PrEP, the revolutionary HIV prevention drug, is considered by many gay men to be the last battlefield in the war for equality.
The drug, which is currently only available on the NHS in Scotland, remains controversial among gay men. Although self-sourcing of PrEP online has been credited with bringing about a massive reduction in the rate of HIV infections across the UK, whenever we publish a story about PrEP on the Attitude website, we are guaranteed to receive comments along the lines of ‘People taking PrEP give gay men a bad reputation’ and ‘Why can’t they just shut up and wear condoms?’
In order to explore the stigma around the drug, and find out what taking PrEP really entails, Attitude’s Editor-in-Chief Matt Cain took the drug for a three-month period and has written about his experiences in our July issue.
“I knew that PrEP was a hot topic in our community,” Matt says, “and at first I had mixed feelings about it myself – I could understand the arguments both for and against making it available on the NHS in the whole of the UK. I thought that going on it myself would allow me to work out how I really felt and to separate the facts from the many myths clouding the debate.”
After he began taking the drug, Matt told some friends about it. Several of them grimaced at the news, some told him that they “struggled with” PrEP, and some openly objected to what he was doing. One friend expressed support but then erupted in anger when Matt asked him if he was taking the drug.
“I was shocked at the way so many of my friends thought that PrEP was a bad thing, that it encouraged gay men to have reckless, condomless sex, rather than protecting us from the risk of becoming infected with HIV.”
Although he’s not a habitual user of hook-up apps, Matt decided to create a Grindr profile and list his HIV status as ‘Negative – on PrEP’. He didn’t experience a drastic difference in comparison to his usual responses, though one man did suggest that Matt must be ‘riddled’ with STIs.
When Matt eventually did decide to have sex without a condom while taking PrEP, he had an emotional reaction.
“Afterwards, I burst into tears. I felt dirty and guilty, as I’d let myself down. I grew up in the Eighties, when fear of HIV/Aids was at its height and I had it drilled into me that I always had to wear a condom.”
However, Matt found a disparity between how straight and gay men approach safe sex.
“People sensationalize condomless sex amongst gay men as ‘barebacking’ but the truth is that for many straight men having sex without a condom is the default setting – and some straight men I know have never used one. So why should we be judged or demonized for sometimes choosing to have condomless sex?”
After his experience on the drug, Matt has decided to continue taking it.
“I’m going to continue on PrEP because it offers us the chance to enjoy sex as it’s meant to be enjoyed – free from associations with disease or death. And I want to live my life without fear.”
He also believes PrEP has the potential to wipe out HIV. “If everyone who’s HIV positive is taking the medication that makes them undetectable and therefore uninfectious and everyone who’s negative but at risk starts taking PrEP, it will become impossible for anyone else to become infected. And that’s what we should all be working towards.”