Image: Purple Sherbert Photography
There are several things I know now that I wish my parents had known to tell me when I came out as a teenager - not least that there’s a pill you can take up to 72 hours after having unprotected sex to prevent HIV infection.
It’s very important that young people know the facts about HIV to ensure that they are equipped with the right knowledge to support their sexual health and emotional well-being. When I was at school I felt like my sexuality was taboo. In sex education lessons I had questions about same-sex relationships - and concerns about HIV in this context - but was too afraid to ask.
Recent research by the National AIDS Trust found that three-quarters of young men who are sexually attracted to other men don’t receive any information about same-sex relationships at school and a third haven’t received any information on HIV transmission and safer sex. This is at a time when HIV diagnoses among men who have sex with other men aged 15-to-24 have doubled in the past 10 years.
Here’s what I wish my parents could have told me about HIV as a young gay teenager:
1. HIV is not just a gay disease.
When I first came out to my parents as gay, the first concern they raised was HIV. At the time this scared me: I wasn’t yet equipped with the knowledge or understanding of HIV to respond to their concerns. It just made me feel more guilt and shame for my sexuality and for making them worry about me. Unfortunately HIV does disproportionately affect gay men, but armed with the right knowledge and understanding of how to protect yourself, HIV is not an inevitability for gay or bisexual men.
Looking back I can see things from my parents' perspective. They still vividly remembered the 'AIDS: Don’t die of ignorance' government ad campaigns of the 1980s: the effects of the doom-laden imagery used were still with them. The picture today is a very different one. Science and medicine have evolved drastically but unfortunately, public awareness of and attitudes towards HIV are still lagging behind in the 80s.
2. HIV is not a death sentence.
Thanks to advances in treatment HIV is now a long term chronic and manageable condition. People living with HIV can now expect to live a normal lifespan.
3. If there is a recent risk of exposure to HIV, there is a drug you can take within 72 hours to stop you from getting it.
It’s pretty astounding that more people don’t know about this drug and that students aren’t taught about it in schools. PEP (Post Exposure Prophylaxis) is a drug that you can take after having unprotected sex or a condom breakage that can stop you from getting HIV. It needs to be taken as soon as possible to be most effective and within 72 hours of the event occurring. PEP is available at hospitals through the accident and emergency (A&E) department. To assess whether you may have been at risk, it is important to know how HIV is transmitted.
4. How HIV is and isn’t transmitted.
Like many parents, mine weren’t too confident with their knowledge of HIV transmission. Even with the knowledge, it can still be a difficult topic to broach with your son. National AIDS Trust research recently found that over a quarter of young gay and bisexual men (27%) did not know how HIV was passed on. It is important that young people know how HIV is transmitted for two reasons; firstly so that they can protect themselves and take control of their HIV risk and secondly so that they can avoid stigmatising people living with the condition.
For the facts on HIV transmission visit: http://www.hivaware.org.uk/do-i-have-hiv/how-hiv-is-passed-on
5. Stigma is now one of the biggest challenges for people living with HIV.
People living with HIV regularly report that stigma is one of the biggest challenges they face.
Misconceptions and lack of understanding often lead to HIV stigma, for example a lot of people still falsely believe that HIV can be transmitted by kissing or sharing a glass with somebody.
The greatest tool we have in combating stigma is knowledge. For everything you need to know about HIV you can visit www.HIVaware.org.uk
NAT has called on all UK Governments to protect young people by making age appropriate sex and relationships education, which is inclusive of same-sex relationships and HIV knowledge, compulsory in all schools in the UK. Recently the largest union of teachers NUT (the National Union of Teachers) joined calls to make it compulsory. In the meantime here’s a great resource for HIV education for students: http://www.learningpositive.com/