’t know much about them. This lack of understanding reinforces the misconceptions surrounding them.

To help resolve this issue of ignorance, Baldwin first shed light on the difference between STDs and STIs.

“STD is the common language that a lot of people use and (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the CDC) uses because it communicates with large numbers of people, but medical doctors sometimes like to use ‘STI,’ ” Baldwin explained.

According to Baldwin, the term “STI” is more inclusive because it also considers people who don’t have symptoms but are infected and could infect others.

It’s true: People can be asymptomatic and transmit STIs to their partners.

“Large numbers of Americans have HIV and no symptoms and have sex with lots of others and infect others,” Baldwin said.

Additionally, sexual intercourse isn’t the only method by which STIs can be transmitted, a fact that more people should be aware of. There are many ways in which STIs can be spread, but they often go unnoticed.

According to Perez, “(People) don’t realize how you can contract them and there’s a gap in knowledge.”

Perez said STIs can be transmitted through oral sex or, in rare instances, fingering, which many people are unaware of. She also pointed out that HIV can be spread through non-sexual bodily fluids such as blood and breastmilk.

STIs can also be transmitted by something as simple as skin contact — Elizabeth Wells, lead and co-facilitator of the Sex 101 DeCal, said genital warts and herpes can be spread this way.

Even when it comes to sexual intercourse, the way by which most people believe STIs are spread, people don’t always take preventative measures.

“It’s not like everyone is consistently using condoms or barrier methods,” Perez said.

Another notable fact is that some STIs aren’t even viewed as STIs at all. For instance, cold sores on the mouth region are a form of herpes.

“They don’t realize it until someone brings it up to them,” Perez said. “Once you attach the title of ‘STI,’ suddenly it becomes something to be ashamed of. But it shouldn’t be that way.”

When the facts are laid out like this, it becomes apparent that there’s no reason to make STIs something to feel ashamed about. Many people contract them at some point, and although there are preventative measures such as condoms and other barrier methods, there are many possible avenues through which people can get them.

“Shit happens,” Wells said. “Who are we as individuals and society and people who are sex positive to vilify people that made decisions in the heat of the moment, or it just happens (that) the condom breaks?”

Yet the stigma surrounding STIs persists, largely because of the long societal tradition of suppressing discussions surrounding sex as a whole.

Baldwin expressed his belief that the stigma stems from the Judeo-Christian tradition. Judeo-Christian culture has been a prominent force that has shaped society’s views for hundreds of years. It frowns upon sexual activity, and looking down on STIs — perceived to be spread through sexual means alone — is part and parcel of that general disapproval.

“Society doesn’t evolve very fast in terms of thinking that I think you still see that mindset permeating today,” Wells said. “(STI stigma) is rooted in this idea that we’re not going to be talking about sex.”

Delving even deeper into the issue of STI stigma shows that it is further problematic because it is linked to racism.

According to a 2015 report by the CDC, STIs are more prevalent among certain racial or ethnic minorities than they are among white people. Being part of a racial or ethnic minority group also entails a plethora of issues that make it generally more difficult to find and receive appropriate sexual health services.

“It’s largely an issue of access, and you’re seeing a lack of comprehensive sexual education in those areas,” Wells said.

To vilify someone for getting an STI when they don’t even have the resources to know how to prevent them is to vilify them for not having access to sexual health resources. It is to vilify them for structural inequalities in access to education — inequalities which they did not ask for and cannot control.

“Being part of a racial or ethnic minority group also entails a plethora of issues that make it generally more difficult to find and receive appropriate sexual health services.”

Not only is it problematic to treat STIs as a taboo subject when this attitude stems from sexually repressive and prejudiced notions, but STI stigma also is harmful because it inhibits people from seeking medical treatment.

“If someone has an STI, we shouldn’t stigmatize them,” Baldwin explained. “We should try to help them get the best medicine and treatment.”

STI stigma also causes “intense emotional distress,” according to Perez.

“It’s so difficult to start support groups at the Tang Center because there’s stigma,” Perez said.

Considering all these facts and issues, the obvious final question is, “How do we get rid of the stigma surrounding STIs?”

One key component is awareness.

Awareness that people with STIs can and do lead normal lives helps. Modern science has allowed for medication that can either cure or treat STIs.

“It’s a world changer,” Perez said.

When engaging in sexual activity during an outbreak, there is also world of possibilities.

“There are creative ways to have sex while having an outbreak,” Perez explained.

She expanded upon this statement to say that, for instance, partners could use strap-on dildos when the involved parties are having a herpes recurrence.

