39, Los Angeles
Q:“How can I shake my paralyzing fears of infecting my HIV negative boyfriend?"
Shawn and Gwenn DEcker
both 30, Charlottesville, VA
Shawn Diagnosed 1987
A: “With patience and communication, you can work back to a comfortable, pleasurable and loving sex life again.”
Russ: The fear of infecting my partner is really eating me up. We’ve been together 14 years, and I just found out I was positive. My boyfriend was initially afraid for his health, but in some ways, he’s more worried about mine than his own. Meanwhile, I’m terrified for him. How, as a longtime, mixed-status couple, have you both overcome your fears about transmitting HIV?
Shawn: Because I was diagnosed at age 11, experimenting with sex in high school was complicated. I wasn’t willing to talk about my status. After high school, I became open about my status, and I started using condoms—it wasn’t the end of the world to have condoms be part of my sexual identity. Before Gwenn, I was nervous about the condom breaking. When we got together, it helped that she was an HIV educator. Even though she’s negative, Gwenn educated me, and that helped lay my fears to rest.
Gwenn: Shawn and I have been a couple since 1999, and we married in 2004. I was the first person he dated who really knew about HIV. I think that made the difference. My comfort level is higher. But when I first started dating him, I had my freak-out moments of “What the hell am I doing?” I tried to talk myself out of liking him. Luckily, a coworker who was in a mixed-status relationship at the time helped me resolve my fears. They have been together for years—and one is still negative. Finding support is key. In bigger cities, there are usually support groups for mixed-status couples.
Russ: What calmed both your fears?
Shawn: Communication was a big part of the solution. I think everybody freaks out when talking about sex. Gwenn and I discussed sex a lot. Because we started with talking, when we found our way into the bedroom, it was easier.
Gwenn: We talked about what works and what doesn’t work in terms of safer sex and what each of us is comfortable doing. Not every couple will do the same thing. Some use condoms for intercourse only; others may also use them for oral. You have to discuss that. And it’s a good place to start.
Russ: After 14 years together, this is not something my boyfriend and I expected to deal with. We spent three days in shock. I felt guilt and shame—and my partner was incredibly pissed off.
Shawn: How did you tell your boyfriend?
Russ: We both get tested once a year. Last July, we got our results on the same day. So we were together when I found out that my test came back positive. The thought of telling him was frightening. But there was no way to avoid it. We had a fairly open relationship, and I had unsafe sex with someone I should not have.
Shawn: How has life been since July?
Russ: Of course, my interest in sex after my diagnosis was nonexistent. I was panic-stricken and fearful that we would never have sex again. But two days after I told him about my diagnosis, my boyfriend said, “We are doing this,” and we had sex. It was amazing—I burst into tears afterward. I was so grateful. I’d felt like a sexual pariah. Did you wait or jump right into sex?
Gwenn: The first time Shawn and I had sex it was a more emotional experience than I had ever had before. We had waited a while. We had been friends. We had discussed what we were comfortable with, we had made out—all of those things made it a heightened experience.
Russ: My boyfriend and I are obsessively careful because my viral load is pretty high. I don’t let him go down on me without a condom. But that may change, as we get more comfortable.
Gwenn: I don’t think you have to be so serious about it. Laughing at sex and during sex is really important. If you’re using condoms, funny stuff happens. Many people don’t like condoms, at first. They feel it’s a barrier in their relationship and their pleasure. But there are many kinds and styles—ribbed, flavored, warming—that can add pleasure to sex. When we met, Shawn already knew which ones he preferred.
Shawn: And over time, we have really developed a comfort level with being able to express ourselves sexually. It takes time, patience and communication, but you can work back to a comfortable and pleasurable and loving sex life again.
Mentors - December 2005
Russ Coon, diagnosed in July, asks a married duo whether it's possible to keep commitment sexy—and safe