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.

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!”

Why does it typically fall to women to act as safety patrol during hookups with men? I mean most of us sat in the same weak-ass, fear-based Sex Ed class in high school. We’ve seen slides of all the worst-case scenarios of what could happen, dare we embark on anything beyond abstinence together. Let’s just say if I’d left it up to partners to uphold condom use, I wouldn’t even be a bronze medalist in the safe sex Olympics. I wouldn’t be a competitor at all.

Black women represent one of the fastest growing demographics for new HIV cases.

Blessed be the men I’ve slept with who came prepared with a condom in their back pocket, their wallet, or at the very least looked at me and asked, “Do you have …” Honorable mention to those who simply suited up when I passed them a prophylactic. It didn’t even occur to me that the rest weren’t worth my time until a friend a few decades older than me pointed out how disrespectful it was for a man to treat a request to use a condom as an opportunity for negotiation. I didn’t even realize I had the right to have hurt feelings over men who didn’t have my best interest —or their own — in mind. When consensual sex is the bare minimum, asking for anything more can feel like a luxury in your 20s.

***

For the video shoot I was asked to wear something that made me look “writerly.” I wore a black pencil skirt, a peach sweater with puffy short sleeves, and a black-and-gold silk scarf that I tied around my neck in the style of a wealthy woman having her portrait painted. I was asked to choose a location that somehow spoke to my being a writer. We settled on an office I work out of a few times a week with large windows that allow for ample sunlight. I faked typing a few sentences and looked intently at the gibberish on the screen of my laptop as if it were of great importance. I write for the LEO, an alt-weekly, so we spread around on the table a few copies of an issue with my face on the cover. The head of the production crew had said my name was suggested for this PSA for two reasons: I do fundraising for the LGBT center at the local university, and I’m Louisville’s relationship advice columnist. I gave her a third: “And Black women represent one of the fastest growing demographics for new HIV cases.”

“I didn’t know that,” she said.

Me neither, before I stumbled across that information on Twitter, in 2010. I was living in Orange County at the time, and my doctor’s office was in Laguna Beach, 45 minutes from my apartment. I mean really, if you’re going to have a someone all up in your lap why not do it from the lap of luxury? I liked this doctor because he was particularly generous with the freebie birth control samples. (This was a time before the Obamacare mandate that health insurance providers cover the cost of birth control. With the samples, I was saving a good $60 a month.) His waiting room wasn’t filled with cheap furniture and outdated magazines. No, this one had cozy chairs and only the most recent glossies on deck. In the exam room, there were soft cloth garments to slip into and velour booties over the metal stirrups. The window in the exam room looked out onto jungle-like foliage instead of hot parking lot pavement. All this grandeur put me at ease. I was relaxed and still overly trusting of medical professionals.


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That particular visit, as my gyno gave me my annual pap smear, we gabbed about my job and then somehow we got onto celebrities. I laughed when my doc said he could never be one. “Too invasive.”

“Yeah, I know the feeling,” I joked.

At the time, I had yet to overcome my fear of needles, so I asked him how crucial it was I do an HIV test with my STI screening. He said, “I mean are you sleeping with people who are going to Vegas every weekend and having unprotected sex with 50 other people?”

To be honest, I wasn’t really sure what any of the people I was sleeping with were doing when they weren’t sleeping with me, but that was such a highly specific and highly unlikely scenario that I decided to pass on the test. Maybe the wealthy white patients he saw in his posh office across the street from the ocean didn’t need to worry about things as pedestrian as sexually acquired diseases. I just can’t imagine the advice he gave me was the same advice being doled out to the mostly Black and Brown patients at the Planned Parenthood 10 minutes from where I lived.

I’d tried to go there once. The lobby was drab and overcrowded. There was more than one person sobbing in pain, a couple gripping each other’s hands who looked like they’d cut class to be there, the young woman clearly pregnant. The clinic was so overbooked the receptionist told me you just had to show up and wait all day to be seen based on urgency. Who had time for that? It certainly isn’t Planned Parenthood’s fault they’re underfunded, and for many people Planned Parenthood is the only health resource they have.

There is a clear class divide in the quality of health care we receive, but also in how we’re perceived by our doctors. Years later, I moved to Denver and unbeknownst to me until I’d arrived, I’d chosen a doctor’s office in a lower-income part of town. The receptionist spoke down to me for being five minutes late to my appointment and told me I’d have to wait for the next available appointment, which happened to be only 10 minutes after the appointment I’d just missed *eye roll emoji*. The doctor was dismissive of my health concerns and behaved more like a sullen teenager working the ticket counter at a movie theater than a highly trained professional. Her nurse was a platinum blonde Eminem circa the Marshall Mathers LP who stank of cigarette smoke when he came in to take my blood, looked at the tiny veins in my arm and said he’d “do my best.” Still afraid of needles, I left and had my blood drawn at a lab instead, by a woman who seemed confident in her skills.

A few days after my visit to my Laguna Beach gyno, I saw the stat about Black women and HIV. I’d just been hanging out on Twitter, seeing what my favorite rappers were up to and tweeting nonsense probably no one was paying attention to, per usual. Most likely the stat was pulled from a Washington Post piece that was already several years old. Some days social media feels like an albatross around my generation’s neck, but it’s also where I frequently find myself learning, through links and stats from friends and strangers, about health risks specific to Black women. For example, without Facebook I wouldn’t know that my race and gender mean that I’m more likely to die in childbirth, that my odds of developing fibroids are triple white women’s odds, that I’m more likely to have my endometriosis misdiagnosed, and that the Gardasil vaccine I’d spent years feeling guilty about not getting probably wouldn’t have protected me because it doesn’t offer protection against the strains of HPV Black women are most likely to get.

