Comment: Crystal meth, barebacking, apathy and ignorance

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Alex Bryce

Recently much attention has been focused on the 40th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, and rightly so.

However, this July marks another anniversary of huge significance, which has hardly been mentioned in the media.

That is the twenty-five year anniversary of the death of Terrence Higgins, the first person in Britain known to have died from AIDS.

Following his death, the Terrence Higgins Trust was set up by a group of his friends, dedicated to supporting people with AIDS and providing information about the risks.

Today the trust stands strong as the largest HIV and AIDS charity in Europe.

It offers a wide range of support services to people living with the virus and campaigns vociferously to eradicate the stigma attached to it.

Twenty-five years after HIV/AIDS first emerged, are the risks still as great today as they were in the early 1980s?

Well, despite the issue being given less media attention than in previous years, the UK is still very much part of the global epidemic and gay men continue to be at greater risk than heterosexuals.

In fact, in 2005 there were 7,645 new diagnoses – double the number in 2000.

What is most alarming is that it is estimated that around 30% of the people living with HIV in Britain are unaware of their infection.

It seems that the culture of safe sex which emerged within the gay community in the wake of the 1980s AIDS crisis is in danger of melting away as a result of complacency, both personal and political.

Most gay men in their early twenties like myself have never had any experience of HIV/AIDS and have no memories of the misery which was caused in the 1980s when the virus wreaked its deadly havoc in the gay community.

There is also an increasing sense that sex without protection (barebacking) is becoming fashionable in certain sections of the gay community.

Bareback porn is becoming more and more mainstream and widespread and on dating websites like Gaydar people are openly advertising for unprotected sex.

Additionally, new sex-enhancing drugs have bust onto the scene.

Substances such as crystal meth have already contributed to the spread of sexually transmitted infections and, in particular, HIV.

In the US the drug contributed to a new AIDS epidemic and some studies found that around 20% of gay men in some areas regularly used it.

The problem with crystal meth is that it pushes a user’s sex drive to astounding levels, boosting dopamine in the brain by 1,500% with a high can last for up to twelve hours.

While increasing the sex drive and at the same time removing inhibitions, crystal meth banishes any thought about using a condom.

Another thing which may have contributed to the decline of protected sex amongst gay men is, perversely, the notion that because of the improvements in treatment, AIDS is no longer as debilitating as it once was.

This was confirmed in some discussions I have recently had with gay men who are HIV positive.

One of them, who wanted to keep his identity hidden, was engulfed with rage at the mere suggestion.

“It is true that the treatment has improved but anyone who thinks that having the virus is nothing more than an inconvenience is a complete idiot.

“Taking all the pills is unpleasant, but aside from that, everything stops working as it should.

“I have constant diarrhoea one week followed by constipation the next, I’ve lost 4 stone in weight and can’t sleep.”

Some observers have suggested that all the media campaigns aimed at removing the stigma attached to the virus have inadvertently contributed to the recent complacency.

Similar campaigns in the US have portrayed HIV+ gay men as healthy by showing pictures of muscular models revealing their rippling torsos.

Also, all the determination by the gay community to challenge the association of HIV with gay men and evaporate the idea of AIDS being a “gay plague” may have had adverse effects.

Out of fear of being seen as homophobic authorities and government departments have deliberately moved the emphasis away from gay people.

Perhaps we all need to be honest and open and acknowledge that the risk of infection is still much higher amongst gay men.

This is not suggesting that gay men are by necessity more promiscuous, it is simply referring to the medical science: the lining of the anus is much thinner than the vagina which means that anal sex is the most high-risk practice with regards to transferring HIV.

A report published by the Terrence Higgins Trust earlier this month contained some startling revelations about the ignorance which surrounds HIV amongst British 18 to 24-year-olds.

More than one in ten though that HIV could be passed on through kissing, nearly a quarter thought condoms have tiny holes in them allowing the virus to pass through and one in five thought there was a cure.

Crucially, only 36% thought they received good sex education in schools.

25 years after the death of Terry Higgins, and despite all the hugely influential work of organisations such as the trust set up in his name, there is still a great deal of ignorance surrounding HIV / AIDS in Britain.

In addition, we must not forget that the virus still has a devastating hold over the gay community. Perhaps it is time the gay community started acting more like a community and faced up to the consequences of irresponsible behaviour.

Alex Bryce works as a parliamentary researcher for a Labour MP.