Words: Will Stroude
In just two short years, John Thomas has quickly established himself as one of the adult entertainment industry’s fastest-rising stars, amassing a dedicated fanbase and even nabbing the coveted title Best Newcomer at the 2019 Prowler European Porn Awards (which on the X-rated equivalency scale of prestige we’d put somewhere around a BAFTA).
When he’s not putting on a show, however, the Bath-born adult star is helping to educate porn fans, casual viewers and – sadly – more than a few trolls as to the realities of working in the sex industry as an HIV-positive man in 2021.
As part of the Terrence Higgins Trust ‘Give HIV the Finger’ campaign to mark National HIV Testing Week in the UK, John’s encouraging everyone to order a free home testing kit, find out their status, and then, naturally, to go out and have a sexually-liberated old time, comfortable in the knowledge that you’re taking care of your sexual (and mental) well-being.
“I was quite young when I found out I was HIV-positive”, John explains. “I was probably the kind of person who would have been on PrEP had PrEP been on offer when I was younger.
John is sharing his story as part of Terrence Higgins Trust ‘Give HIV the Finger’ campaign to mark National HIV Testing Week in the UK. Order your free postal HIV test kit to do at home at startswithme.org.uk (Image: supplied)
“It’s really important for me to try to spread an awareness message to other gay men and particularly young gay men to help them take control of their sexual health, and to enjoy themselves while minimising the risks of contracting HIV.”
John was diagnosed with HIV in 2010 at the age of 22, a few years after leaving home to study drama at university in London, where he’d quickly cast off the shackles of a “complicated” adolescence in Somerset and thrown himself head-first into the London gay scene.
“My dad was a priest [in the] Church of England, but then I went to Roman Catholic school so I had a lot of religious influence, and I was very concerned that being gay was a sin”, he recalls.
John Thomas in 2010, around the time of his HIV diagnosis (Image: supplied)
“Our sexual health education in school was taught through religious education and was very limited. We were taught, in terms of heterosexual sex, not to use condoms. We were told it was OK to be gay but not to have gay sex.”
“I guess I was lucky, my mum was quite forward-thinking and gave me some extra sex education about condoms and things. I was aware of HIV and felt like I knew how to protect myself – to use condoms and test regularly…
“I thought I was being careful, but there were times when I guess I wasn’t, but I was testing regularly so I found out I was positive in Easter 2010.”
While John admits he was “quite shocked a quite vulnerable” immediately after his diagnosis, he’s keenly aware that the fact he had been getting testing regularly before his diagnosis minimised any potential wider fall-out.
John Thomas in 2010, shortly after being diagnosed with HIV and Hepatitis C (Image: supplied)
“I’d had a negative test in December and a positive test in March, so it really narrowed the window that I knew I’d probably contracted it, and that I’d potentially put other people at risk”, he explains.
“If I’d not had a test for a long time, in terms of my personal health it might have been OK, but I may have really struggled with feelings of guilt of possibly unknowingly passing it on to other people over a much longer period of time.”
John’s quick diagnosis and referral to doctors also meant that medical professionals were able to quickly spot a second, potentially more serious infection – Hepatitis C, which if left untreated can cause possibly life-threatening complications.
John says his speedy treatment and recovery from Hep C served as a valuable reminder that “it’s better to go sooner and deal with something that isn’t too much of a problem than leaving something too long.”
John Thomas in Bristol in 2016, six years after his HIV diagnosis (Image: supplied)
Rapid developments in HIV testing and treatment over the last two decades mean that living with HIV is now a manageable health condition – a far cry from the devastating diagnoses of the ‘80s and early ‘90s currently being dramatised on Channel 4’s It’s a Sin.
But while John “knew HIV wasn’t a death sentence” at the time of his diagnosis, the lack of progress in educating others as to the changed reality of living HIV since the ‘80s – that if you’re on the right medication and your viral load is undetectable, you cannot pass on the virus – meant that the potential stigma he might face as an HIV-positive man weighed heavily on him for some time.
“It definitely felt like I was going to be a bit rejected by other people who were HIV-negative, both as a sexual partner and as a boyfriend. I felt like my sex life and dating would now change forever, that was a big feeling I had at the time”, reflects John.
“I am very close with my mum and my family, so in many ways I was very lucky – I went back home and told her and felt like I could do that, because some people feel like they can’t tell their family.
“I had just started seeing a guy who was HIV-negative, so I assumed he wouldn’t want to keep on seeing me, but he did and we had a relationship for four years.”
