Staying Negative aims to emotionally engage, inspire and facilitate imagination in sexual health practices. The campaign profiles the real life stories of gay, bisexual and trans men who have sex with men (MSM). Men talk about all aspects of their life from coming out, relationships, sexuality and a broad range of other topics. While HIV and safe sex is an important part of all stories, it is not the exclusive focus.
Prior HIV prevention campaigns have traditionally focused on providing gay men with information that will encourage them to adopt safe sex behaviours. In reality, safe sex practices are influenced by a whole range of environmental and cultural factors. The campaign also provides an opportunity for HIV positive men to talk about their lives and discuss how their strategies to staying HIV negative were not successful. We understand that there is more than one way practice safe sex and adopt healthcare seeking behaviours, so let's be creative about it!
There are no real criteria for participants other than that they are MSM and happy to have their stories appear as part of the campaign. In addition to the personal stories, the website provides information on HIV/AIDS, sexual health, relationships and broad of the other relevant topics including domestic violence, drugs and alcohol and depression.
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I have been part of the gay community for some decades now and have seen the evolution of drug use. I have been around long enough to remember when speed first became popular amongst gay men and when ecstasy was first introduced to the gay club scene. (Party drugs)
When I first took meth, I didn’t realise what it was, I thought it was speed. It wasn’t until afterwards, I realised that it had a different effect on me than speed did. Speed just made you go faster, whereas meth had altered the way I felt and what I was open to – of course, I thought it was fantastic. (Crystal Meth)
I had taken quite a lot of it at a dance party on the weekend but I found myself still so affected by it at the end of the week. By Thursday or Friday I was still going to the sauna every night looking for sex.
I was slightly puzzled by why I was still charged. At the time, I had forgotten to check what HIV medication I was on and what interactions they might have. I wondered whether it had something to do with amplifying the effect of meth when I took it. I had a mixed response to meth – I found it fantastically extraordinary and I couldn’t wait to use it again. At the same time, its potency and its pull on me raised concerns. (Touchbase)
During that time I had lived with HIV for a long time and I had periods of isolation in my life as well as feelings that I was not available. (Living with HIV) (Isolation)It coincided with the change in the gay community of the meaning of being positive. There was a shift in the understanding of the benefits of treatment and how those who were undetectable were not infectious. (Undetectable Viral Load)People were more comfortable with having sex with men who had HIV.
Meth is particularly unique for gay men because it gives you a remarkable sense of power, confidence and the disappearance of inhibition. (Crystal Meth)
Everyone becomes a porn star in the way that people commonly joke about. For me, as a gay man with HIV, it was lovely in the way it dropped those inhibitions, that caution, that sense of being unavailable – to making you feel incredibly confident about meeting men, approaching men and having sex. This was during a time where I wanted to engage more and do all of that. Meth dropped into the middle of that personal and social setting – it was a lovely, little yet powerful enhancer.
I was cautious with meth because I was also hearing about how a lot of men were getting into trouble with it. I could easily see how that slide could happen, especially given the fact that it was always at the back of my mind, this thought about when I might be able to use it next.
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I remember one of the times when I knowingly used it; I connected with a man and had the most extraordinary sex. It was fantastic! It was very powerful. We hooked up a number of times over a couple of weeks and I found myself excited that I had met this extraordinary man and we were having this extraordinary relationship.
Slowly, I began to realise that he was quite a heavy meth user and whilst to me he seemed like an extraordinary man I had a connection with – to him, I was simply one of the many men he had encounters with during the course of his day and his week. I realised over a few weeks that he was having sex with all sorts of different men throughout the course of the day. Day after day after day. Any kind of intensity or connection I felt was entirely drug-created. (Party n' Play)
It gave me the chance to study someone who was heavily affected by meth in detail. I remember one of the critical points that stood out to me. This man lived in a very well appointed apartment, with a wiz bang designer kitchen and a big flashy European refrigerator with a metal finish. I opened the fridge one night and it was completely empty, apart from a jug of water.
I remember thinking, ‘this man doesn’t eat, he doesn’t shop and he doesn’t do any of the normal day-to-day things because his life is so heavily caught up with meth.’
