SURVIVING THE PARTY
Wed, 23 May 2012
Some gay men men love a good, wild party; after all, we have a reputation to uphold. But what happens when it's all over and we have to face the consequences, including the possibility of being infected with HIV?
For Henk, at 21 life was one big party. He was at an age in which he was exploring his blooming sexuality, making friends and discovering the highs of alcohol, drugs and sex.
He found, like many other men who have sex with men (MSM), that drugs were easily available in the gay community and commonly used by his friends and lovers.
“I had a great time,” he says, now at the age of 28. “I didn’t want to be responsible and I wanted to experience all the highs and lows.”
Many studies around the world show that MSM tend to have higher use and abuse of substances compared to, for example, straight men.
A 2010 report by the UK Drug Policy Commission found that "10% of heterosexuals took drugs last year, compared with 33% of gay or bisexual people."
Pretoria-based organisation OUT conducted a study in 2004 that looked at the use of recreational drugs among lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in Gauteng.
It concluded that 27% of those surveyed had used such drugs. It noted that "it is thought that this figure could be an under representation due to a fear of disclosure because drug use is illegal.”
America's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that the reasons behind this high use among MSM could be "a reaction to homophobia, discrimination, or violence they experienced due to their sexual orientation and can contribute to other mental health problems".
Despite our Pride Parades and incredible Constitution, being part of a sexual minority remains a taboo. We may not always be aware of it, but many of us have a deeply ingrained sense of shame about what we do in bed. Alcohol and drugs may make it easier and might help reduce that guilt and embarrassment."I'm lucky I didn't get positive. When I was really drunk or using cat, I didn't care about condoms, especially if they weren't on me..."
Henk agrees and says that, for him, doing drugs and drinking made it easier to meet men in clubs, bars and occasionally sex venues like steambaths.
"I didn't know how else to meet men other than at bars. And it’s really embarrassing to go by yourself when you don't have friends. Getting drunk made it so much easier. And I felt more confident," he says.
“Perhaps there was self-destruction and rebelliousness about shoving my coming out into the world’s face. If I wasn’t accepted by the world I’d at least have fun and break all the rules.”
He remembers once, after a crazy night out, waking up on the side of the highway, near the Rivonia off-ramp in Johannesburg, with his car door open and his cell phone stolen.
"I passed out on the way home. I don't remember what happened. I could have been killed."
Henk says that he often didn't used condoms when he was high or drunk and had sex with guys. "I don't apologise for being a man-slut then," he laughs. "I was young and I was having fun. And I'll still have fun today if I want to..."
But, he adds "not always using protection was bad. I'm lucky I didn't get positive. When I was really drunk or using cat, I didn't care about condoms, especially if they weren't on me."
Again, the professionals back up Henk’s experience. “Alcohol and illegal drug use in some gay and bisexual men also contributes to increased risk for HIV infection and other STDs,” says the CDC.
A 2008 study of Israeli MSM confirmed that "substance use... was strongly associated with risky unprotected anal intercourse and other high risk sexual behaviours.”
Alcohol and many drugs, especially when abused, can reduce our inhibitions and make consequences and the future seem almost irrelevant. The most important thing when you’re high often tends to be the here and now, not “what happens if I become HIV positive”.
Henk says that he’s still young and still sometimes uses drugs. “I have benders every now and then,” he explains. “But I don’t have unsafe sex now. I make sure it’s safe.”
So what can you do to survive a night of wild partying?. Here are some tips that could help you stay healthier and happier.
• Party hard, not stupid. Make the effort to use condoms and water-based lube - even if you're high or drunk. Keep them with you so that you don’t have an excuse to not use them.
• If you do have unsafe sex, don't panic. Your first step is to take a course of PEP medication within 72 hours of having unsafe sex to reduce your chances of HIV infection. PEP is not foolproof and can have some side-effects, but it is very good at preventing infection if taken in time. Contact your doctor or clinic or, if you prefer a gay-friendly option, call OUT in Pretoria which can provide you with the PEP or give you more advice. Remember, do it quickly.
• If you party hard and have unsafe sex regularly then also get tested regularly. If you are HIV positive, the sooner you know your status, the faster you can take control of your life and health. HIV can be managed, but do it before the virus damages your body.