Some incidents do stand out in his mind, however.
“I had one guy, we were talking about going for a coffee, and [when] he found out I was HIV-positive he canceled the coffee date because he – these were the word he used – ‘didn’t want to risk it’.
“Rejection does still happen and it’s hurtful to HIV-positive people.”
Entering the adult film world had been something John had toyed with from the age of 21 and throughout his twenties while working as a theatre director, but it wasn’t until he turned 30 that he decided to take the porno plunge.
In the age of PrEP and undetectable = untransmittable (U=U), John’s HIV status never once proved to be a barrier to his adult film aspirations – though he does admit he knows of HIV-positive models who believe they’ve been overlooked because of their status.
“When I applied to Tim Tales, which is the company I started working with, I disclosed my status as part of the application and it wasn’t a barrier to working with them at all,” John explains.
John Thomas (right) with fellow performer Donnie Argento at the GAYVN Awards in Las Vegas, January 2020 (Image: HNS Imagery)
“In my experience, people who are in porn are either positive and on medication, or they’re on PrEP, so the risk of HIV transmission in the gay porn industry is minimised.”
He goes on: “There are still models who don’t want to work with HIV-positive performers. I’m aware of one performer who I would have wanted to work with, but they wouldn’t have wanted to work with me because of my status.
“I tend to think of it more as their loss. I’m not going to carry the burden of somebody else’s ignorance or prejudice.
“And they are by no means the most exciting model I could have worked with – and I’ve worked with a lot of really good people…”
It was only recently that John began to share his HIV status with fans. He says he felt compelled to speak out after receiving messages asking how he was protecting his sexual health during filming and realised he could provide viewers with a valuable learning opportunity about the modern realities of having sex while living with HIV.
Image: MenArt by Graham Martin
“It made me think back to the fact I had such bad sex education at school”, he says.
“There are people who have a lack of information and [if] they’re watching porn and they’re getting some kind of sexual education from that, it makes sense that porn actors therefore have to become sexual health role models.”
That learning curve remains an ongoing one for many, however, with some viewers of John’s work still struggling to understand that current treatments mean an HIV-undetectable porn star can have sex without risking passing on the virus.
John suggests those who lived through the Aids crisis and have long had it drilled into them that condoms are the only way to protect against HIV are the ones who find recent medical advances such as PrEP and U=U “difficult” to comprehend.
“I still get comments. Some comments and messages I get are coming more from trolls, and others are coming from people whose knowledge or opinion is different,” he admits.
John Thomas at the GAYVN Awards in Las Vegas, January 2020 (Image: HNS Imagery)
“There was one guy who, when I shared my story, at one point said ‘This guy needs to be stopped, he’s spreading Aids through the porn industry’. It’s obviously not coming from an educated place, but it’s obviously a consequence of talking publicly about sexual health.”
HIV status aside, being a sex worker still comes with a level of stigma attached – not that that phases John, who says his adult career has helped him “grow in confidence” and given him a new perspective on his own relationship with sex and shame.
“I suppose people who consume porn but consider porn actors – male or female, gay or straight – to be somehow ‘less than’, I think that’s probably a projection of some sort of internalised shame to do with their porn consumption,” he muses.
“If someone jerks off to my porn but think that I’m less of a person than they are, then I hope they’d reflect on why that is, and where that feeling’s coming from.
“I think their feelings about me aren’t really about me…”
The Covid-19 pandemic has meant John has increasingly had to rely on platforms such as OnlyFans to support himself, but the entertainer – who also has a Master’s degree in movement directing and teaching – hopes to continue working in porn “for as long as people want to see me doing it.”
His message for now, on National HIV Testing Week, is to do your bit to get tested, know your status, and enjoy the freedom that comes with it taking control of your sexual health.
You can order a free postal HIV test kit to do at home at startswithme.org.uk (Image: Dan Govan)
“I feel most powerful after I get my STI results saying you’re all negative. The longer we leave getting tested when we’re sexually active, the more that cloud of doubt can creep over us and can make us feel nervous, anxious and worried” John concludes.
“The longer we leave it, the dark and bigger that cloud gets. When we have that clean bill of health or the treatment that we need, the sun comes out – we feel good, we can approach that boy we like and have sex with the people we want to have sex with.
“Knowledge is power, and it’s empowering being able to take control of your health.”
National HIV Testing Week runs until 7 February, and you can order a free postal HIV test kit to do at home at startswithme.org.uk.