For me, I had this experience of personally finding meth incredibly powerful and incredibly intimate. Seeing from the outside how someone was using it in a very problematic way and that there was no intimacy at all. I came away, yet again, being very wary of meth. (Crystal Meth)
There have been some times where I’ve had sex with men using meth and it has been quite intimate but after a while I became uninterested in using it. The notion that you’re having this incredibly intimate sexual connection with another man is often in your own head. I have come away from situations where I’ve had to go back and disengage because at the time, the power of meth made you think your experience with a stranger was fantastic so much so you’ve agreed to meet up again. A few days later when you calm down and look back, you realise that you’ve got nothing in common, you were having a rubbish conversation with no substance to what you were saying - it was the drug talking. Then you’ve got to send those messages like, “thanks a lot, I’ll let you know.” You think back, ‘Oh Jesus, how did I get into that mess?!’
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The experience of meth can be incredibly self-centred and selfish. I have found myself at times having sex with men who are on meth and they can be so distracted. They can keep changing their mind about what they want happening and are not paying attention to what is going on – I actually find it boring. Sometimes guys are so fucked up they have no idea what they’re doing and who they’re doing it with. (Party n' Play)
I have a fairly good friend whose arse has been destroyed by heavy fisting that happened when he was so out of it on meth. He’s had to go through a whole pile of specialist medical treatments in order to just keep his arse operating basically.
This is going to sound like some old fart talking, but when I see gay venues now and some of the dance parties that go on, I’m struck by how hard, aggressive, intimidating and unfriendly they are compared to what they used to be like.
As a social event, they feel completely different and are using different drugs. We used to use drugs like ecstasy, marijuana and cocaine, which created an openness, warmth and lovingness.
Now there’s an edge to what happens in clubs and it’s not uncommon for friends my age to say, “they think they’re having fun, but they’re not.” There’s a cultural definition of what having fun as a gay man means now, which in fact is not such great fun but it’s considered to be.
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There is a popular narrative expressed by the HIV positive community that we are well informed, making our own choices, that we know what we’re doing and we use drugs responsibly. I don’t accept that as the full explanation. I know many, many gay men, including positive men, who have been really fucked over by meth.
Some that have not had a little bit of a problem, but have actually had their lives wiped out; they've lost their jobs, they've lost their money, they've lost their accommodation, they've lost their friendship networks, they've had to leave and go back to live with their parents and it’s undoubtedly devastating.
Those kinds of stories are really quite common. I don’t think the positive gay community really talks enough about this in the full complexity of what is going on. I think it’s important to have those conversations with people and open up that discussion.
More and more, you hear about young men being introduced to meth as though it’s an accepted part of the initiation into having a hot gay social life, sexual life and for networking. There isn’t any discussion around the pros and cons of that. (Party drugs)There isn’t the opportunity offered to these men that allow them to think about it a little more critically.
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I don’t think gay men talk about intimacy issues, being HIV positive, or sex and meth use nearly enough. I know the research clearly shows that a very high percentage of gay men use meth and quite a high percentage inject meth as well. (Injecting Drug Use)
It really raises the question of what kind of dynamics are going on in our world that makes meth so popular.
We really need to talk about issues of intimacy and maturity in male gay communities because I think we’ve neglected it. There is something about the community now that is so intimidating. There’s a lot about the best bodies and the way they present themselves. There have always been peacocks amongst gay men, but there used to be this warmth. The judgement between gay men is so much harder, especially what happens on apps is unbelievable. You hear them say, “show us your dick,” “show us your body,” – it’s incredibly cruel and dismissive. (Body image) You’re very aware of who wins and why, as well as who doesn’t win and why not.
There is a lot of positive changes that is helping gay men with HIV to feel more empowered and that nowadays with the medication, everything is fine. That’s not the whole truth of the experience of being diagnosed with HIV. It’s not simply a clinical, medical and immune-related definition. Anyone who gets infected with HIV feels they have instantly become different and somehow, separate. It affects how we feel in terms of being available for relationships, sex and all those things. It might be a lot easier to overcome than it used to be, but it’s definitely still there.
I don’t think we talk about it enough – we really should.
* All images used are from stock photography and are in no way related to the participant.
For more stories that explore meth use amongst gay, bisexual and trans men, visit Touchbase Stories.
For more information on drugs and alcohol, how they work, how to stay safe, what happens when you mix your drugs, how they interact with your meds or hormones, or how they could affect your mental health, visit Touchbase.org.au
Re-Wired is a free, eight week program run by VAC for men who have sex with men (MSM) aimed at helping you to learn skills and strategies to change your methamphetamine use and better manage your mental health. For more information, visit Therapeutic Groups.