The messages are everywhere, chances are you have probably heard at least one time in your life an ad campaign aimed at promoting condom use to prevent the spread of HIV and other STIs. Usually in hook-ups, condoms are expected – but, what about in a relationship? There exists a taboo among gay men surrounding condom usage in relationships. Even men who regularly practice having sex with condoms tend to put some of these safer sex measures aside when they get in a relationship. They may start out using condoms but then that one time happens, you or your partner are in the heat of the moment, and in that moment of passion and craving, you engage in bareback sex. You begin to think well, I trust him, and he trusts me, so why do we need to use condoms?
One of the most important barriers to condom usage in serious relationships is the issue of trust and intimacy. The use of condoms is perceived to be associated with casual sex, and where there is ‘true love’ condoms are no longer used. In the standard progression of romantic relationships, after trust has been established, condoms are no longer perceived to be needed. James Reddy, a medical researcher from Durban, South Africa, in his 2002 study found that among patients at STI clinics, 43% of men and 35% of women said that using a condom meant you do not trust your partner. People therefore associate condoms with casual sex and a lack of trust. Suggesting condom use would be an insult – suggesting infidelity and a lack of ‘true love’. Condomless sex, on the other hand, helps maintain the desired image of the partner being faithful. And ironically, ‘unsafe sex’ is seen as keeping ‘safe’ the desired relationship and its intimacy. To acknowledge a possible infidelity and risk of HIV necessitates a confrontation, which may destabilise the relationship.
As it turns out, people are actually more likely to become infected with HIV from a serious partner compared to a casual partner. This is because people are more likely to have condom-less sex with a serious partner. Also, many people who are HIV-positive don’t know that they have HIV, so they stop using condoms in relationships because they think that it’s safe. Even if someone tells you that they’re HIV-negative, it’s possible that they haven’t actually been tested, that they were tested before the virus was detectable, or that they’re not being honest. Also, some people assume that their relationship is monogamous (both partners only have sex with each other) without talking to their partner about it. If you don’t talk about it, then it’s possible that your partner could be having sex with other people, which would increase your risk. Some guys also think it’s okay to have condomless anal sex if they’re the insertive (“top”) partner. Although receptive (“bottom”) partners are at higher risk, you can still become infected with HIV as the top. Finally, some people think condoms aren’t necessary if both partners are HIV-positive. However, if they have different strains of HIV, then they can still transmit their strains to each other and make their health worse.
We need to change our attitudes towards condoms, and most important, we need to start talking about condoms differently. Safer sex negotiation should not be optional, a conversation does not have to be face-to-face. Whether you talk, type, or text what is important is that you start the conversation about HIV and condoms.