Shots - Health Blog
12:25 am
Mon July 16, 2012

Is HIV Still A Death Sentence? Young People Weigh In

Originally published on Mon July 16, 2012 5:11 am

Think of this like a snapshot — a few perspectives of HIV-negative 20-somethings.

To start, we posted the following query on NPR's Facebook page:

"Thirty years ago, a positive HIV status was considered a death sentence. As treatments for the disease have advanced over the past three decades, we're wondering how younger people view the disease today."

Hundreds of people e-mailed and commented with their reactions. We also gathered reactions from young folks we met on the street.

Sutton Resler is 25 years old and lives in Washington, D.C. He says AIDS seems like something from another time — the monster under your bed that used to remind you of the dangers of unprotected sex.

"It, to me, has been somewhat of a myth — almost like a folklore, like, precautionary tale of 'be safe, always have safe sex.' "

An old precaution, maybe, but one he said he abides by. After all, he came of age in a world with AIDS.

"Just growing up and coming out and having sex in the time that I did — which started in the past eight years — being careful and being protected is something that is just a part of your life," he says.

For him, worrying about HIV in 2012 isn't much different from worrying about other STDs.

"To me, it's never really about HIV," he says. "It's about gonorrhea, syphilis, herpes, whatever."

His friend, Kelly Heatherman, 26, says HIV is still the scariest.

"The prevailing fear I always have is HIV over any other STD," says Heatherman. "And that's really quite unfortunate, because HIV — it's not a death sentence. It's not going to kill you."

Heatherman said there are many other STDs worth worrying about just as much, like syphilis, which can cause brain damage if untreated.

Not to mention, "a number of other aesthetically unpleasing STDS you can catch ... gonorrhea, or warts, which is awful."

One person who responded to our Facebook query says a friend of hers described having sex with an HIV-positive person as no different from having sex with someone who has a cold.

Talk like that frightens Clinton Kelley, a 28-year-old gay man from Louisville, Ky. He wrote to us because he worries about what he has seen on gay dating websites: more profiles that disclose risky behavior.

"You can check the box that says 'safe sex only' or 'safe sex sometimes' or 'anything goes,' " he says. "Over time, I've seen a lot more people having the 'anything goes' option on their profile checked. A few years ago, not having 'safe sex only' checked on your profile would have been a huge no-no."

Hammad Ahmed recently graduated from Georgetown University Law Center. He's 26 and single. He says he expects potential sex partners to disclose their HIV status.

But sometimes, people don't.

"To come out and say one is HIV-positive is to admit something that's very human and very personal," Ahmed says. "But with a disease that has shame around it, any time people come out and demonstrate that they're dealing with it, it makes the shame go away and replaces it with curiosity and respect, I think, in my mind at least. I've been very respectful of people who've told me that they're positive."

Conversations about HIV are very important to Kathleen Adams. She's 24, African-American and lives in New York City. She says many of her girlfriends don't even want to talk about the risk of HIV.

"My girlfriends don't want to listen to it, and it's hard to frame conversation, because, you know, we want to have fun, we want to go out in the city, and we want to meet guys. But it's an important conversation to have when your life is on the line," she says.

A recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that young black Americans are more likely than other young people to talk with their sex partners about HIV. But that has not been Adams' experience.

"If you go to a club and you meet a guy, the guy's going to ask you if you're on birth control," says Adams. "So if you're on birth control, the guy's going to care more about that, and if they don't have a condom, they're more likely to have sex with you just because you're on birth control."

That's why Adams founded Momma's Hip Hop Kitchen. It's an activist group that sponsors art and theater events to promote conversations about HIV/AIDS.

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