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The Power in Knowing: Black Women, HIV, and the Realities of Safe Sex

Minda Honey | Longreads | June 18, 2018 | 2,763 words
Posted inEssays & Criticism, Nonfiction, Story, Unapologetic Women

The Power in Knowing: Black Women, HIV, and the Realities of Safe Sex

An invitation to appear in a PSA prompts Minda Honey to reflect on the responsibilities of safe sex, and her imperfect past.
Illustration by Janna Morton

Minda Honey | Longreads | June 2018 | 11 minutes (2,763 words)

In December, when a creative agency asked me to participate in a regional Volunteers of America public service announcement encouraging my fellow community members to “know your status,” I said yes. A hesitant yes, but a yes. At least once a year, I make it a point to enlighten myself by asking my gynecologist for a full screening for sexually transmitted infections, including an HIV test. But I’m more of a safe sex bronze medalist than an all-star. My 17-year track record of requiring men to wear condoms during intercourse is only nearly flawless, my trysts with unsafe sex more recent than I’d like to admit.

A retrospective on my vagina’s contact with bare penis: When I lost my virginity — It was over and done with before I could utter any questions about using protection. There was time the condom slipped off — it happens. Or at least it did that one time. In an encounter with that same man, who I’d casually been sleeping with for a long stretch, he sweet-talked me into letting him take the condom off mid-act. I want to feel you, he’d said — I’d felt terrible afterward. I knew better than to trust these hoes with my sexual health. There was the spontaneous Halloween makeup sex in the back of a minivan with a guy I was kinda in a relationship with. Immediately after, he accused me of trying to get knocked up because I’d always been so vigilant about condom use, nevermind that a jobless, carless rapper living with his brother’s girlfriend’s parents isn’t my ideal baby daddy material. There was the man I was seeing who made a fuss about it every single time, whining he couldn’t come with one on, so half-asleep, I finally just let it happen sans condom. Shortly after, I learned he’d been cheating on me. And, I assume, he’d been doing the same sort of whining in the other woman’s bed, being sexually reckless with us both.

And, more recently, when after a 12-hour stretch of drinking, I fell into bed with a man and nodded when he asked if it was OK, even though I knew I wasn’t OK with going without a condom. Every time we hooked up after that first time, I felt weird about insisting he wear one, so I didn’t ask him to. Even though changing your mind is totally allowed and asking can be so simple and I’m sure he would have complied, it just felt complicated in ways that feel dumb now. This lapse in judgement happened to overlap with my period deciding to be six weeks late and my new gyno calling to tell me my IUD might have shifted and might not be effective. After two intravaginal ultrasounds (and a negative pregnancy test) it was determined that, LOL, my IUD was actually where it was supposed to be all along.

I worried that doing the PSA would make me a hypocrite. Who was I to encourage others to engage in safe sex when there were times I hadn’t? I reasoned with myself that I’d read enough inspirational quotes on Instagram to know my humanity wasn’t a byproduct of my perfection but rather of my mistakes. So I decided to do the shoot anyway, because I was someone who knew what it was like to be so distracted worrying about the possible long-term consequences of my split-second decision not to require a condom that I couldn’t even enjoy the act itself. I was someone who’d felt bashful about asking to be tested because heaven forbid the medical professional I pay to look after my reproductive health, and who I was required to see once a year to re-up on my birth control pill prescription, know that I, an adult woman, was having sex outside of a monogamous marriage for purposes other than conceiving a child. I was someone who was tired of always being the enforcer in the bedroom. It made me feel like a finger-wagging mom-type: “Eat your Wheaties, do your homework, wrap it up!”

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