Getting tested is scary. It may be your regular check up, perhaps you’ve had a drunken tryst that got out of hand or maybe you found out someone you trusted couldn’t be trusted. It may even be an emergency run to the clinic after a spilt condom. Either way, it’s not easy. One minute you are deep in ignorance, the next minute you know. Clarity. Maybe similar feelings are there when we come out or break up with someone. All of these situations involve facing things that deeply worry us head on.
Some say it’s ignorance, irresponsibility, stigma or laziness that stop people getting tested. I think there’s another more primal reason. Fear can swallow you up whole and paralyze you. Counting the number of partners on our fingers, making sketchy entirely unscientific calculations, maybe even making secret lists and diagrams; there’s something religious about getting tested, a reckoning. Come out from the cave, brave the sunlight. It’s time to drop the superstitious bullshit. But it’s not quite like that, not for long.
On the NHS they make you fess up to the nurse when it’s time for the recent sexual history survey. It’s straightforward confession time minus the curtain. I’ve never been quite so honest in my life than when sitting there listing, trying to remember all the details. Recounting facts to an authority of some kind can be a comfort in itself. Being non-judgmental is the clinical mantra, but even if the nurse isn’t judging us (probably far too busy for that) we are judging ourselves, remorselessly.
In China no such preamble occurs. You get your clinic ID card, and then stick your arm through the window to give the blood sample. It’s almost like you’re at the bank. They swipe your card and your result is printed off fax machine style a few days later. In some ways it’s preferable. Getting tested is not a judgment, but it can feel that way. It’s a six-month shot of the worst kind of adrenaline. The fear seems to gradually creep back in over time, and the constant grouping of weeks and months into window periods make the whole thing worse. How can we stop testing from becoming a cycle of paranoia?
We only seem to have the cold positivism of the sexual health clinic and sex ed class to combat the anxiety HIV creates. It hardly seems enough. There is schoolyard humour of course, and this seems more and more widespread nowadays. Sometimes AIDS! seems as popular a punch line as GAY! These jokes tend to loose all their humour once you’ve come even close to a real scare, and even a mention of the virus can give you palpitations.
Morally HIV confuses us. Facts about the virus are so difficult to detach and examine rationally. Knowing how to behave sexually is difficult in a society where casual sex is damned on the one hand and celebrated on the other. Some people behave irresponsibly and have unprotected sex in dangerous situations. Others catch HIV through no fault of their own. There are many points of perceived blame in-between. It’s so easy to end up being suspicious of others, trying to guess past history on shaky evidence. I find that with a new partner a frank discussion is the best way to address these worries, otherwise doubts will simmer and may come back to haunt you.
So is the answer to stop having random sex? After all, even with a condom oral and anal sex cannot be 100% safe. Somehow that idea doesn’t feel right to me, but others may beg to differ. We want sex but we have to deal with the risks. The best we can do is practice safe sex and get tested regularly. Saying that is simple, but accidents happen, and when they do they need to be met with compassion. A lot is expected of us, and we often have to be braver than your average Joe. Perhaps if it was easier to talk about our fears, more people would get tested regularly.
For more information and support with HIV and AIDS check out the Terrence Higgins Trust.