3 Myths About HIV You Shouldn't Believe
There are approximately 1.2 million people in the U.S. living with HIV. And HIV affects everyone—your lovers, friends, teachers, and family members. But given America's legacy of silence and neglect when it comes to HIV/AIDS, it's unsurprising that many of the 1.2 million people living with HIV do it privately.
Pose actor Billy Porter made waves this May when he broke his 14-year silence and came out as HIV positive. His disclosure may have you wondering: How much do I really know about HIV? Am I at risk?
As a lesbian sex writer with a degree in gender and sexuality tackling the top three myths about HIV and breaking them down one by one (so you don't have to).
Myth #1: HIV and AIDs are the same things.
The most common misconception about HIV is that it is the same thing as AIDS. Although HIV and AIDS are a part of the same conversation, it's important to know that the two are distinct, and are not always mutual (meaning, it's possible to have HIV without ever acquiring AIDS).
Human Immunodeficiency Virus, or HIV, is a virus that attacks and weakens your immune system. It's passed person-to-person through blood, semen, vaginal fluids, anal mucus, or breast milk. HIV can also be passed from parent to child during pregnancy and birth.
What makes HIV so dangerous is that it attacks T cells aka CD4 helper cells, which are critical for fighting off infections. Without treatment, HIV usually develops into AIDS in about 8-10 years. What marks the passage from HIV to AIDS is the number of T cells left to defend a person's immune system. When the T cell count gets too low, AIDS is acquired.
Here's the takeaway: HIV can lead to AIDS, but with proper treatment and medicine, HIV is not a death sentence. Many people, including Billy Porter, live with and treat their HIV effectively in order to prevent the virus from progressing to AIDS.
Myth #2 Only gay men are at risk of acquiring HIV.
HIV/AIDS ravaged the LGBTQ+ community in the 1980s. The HIV/AIDS epidemic was largely ignored by Ronald Reagan, who was a staunch ally of the Moral Majority's anti-gay campaign. In '83, Reagan's Press Secretary Larry Speakes, famously laughed when a reporter asked if the president was tracking the AIDS epidemic. The persistent myth that only gay men are at risk of HIV/AIDS is a direct result of Regan and the Unites States government's willful negligence of the epidemic, as well as the many reports that HIV/AIDS was a "gay cancer" or religious plague sent by God to punish homosexuals.
In reality, heterosexual people make up 23% of all HIV diagnoses, according to HIV.gov. Anyone can acquire HIV, including people assigned male at birth (AMAB), people assigned female at birth (AFAB), monogamous people, non-monogamous people, members of the LGBTQ community, and people who use IV drugs or have IV drug substance abuse disorder.
It's also incredibly easy to not know you've acquired HIV because there may be no symptoms for some time. In fact, one in every seven people living with HIV don't know they have the virus. This is an even bigger problem when you look at age. According to the CDC, in 2018 around 44.9% of HIV-positive people ages 13-24 didn't know their status.
"Regular testing is critical for all sexually active adults," confirmes Tampa-based HIV Specialist, Kumar Jairamdas. "We all need to be thinking about the risk of exposure and how exposure happens. Those who are high risk should get tested every 3-6 months."
Myth #3: Using condoms is the only way to have safe sex.
While condoms are certainly one piece of the safer sex puzzle, not everyone at risk of acquiring HIV has a penis, or has sex with people who do. There are a variety of safer sex practices you can incorporate into your life, in addition to condom use, such as regular STI screenings; talking to potential partners about fluid swapping, sex toy cleaning practices, condoms, lubricant, and dental dams before things get heated; finding a trusted health care provider with whom you feel safe discussing your drug use and sex life; and asking your doctor about taking PrEP (a prescribed medication taken orally to help prevent HIV).
"Protecting yourself against HIV is an on-going process," says Jairamdas, "It's critical to find a healthcare provider you can trust and who can educate you on minimizing your risk. We all deserve protection from this virus."
Want to learn more about your risk of acquiring HIV? Check out the CDC's Risk Reduction Tool.