This ignorance is not for lack of medical access on my part. I saw a gynecologist for the first time at 14 because of a period that left me wailing in pain. Since going on birth control at 19, I’ve seen a gynecologist at least once a year for the past 14 years. I have a family history of fibroids and I’ve fainted and vomited from cramps, but never once has a gynecologist done more than suggest I take an over-the-counter painkiller. No doctor has ever initiated a conversation with me about fibroids, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), or endometriosis. Social media shouldn’t be my primary source of relevant medical information. Dr. Facebook isn’t cashing my co-pay. And yet, it’s fallen to Black women to keep other Black women informed about our specific health risks through tweets, status updates, and Instagram memes, despite the fact that the “father of modern gynecology” built his body of work with our literal bodies.

***

That one time that the condom slipped off? It happened shortly after seeing that tweet. I couldn’t sleep. I knew I had to get tested. I knew the guy I’d slept with most likely hadn’t been, since he was such a vocal advocate of unprotected sex. My risk level felt high. Still afraid of needles and obsessed with upholding a certain image — I was the type of woman who always shaved before my annual exam, lest I offend my gyno with my hirsuteness, but did it a week in advance so my hair would be grown back in enough that it didn’t look like I’d shaved specifically for the occasion — I couldn’t go see my usual doctor. I needed to find a place that did swab tests and where no one knew me.

I found a clinic in Long Beach. I assumed they would swab the inside of my mouth, then I’d wait in the lobby for my results. I was wrong. A clinic counselor led me back to his office. There he asked me several questions about my sexual history and mental health. He wanted to know what I’d do if my results came back positive. I’d thought a lot about that in the days leading up to my appointment. I’d grown convinced I’d end it all.

This was nearly a decade ago, and I was so ignorant about HIV/AIDS beyond what I’d seen in movies, which mostly revolved around gay, white men. The first time I’d learned anything at all about the history of the HIV epidemic was as a sophomore in college, when one of my professors showed Angels in America in class. No one was talking to Black women about HIV/AIDS or telling our stories unless it was part of some sensational homophobic/biphobic/transphobic plot about Black men on the “down low.” That had been the first time in my life that getting tested for HIV felt like something I needed to do, all thanks to a tweet.

I talked and talked into the camera until I found the right way to say that no matter the outcome, knowing your status matters.

The counselor appeared used to this response. He launched into a story about a woman who’d found out in the ’80s that she was HIV-positive after she happened to catch her husband on a talk show discussing what it was like to live with AIDS. How she’d been going to the doctor for various ailments and no one could diagnose her. “But it’s not like that anymore,” he assured me. “You can now live a long, full life with HIV/AIDS.” He handed me a pamphlet.

“I believe you,” I said. “But I think the stigma is what I couldn’t live with.” I knew shame and how to release myself from that feeling, but stigma felt bigger than me. It felt like societally sponsored shame. Straight privilege had cast this veil that, for the most part, protected my dating life from judgment and hatred. But the veil also means that instead of HIV/AIDS simply being a health issue, much like abortion, it’s treated as a moral issue. To maintain the veil means that straight, middle-class women like me don’t need to know about HIV/AIDS. To admit otherwise would be to reveal your humanity and the humanity of those on the other side of the veil. The veil is stitched from lies that to be gay is wrong, that to be gay is to be promiscuous, that to be promiscuous is to be deserving of sickness and death. Seeing through the lies isn’t the same as lifting the veil; that requires a collective effort. It requires being vocal about LGBTQ+ rights and recognizing the importance of LGBTQ+ history. It requires a cultural shift away from the stigma that has allowed the HIV epidemic to take the lives of 700,000 people over the past three decades.

These thoughts were on my mind while filming the PSA. Somewhere on a hard drive, probably with footage of some kid’s first birthday party and shots of your fave big business’ humanitarian efforts, there’s footage of me rambling into a camera about my need to find the right words when talking about the importance of knowing your status. Words that wouldn’t amount to finger wagging or add to the stigma around HIV/AIDS. I couldn’t travel back in time to that night to avoid that condom slipping off, nor to any of the moments I’d engaged in unprotected intercourse. But in the present I could make the right choice, the responsible choice, and get tested. We all should.

***

Although my test came back negative that day, it did lead me to becoming more educated about how HIV affects Black women. I now have people in my life who are HIV-positive. Their lives aren’t that different than the lives of other people I know. They went to college, they have careers they can be proud of, some are in relationships with loving people. While their status hasn’t robbed their life of fullness, it has made their life more complicated in certain ways. The health benefits and high-paying salaries provided by the careers they’re proud of have become even more important.

I talked and talked into the camera until I found the right way to say that no matter the outcome, knowing your status matters. Knowing just puts you in a better position for making life decisions. That line didn’t make the final cut of the commercial.

There are mere seconds of me spliced in with other faces you might know from around town. The commercial probably runs between ads for car dealerships with salesmen screaming at you like a carnival barker — Step right up and get yourself into a new or used Honda Accord! — and promos for the next gun show passing through town. It has that soft, washed out, sun-faded newspaper look most local TV commercials have. But I’m hoping it’s enough. That by merely showing my melanin-rich face among all the other local faces encouraging our community to get tested, it will be enough to cross the digital divide and reach Black women who maybe don’t have high-speed internet or constant access to, and time for, social media. And that more of us will find the power in knowing — the power to make informed choices about our health and our lives.

Bonus: Listen to our interview with Minda Honey on the Longreads Podcast here:


Previously:
Politics as a Defense Against Heartbreak
A Farewell to Fuckboys in the Age of Consent Culture

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Minda Honey is writing An Anthology of Assholes, a memoir about dating as a woman of color in Southern California. She lives in Louisville, Kentucky.

Editor: Sari Botton