Neg UB2 and HIV Phobia in the Age of AppsBy Jamie Forrest | Jun 6 2017
I’m an HIV negative (as of my last test on March 1, 2017) gay guy in my 30s and I enjoy sex with poz guys. It’s not that I only like sex with poz guys, it’s that I don’t think HIV status is a very good reason to screen out potentially great sex partners. But on dating sites and hook up apps, this kind of HIV phobia is very real in user profiles everywhere in the world where I’ve logged on. And if having sex only with guys who tell you they are HIV negative is your primary strategy to keep yourself negative, I’d like to tell you that it’s not a very good one and it only serves to reinforce decades of fear and misinformation that further marginalizes members of our communities. Let me explain.
While writing this, I logged onto Grindr and counted the number of profiles that had some stigmatizing language of the following variations: “prefer white”, “masc only”, or “Neg UB2”. Of the 100 tiles on the screen, about 15 had some form of these phrases in their profiles. And I live in a gay bubble of a major Canadian city! Of course these profiles almost always include a line like, “sorry, just a preference”, as if this makes it somehow more polite or their stigmatizing language more palpable. The good news is that many people are thinking and writing about these manifestations of racism and misogyny in the age of hook up apps, including this great piece. But as a guy who uses Grindr, who has sex with poz guys, and who studies public health, I want to chat about HIV phobia in the age of hook up apps and ask the question: Why are gay men still exclusively seeking HIV negative guys in 2017 and why do they feel the need to explicitly state this in their profiles?
First, we must acknowledge the long strides we’ve made in changing people’s attitudes towards people living with HIV. Advancements in science and the efforts of amazing folks at community-based organizations have resulted in a remarkable attitudinal shift that has reduced stigma and discrimination experienced by people living with HIV. But in Canada, rates of new HIV infections among gay men have declined very little or remained the same for the last decade, in many settings, condom use is decreasing, and deep-rooted fears of HIV and those living with HIV still exist in our communities.
To reduce their risk of acquiring HIV, many gay men, myself included at times, choose to adopt various strategies when having sex without a condom. This includes not having anal sex, but also includes other strategies to reduce the risk of condomless sex, such as choosing only to top with partners whose HIV status you don’t know, or specifically seeking other partners who are also HIV negative. Neither are perfect strategies, but only having sex with partners who tell you they are HIV negative as a strategy to stay HIV negative is not a good strategy and it’s why hook up app lingo like Neg UB2 isn’t cute either.
Research shows that guys who meet each other online are more likely to have anal sex without a condom when compared to guys who don’t meet online. But they are also more likely to use other strategies to reduce their risk of HIV infection, including having sex only with guys who tell them they are HIV negative. This would be an effective strategy if everyone knew their true HIV status all the time. But of course this is not reality, not even among those who use strategy! Even if we are regular testers, we may still have sex with other guys whose HIV status is unknown in between our tests, and most HIV tests require some time before HIV can be detected. So if this is a strategy you regularly use to stay HIV negative, you should be assuming that not every guy who tells you they are HIV negative is actually HIV negative. Not because they are lying, but because they may not know. On the contrary, having sex with a guy who knows they are positive, on treatment, and has an undetectable viral load is a much safer strategy than posting Neg UB2 on your profile.
The lingering fear of acquiring HIV from sex with a known positive partner has been in part, a failure of the scientific community. We have known for years that HIV treatment also prevents transmission but gathering the right evidence to definitively prove this has been frustratingly slow. Only recently has the global HIV scientific community established a definitive consensus that HIV is not transmitted by those who are regularly taking treatment. When it comes to condomless sex, having sex with a poz guy on treatment and undetectable is a better strategy to stay HIV negative than any one where you select your partners based on who tells you they are negative.
Until HIV and other STIs disappear (wishful thinking and not likely anytime soon), testing must be a regular part of gay men’s health habits. Fortunately, there has been a renewed focus by healthcare providers and app developers to encourage regular testing and to know your status. I recently tested using the new program in BC called Get Checked Online and received full HIV and STI check up without ever seeing a doctor or nurse. Almost all dating sites and hook up apps allow users to input their HIV status, and I was particularly excited when a recent update to Grindr now allows users to input the date of their last HIV test (unfortunately it doesn’t yet remind you when it’s been 3 months since your last test).
It’s now been nearly 34 years since HIV was first discovered, decades since modern treatments were introduced, and countless resources spent on eliminating the stigma and discrimination experienced by people living with HIV. For all the heroes who have been working in this epidemic since the beginning, I imagine combatting HIV phobia must feel a lot like playing a game of whack- a- mole. Just when one battle is won, it pops back up in another place. First it was hospitals, schools, gay bars…and now apps? We can do better. Let’s be the generation to finally end fear of HIV once and for all.