“I believe that we are moving away from the preceding era of ignorance and successfully moving to have more scientific knowledge of STIs and their treatment so that more people are, in fact, getting good care,” Baldwin said. “Our society is moving in the right direction.”

“The need for action if you are diagnosed with an STI is further reason to destigmatize STIs –– so people can recognize the symptoms and be unafraid to seek help.”

To promote awareness, according to Perez, the Tang Center and SHEP offer programs for people who are curious to find out more about STIs as well as for people who have already been diagnosed with an STI who desire health coaching and/or emotional and mental support.

Awareness includes being conscious of preventative measures.

“Just being aware of sexual health resources (is) also really important,” Wells said. “A lot of people don’t know about it because it’s not talked about, because sex isn’t talked about.”

Wells explained that, for instance, people can take pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, before having sex with someone who has HIV or AIDS. This will lower the chance that the partner without HIV/AIDS will also get the infection. Similarly, taking post-exposure prophylaxis, or PEP, after sex with someone who has HIV/AIDS will help prevent transmission of the disease.

Although STIs aren’t the end of the world, if left undiagnosed or untreated, they can become serious health risks. The need for action if you are diagnosed with an STI is further reason to destigmatize STIs –– so people can recognize the symptoms and be unafraid to seek help.

According to Wells, on the last Friday of every month, the Tang Center offers free STI tests that take approximately 20 minutes. She clarified that there is, however, a six-month period after the initial infection in which the tests might not detect its presence.

Another key factor to destigmatizing STIs is simply talking about them. To emphasize this point, Wells quoted a SHEP saying: “Communication is lubrication.”

In other words, people need to start talking about STIs so that it will become acceptable to talk about them as well as to prevent them.

“It shouldn’t be uncomfortable for people because the way I see it, it’s mutual respect within relationships,” Perez explained. “I’m respecting my partner and getting myself tested and taking preventative measures, and my partner should respect me back by also being open to talking about STIs and … getting tested and (taking) those preventative measures as well.”

The way in which the discussion around STIs is being framed is also something to consider. For instance, discerning between STDs and STIs is important. Likewise, it’s crucial not to define people by their STIs.

“We don’t even like to use the word ‘HIV-positive,’ ” Perez said. “We like to use the phrase ‘a person living with HIV’ because they’re a person first before their STI.”

Awareness and communication aimed at undoing the stigma around STIs are imperative for the sake of public health but also for the sake of true sex positivity.

Complete Article HERE!

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10 Things You Always Wanted to Ask an HIV-Positive Guy

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I’m a gym homo. I love Neapolitan pizza. I hate scary movies. I have six tattoos. I take cock like a champ. And, I’m HIV-positive.

After living with HIV for four years, I’ve heard the same questions over and over. Sometimes I wish I could present quick, pre-packaged answers — a list of “saved phrases” on my phone — but then I remind myself how desperately I asked questions during that first impossible week after getting my test results.

So today, I’m answering the questions that everyone secretly wants to ask an HIV-positive guy. What would you like to know?

1. Do you know who infected you?

I don’t. Most HIV-positive guys I’ve talked to do not know who infected them.

Few people intend to give someone HIV. There are random crazies, but most guys are just doing what I was doing — fucking around, having fun, and assuming everything is fine. You can give someone HIV without knowing you’re positive.

The virus has to “build up” to a certain point in your body to trigger an HIV test, which means you can test negative and still have transmittable HIV.

There’s an ugly myth that HIV-positive folks recreationally go around infecting others. That’s a lie regurgitated by fearmongering, anti-fact, sex-negative, poz-phobic people. It’s likely that the man who gave it to me did not know he had it. I feel for him, whoever he is, because at some point after playing with me, he got news that no one is ready to hear.

I do not, but don’t take that as an indicator of what most HIV-positive guys do. Many HIV-positive men become more diligent about condom use after seroconverting.

In the age of PrEP, condoms are no longer the only way to protect yourself (or others) from HIV — or the most effective. PrEP — a once-a-day, single-pill regimen that has been proven more effective than regular condom use at preventing HIV transmission — is something I urge all HIV-negative guys to learn about.

I play bare. I accept the risks of catching other STIs and STDs as an unavoidable part of the sex I enjoy. I get a full-range STD check every three months, and sometimes more frequently.

3. How did sex change for you after becoming positive?

Since seroconverting, I have more — and better — sex. Forced to see my body and my sex in a new light, I started exploring fetishes and interests I had never tried. In my early days of being positive, I played every week with a dominant. Today, I’m a skilled, kinky motherfucker.

