This month at the Women’s Room, our monthly support group for women with HIV, we celebrated Valentine’s Day and gathered together to talk about love in all its aspects from self-love to dating, learning from past relationships and talking about HIV to partners. We were inspired by the campaign started by the International Community of Women Living with HIV (ICW) in 2015 ‘Love a Positive Woman: Romance Starts at Home’.
We know that many of us are interested in dating, by a show of hands on the evening, in our group of just over 20 women a third were in a relationship, a third were looking for a partner, and a third were not interested in dating. However, we all agreed we were all interested in the topic… as you never know! Unsurprisingly many of us had responded to the HIV diagnosis with strong anxiety around relationships. As one of the participants who had only been diagnosed for about a year put it: “HIV has made me reconsider my approach to dating, and I have decided to take a pause. HIV has given me an opportunity to reflect as I need to understand better where I stand and what I want.” Those words resonated with many of us. Following our diagnosis in many we have asked ourselves: “Will I ever have sex again?” “Will I be able to love?” “How can I have a relationship with HIV?”
Having been a self-help group facilitator of women with HIV for over 15 years, I feel like I am a bit of an expert, as I have spoken to hundreds of women with HIV about relationships, and I can tell you that actually many of us will go on having relationships, having sex, starting families etc. Actually often the experience of having to deal with HIV, will give us additional skills and insights to navigate relationships.
In 2017 we finally know that science has demonstrated that when we take HIV treatment and our virus is undetectable (which means there is so little HIV in the blood it can hardly be found) we cannot pass HIV through sex. The PARTNER study, which followed couples where one partner was HIV positive and one was HIV negative for over 4 years and included men and women, straight and gay couples, and counted over 58,0000 instances of penetrative sex without a condom, didn’t encounter one single transmission… I just love this statistic nearly 60,0000 condomless sexual acts with no HIV being passed… that’s a lovely thought for Valentine’s day… anyway I am digressing…
The important thing is the that PARTNER study, after all this sero-different jolly sex without condoms, showed ZERO transmissions! Alison Rodgers, one of the researchers presenting the study when asked to tell Aidsmap about the chances of someone with an undetectable viral load transmitting HIV, said “our best estimate is zero”.
As women living with HIV the evidence brought by the PARTNER study is incredibly powerful and liberating. However, the reality is that these findings are not common knowledge and the prospects of having to explain substantial scientific information to a potential partner can still be daunting to many of us. We still wish that more was done in the public domain to dispel common myths around HIV.
In the final part of the evening we a returned to the theme of self-love. In small groups we discussed all the beautiful qualities we recognise in ourselves, we named our natural gifts, and acknowledged the many positive aspects we manifest as acts of self-love. It was so heart-warming to go around the room and hear women say “I am good at making you laugh” “I am spiritual person” “I go to church” “I can teach you how to cook” “I like to listen” “I am passionate” “I like to have fun and dance until dawn” “I have a great smile.”
We also created a ‘Partner Manifesto’ making a wish list of characteristics we were hoping for in a partner. Some of the most important ones we named were being compassionate, kind, open minded, a problem solver, financially independent, and obviously somebody with a nice bum with whom we felt attraction and chemistry!
Finally, we also discussed what we learnt from our past relationships:
- To put ourselves first
- To compromise
- Don’t sell ourselves short
- Not listen to what society says a woman should do/ should be
- We need to know what we want
- ‘All along I was enough for myself’
- We can’t change our partners
- Don’t try and please our partner; please ourselves
- We need to look at ourselves first and the role we play in relationships
- We need to be more independent
- We need to develop our self confidence
- We need to look at other opportunities outside the relationship
- We need to have lives filled with different interests
I must admit I was completely smitten by the evening. In so many years facilitating groups about love and relationships this was the first time when the conversation didn’t focus totally on HIV. All of a sudden we collectively realised that actually the most important matter when looking for a relationship shouldn’t just be weather our partners accepts the fact that we have HIV, but whether or not they are the right person for us. Just like before we knew we had HIV. Maybe the only difference is that we are a bit wiser.
As 8 o’clock was approaching, we quickly shared our best bits of wisdom on the topic of telling a partner that we have HIV.
The Dos of telling were:
- Stay with a positive attitude: it is contagious
- Normalise HIV, don’t make a big deal of it
- Check how you feel about it yourself, people pick up on your emotions
- Don’ treat it like a problem
- Give the facts
- Gauge their knowledge first with casual questions
- Make sure the person you are dealing with has empathy
- Make sure they deserve to know and they are a nice person all round
As for the don’ts of telling partners, we didn’t have too many: just don’t rush. Do it when is right for you, for some of us that may be on the first date, and for others we may need more time. We must remember that there is no obligation to tell, if we are not ready, especially, now, as we know that when we are undetectable we will not pass HIV: it is up to us, when, to whom, and how we talk about our HIV.
This blog was first published on Positively UK Website on 14th February 2017