Imagine how different things would be if HIV were a nasally transmitted virus, like the flu. Would AIDS still be so stigmatized? I have a theory: The reason many people are so uncomfortable talking about HIV is that it’s largely sexually transmitted. And we Americans are awfully squeamish when talking about sex. Even though our culture commercializes all that is sexy (do you think I’d miss the chance to put the word “Playboy” on our cover?), we are a nation of puritans. We have trouble talking frankly about human desire and resist acknowledging our need to get naked.
To get people more comfortable, I assure them that a conversation about HIV needn’t always go hand-in-hand with a discussion of sex. I remind them: It may be a sexually transmitted disease, but HIV does not directly affect my sexual organs. My bloodstream and immune system harbor a potentially deadly virus, but my girlie parts—the portals through which the retrovirus passed—are perfectly healthy. So we don’t need to talk about them. Let alone the particulars of my sex life. Or yours. We can talk about breast cancer—a disease that affects a sexual organ—without talking about sex. So I think it’s reasonable to expect that we can discuss HIV without the conversation always swerving toward copulation. Unless we’re talking about ways to minimize transmission risk, and then we’ve got to go there.
That said, having HIV, and the fact that I disclose my status, have taught me to talk about sex in a different way: frankly, maturely, premeditatively. Talking about sex in graphic and specific terms as I try to educate people about HIV has liberated me from years of sexual repression. And talking about it has helped me have a healthy attitude and made me more confident about demanding that sex be safer, and on my terms.
When we decided to profile Jeffery Jenest, a VP at Playboy Entertainment, for this issue, I wondered if I was perpetuating the idea that HIV is all about sex. I worried that I’d have to talk with my mother, and others, about why I put the Playboy Bunny on the cover (and some small pictures of half-naked women inside; not to mention the unclothed stick figures on page 10). But Jenest and Playboy are role models for how to handle the issue of sex—intelligently, responsibly, open-mindedly.
Playboy has a long history of teaching the finer points of sex, including how to practice it safely. The magazine, in fact, was one of the first to address HIV disclosure. Playboy, and Jenest, have helped lead the adult entertainment industry in blunt discussions of HIV and responsibility. As a result, they have created an environment that openly addresses the issues and risks, teaching people how best to handle them.
Hats off (and maybe a few other articles of clothing) to those who can speak about HIV without sniggering like a teenager at its implied connection to sex. Someday, maybe more of us will be more comfortable talking about HIV without ever forgetting that it is first and foremost a disease, a nasty bit of biology. Nothing more, nothing less. Not every conversation about HIV has to be about sex—but until we learn to talk plainly and clearly about it, we’ll never succeed at educating people how to have sex without getting HIV.