new york times safe gay sex teaser
new york times safe gay sex teaser

Today, on National HIV Prevention Day, This ‘New York Times’ Op-Ed Got HIV Prevention All Wrong

Today is National HIV Testing Day, so on this day highlighting sexual health it was especially irritating to read The New York Times‘ fear-mongering, slut-shaming opinion column entitled “The End of Safe Gay Sex?”

Written by Patrick William Kelly, a 34-year-old self-proclaimed historian writing a global history of AIDS, his column laments gay men’s drastically reduced condom use, blames rising rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) on PrEP and suggests that condomless PrEP users will inadvertently unleash a deadly PrEP-resistant plague.

Early into his column on safe gay sex Kelly writes, “Many rightly attribute the condom’s decline to the rise of PrEP,” but condom use has been going down for decades, well before PrEP was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2012.

In a series of tweets responding to Kelly’s column, longtime HIV activist Peter Staley writes, “Barely a majority of gay men were using [condoms] 100% of the time (even though we pretended like all of us were), and use started falling in the early ’90s even while deaths continued to soar. Our dirty little secret by 1995: condoms were totally failing at ending AIDS.”

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Kelly also says that condom use has declined “because of a shift in how we talk about risky sex: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has replaced ‘unprotected’ with ‘condomless’ sex.”

Except that no one is basing their decisions about condoms on a word change on the CDC website. In fact, one of the main reasons people don’t use condoms is because of their reduced sensation. Also, part of the reason the CDC stopped using the word “unprotected” is because that word contributes to anti-HIV stigma by suggesting those living with HIV are a threat.

Kelly prefers the word “unprotected” because PrEP doesn’t protect its users against STIs. As evidence of this, he points to a press release issued by the very-anti PrEP AIDS Healthcare Foundation which cites a study stating “PrEP users were 25.3 times more likely to acquire gonorrhea and a shocking 44.6 times more likely to develop a syphilis infection.”

But what Kelly didn’t say was that the study he cites compared non-PrEP using men who have sex with men to PrEP-using men who have sex with men with high risk sexual behaviors. That is, the PrEP studies were deliberately studying more promiscuous men. Of course that study’s STI rates were going to be higher.

And even so, if Kelly’s really interested in safe gay sex, he should know that PrEP users who come down with STIs are often getting treated and cured, preventing further transmission. (But he doesn’t mention that either.)

In fact, Staley points out that Kelly’s biggest omission of all is mentioning that cities with the largest PrEP-using populations have also had significant declines in HIV.

safe gay sex 08 new york times

Most egregiously, Kelly laments the reduction of condom use among gay men and the fact that so many young gay men have forgotten about the HIV epidemic of the ’80s and ’90s because, “If a hyper-resistant strand of another life-threatening STI develops, we will rue the day that we forgot the searing legacies of our past.”

Kelly is hardly the first person to worry about inconsistent PrEP use creating a lethal, PrEP-resistant super-STI. But that possibility seems unpersuasive since, as Staley said above, condom use was already on the decline back when such an STI actually existed.

As a result, Kelly’s safe gay sex column comes off as nostalgic scare-mongering rather than a nuanced look at HIV- and STI-prevention in the modern age. Since the article’s publication this morning Kelly has been roundly criticized by other longtime HIV writers, elders and longtime activists in this field who he probably should’ve consulted while writing.

It’s all the more ironic when you consider that Kelly himself is a PrEP user who occasionally has bareback sex, by his own admission. And his poor handling of the issue became all the more evident in how he handled social media responses to criticism.

He told Staley “Fuck you” in response to his criticisms (without actually responding to any of those criticisms), has called his other critics “fugly freaks” and gloated to a longtime gay writer who criticized his column, “I’m sorry you didn’t get to write for The New York Times.”

Hornet’s Senior Health Ambassador, Alex Garner, a man who has himself been living with HIV for over 22 years, says, “Kelly’s piece is insulting. It demonstrates a complete disregard for all the queer men who struggled to create a sexuality in the midst of a devastating epidemic.”

Garner continues, “Op/eds like this are dangerous. They reinforce sex-negativity and stigma and perpetuate the absurd notion that HIV is something the gay community brought on itself. This epidemic exploded because of homophobia and racism and a government that didn’t value the lives of gay men. Stigma allowed this epidemic to thrive, and we will continue to fight against that even if it’s found in The New York Times.

What do you think of Patrick William Kelly’s safe gay sex article for The New York Times?

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