4. Has anyone ever turned you down because of your status?

Many times. When I was newly positive, those refusals really hurt.

I remember one occasion that was especially painful. I was eating Chinese food with a friend and started crying at the table because several guys that week had turned me down on Grindr.

He let me cry for a few minutes, then said, “HIV is something in your blood. That’s all it is. If they can’t see how sexy you are because of something in your blood, they’re boring, uneducated, and undeserving, and you can do better.” He was right.

5. How old were you when you tested positive?

I was 21. I didn’t eat for a few days. I slept on friends’ sofas and watched movies instead of doing homework. Somehow I continued acing my college classes.

I walked down to the Savannah River every night to watch cargo ships roll through, imagining their exotic ports — Beijing, Mumbai, Singapore, New York — and their cold passage across the Atlantic. I wanted to jump in the black water every night but I knew some drunk tourist would start screaming and someone would save me.

I made it through those months, and I’m glad I did. The best of my life came after becoming positive.

6. What does “undetectable” mean?

“Undetectable” is a term used to describe an HIV-positive person who is diligently taking their meds. In doing so, they suppressed the virus in their body to the point that their viral load is under 200 copies/m — unable to be detected on a standard HIV test (hence, “undetectable”). Put simply: the virus is so low in your body that it’s hard to transmit.

“Hard” is an understatement. The PARTNER study monitored 767 serodiscordant (one positive, one negative) couples, gay and straight, over several years. In 2014, the results showed zero HIV transmissions from an HIV-positive partner with an undetectable viral load to an HIV-negative partner.

Being undetectable means the likelihood of you transmitting HIV is slim to none. It means you’re doing everything scientifically possible to be as healthy as you can be, and you are protecting your partners in the process.

7. Have you had any side effects from the meds?

Yes, but side effects today are mild in comparison to what they were in the past. AZT was hard on the body, but we’re past that. New HIV drugs come out every year. We’re in a medical age where new treatment options, such as body-safe injection regimens, are fastly approaching realities.

On my first medication, I had very vivid dreams and nightmares, an upset stomach for a week or two, and I developed weird fat deposits on my neck and shoulders. I switched meds a year in and couldn’t be happier.

There are options. Talk to your doctor if you have shitty side effects and ask about getting on a different medication.

8. What’s it like to date after becoming HIV-positive?

It’s just like dating for everyone else. There are losers and jerks, and there are excellent, top-quality guys I love. My HIV status has never impeded my dating life.

I’m non-monogamous, polyamorous, and kinky, and I think these characteristics drive away interested guys faster than anything else. My status never comes up. I put my status loud and clear on every profile, and I say it directly before the first date. If you don’t like it, don’t waste my time — I have other men to meet.

9. How do you respond to HIV stigma?

It’s an automatic turn-off. Disinterested. Discard pile.

I have active Grindr and Scruff profiles (and a few others). Each profile reads: “If you’re afraid of my HIV status, block me.”

I’m not interested in someone who, in 2017, walks around terrified of HIV. Learn your shit, guys. Learn about how HIV is prevented. Get on PrEP. Use condoms.

Educate yourself and learn how it’s treated, and what the reality of living with HIV is like today (it’s so mild and easy that I forget about it, TBH).

Yes, you should take necessary steps to prevent HIV. However, you don’t need to live your life in fear or abstain from having sex with people merely because they’re positive. I no longer believe HIV is the worst thing you can catch. Hep C is way worse. Scabies is pretty miserable. And bad strains of the flu kill people.

HIV? It’s one pill (or a couple of pills) a day. Yes, you will have it forever. Yes, you will face stigma for having it. But, the people who stigmatize you are ignorant and out-of-date. Dismiss them.

10. What would you tell someone who just tested positive?

Welcome! You inadvertently joined a club you didn’t ask for, but the membership includes some of the greatest minds in history, so you’re in good company. The virus felled many of the greatest campaigners for LGBTQ rights and freedoms that ever lived. They struggled so that you can get up in the morning, pop your pill, and live a long life.

Those who lived and died paid your initiation fees. They fought, protested, rallied and organized so that you can be here — so that you can stick around and enjoy your fabulous, queer life. Always respect their sacrifice and dedication.

You are loved. You will find love. You will find impossibly good-looking men who want to fuck you (or want you to fuck them) who don’t give a shit about your HIV status. And if it’s in the cards, someday you’ll marry one of those fellas.

You have brothers and sisters who share this quality with you. In the words of Sister Sledge, we are family.

Complete Article HERE!

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