What is World AIDS Day?
On 1st December, as every 1st December since 1988, it’s International World AIDS Day. Here at The Harmonious Hub, we wish to join the fight against the misinformation around HIV and show our support to those living with it, or mourning loved ones they’ve lost because of it. For more information on what HIV is and how it differs from AIDS, please see the NHS website.
The virus was only identified in 1984 and it’s estimated that it’s killed 35 million people since then. There are a further 38 million living with the condition. No wonder World AIDS Day was the first ever global health day.
Yes, there have been leaps forward thanks to scientific advancements, but with 4,450 people being diagnosed every single year with HIV in the UK alone, we can’t forget that this remains one of the most destructive pandemics in history. Millions of people are still living with, not only the effects of the condition itself, but also the prejudice it still brings.
We’re joined today by a woman who’s all about fighting discrimination, encouraging education and increasing awareness. And never one to suppress another’s character, please be warned this interview contains words that may offend. Should you wish to be sent a toned-down version to read instead, don’t hesitate to get in contact.
Ellen: With colourful language and always to the point, here’s Gen Orsi, presenter of Channel 5’s ‘Lesbians Guide to Straight Sex’ and queer sexual health advocate. Hello!
Gen: Hello, it’s great to be here.
Ellen: So – being told you’re HIV positive. Will it lead to AIDS? Is it still a death sentence?
Gen: Not at all. If you medicate it correctly you can lead a full, healthy and productive life – the immunosuppressants are so effective. If taken as recommended, you could test negative for HIV and not pass the viral load onto others. Undetectable = untransmittable. Also, with things like the PrEP trial available now, HIV is far from the death sentence it used to be.
Ellen: What’s the situation like now with the medication to prevent HIV?
Gen: The NHS finally gave in to doing the PrEP trial in 2017. People were getting it privately, anyway. The anti-HIV drugs save the NHS so much money compared to the cost of treating HIV. It’s unfortunate it was brought in on a trial basis, not a long-term basis. But at least now that’s changed and the government announced on the 1st October that councils have uncapped grants to roll it out.
It’s a relief as there was a lot of sensationalism around the trial. An unethical coverage of the subject by the tabloid press. ‘The children with cancer aren’t getting their medication because the gays are bumming and getting PrEP.’ I think it slowed the uptake of the PrEP trial.
A shame as it’s definitely very effective. It’s a real success story, as far as medication is concerned, but it’s not as widely used as it should be. There should be more knowledge shared about it.
What really blows my mind is that I am a woman that only has sex with women, and yet I can go to my GP and get offered a million types of contraceptive pills. Whereas if I’m a man who has sex with a man and I go to my GP with suspected STDs, even having had group sex with men, I will not necessarily always be offered PrEP.
Ellen: Disgusting really.
Gen: Yep. We are the queer community; therefore, our health outcomes have to be lesser than the heterosexuals’. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but we’re worthless. Still, thank God for the UN’s AIDS 90-90-90 target.
What is the 90-90-90 target?
In 2014, the UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) announced ambitious new global targets which build on its ‘Getting to Zero’ strategy and aim to end the HIV epidemic by 2030.
- 90 per cent of people living with HIV will know their HIV status
- 90 per cent of people diagnosed with HIV will receive antiretroviral treatment
- 90 per cent of people on treatment will have suppressed viral loads
With 59% living with undetectable levels of the virus, they’re not at the 73% hoped by the end of 2020, but that’s no doubt in part due to COVID-19
Ellen: It’s been a rough year. Do you know how COVID has affected people with HIV?
Gen: Frustratingly, there’s not going to be any reliable data available for that until it’s all blown over. Because, right now, we’re in a place where we’re just collecting it. We need to wait for the event to have finished, watch a few more months pass, and then we can compare numbers to see the effect.
There are early modelling indicators showing some countries saw a downturn of the uptake of PrEP by 20%. There were reports that people ran out of, or chose food over, the medication during the 90-day lockdown. But it’s too early for reliable raw data that we can turn into something meaningful.
To my mind, the answer will be quite obvious, though. We’re no longer able to access sexual health clinics. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to do one of those at-home STD testing kits? But to test for HIV, you have a little finger pricker that you have to use to fill up this beaker with blood.
With that finger pricker I found it impossible!
If you can fill up that tube using that kit, I want to meet you. Pick up your technique.
So not only is the testing difficult to access. Even when you do, it’s hard. Just the practicality of it: to fill up the jar and do the test reliably. With less testing, one would assume we’ll discover there will be higher transmissions and therefore a higher prevalence.
Ellen: What would you recommend as the best ways to cutting the transmission risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in heterosexual and homosexual relationships?
Gen: Use condoms, and I don’t just mean for your vagina and your anus; I’m talking about oral sex, as well. Be honest. Have conversations. God, there is nothing sexier than someone asking me before we fuck, ‘When did you last get tested?’
I understand that it can be awkward to have these conversations, but if that’s not in your comfort zone, you don’t have to have the conversation face-to-face. If you feel more comfortable, you could do it via WhatsApp, for example.
Ellen: I’ve heard people who don’t sleep with men say that they can’t get sexually transmitted diseases (STD’s) beyond thrush. What do you have to say about this?
Gen: This both frustrates me and scares me because, as you know, I’ve had this before in my sex life. It’s really frustrating that as women, our sexuality is not taken seriously unless there’s a dick involved.
There’s women-to-women transmission of STDs. There’s male-to-male transmission of STDs. There’s male-to-women and women-to-male transmission of STDs. STDs don’t care what gender they’re going between; they just care that there’s bodily fluid and a route for transmission.
Ellen: Would you say HIV is still a risk factor though in women-to-women partnering? I mean, I think there’s been, what, six cases, all with other factors involved – other things that could have been the route of transmission.
Gen: It depends how much fluid-swapping is going on. Squirting. Swallowing. I’d never say never.
Ellen: Do you think regular STD testing is important regardless of whether you’re single or in any sort of relationship? Or is a trusting monogamous relationship the exception?
Gen: I think every time you have a new sexual partner you should be getting tested. I think if you’re in a monogamous relationship and you don’t think you or your partner have had new partners, but you have symptoms, you should be getting tested.
Ellen: Is non-monogamy only for people who love a lot of sex?
Gen: No! God, I’m – well, until a few days ago, actually – but I was in a poly relationship. Jesus fucking Christ! There is much more talking and communication than there is fucking.
There’s no correlation between the amount of people you’re sleeping with and the amount of sex that you’re having. Because it takes so much communication to get to a point in the relationship where you can open it up. There’s not even that much time left for fucking, to be honest.
Ellen: To some, non-monogamy can sound complicated; some may even think a recipe for disaster. Do you think this is true, and what would you say to those people?
And if you want to hear how Gen answers that question, tune in for her next blog post all about non-monogamy and polyamory. Why not sign up below so as to be sure not to miss it?
Gen Orsi is the presenter of Channel 5’s ‘Lesbians Guide to Straight Sex’. You can catch up on both series here on My5. She’s also a queer sexual health advocate waiting to be found on Instagram at gen.orsi