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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My parents were born overseas and I was born here. I grew up in suburban Melbourne which, to me, was tad beige - it didn’t have the action or quirkiness found in the inner city or the wrong side of the tracks. I needed noise, I needed a laugh, I needed to grow. I never quite felt like I fitted in there so I’d constantly fight with my parents, would constantly leave home when I was young. This became permanent when I was about sixteen.
I was going to a private boy’s school. When I was fourteen I’d started working in a supermarket. I used to go to school, then go to work for six hours and then go home so I wouldn’t have to spend too much time at home.
Escapism had lead to a strong work ethic early on.
When you’re first-generation Australian you never quite know where you fit and that was certainly the case with me. My parents never gave me a sense of cultural heritage; they refused to teach me and my brothers their language. We learned mainstream Australian language and value systems, but these were always in conflict with my parents’ traditional third-world Catholic values. They wanted us to assimilate, but at the same time they wanted us to act the way they wanted. Their plan for us was to finish high school, go to uni, become a doctor/lawyer, get married, have kids and die. Fuck that! They asked for a bit much and there was a lot of tension so, instead of putting ourselves through the constant fighting and conflict, I upped and left.
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When your family represents a set of values that aren’t your own, you go out and try to find other people like you, people you could identify with. That meant others who didn’t fit in anywhere. I spent a lot of time on the Flinders St Station steps with the streeties and buskers and hung out with the roughnecks, which was fun at the time; they were my friends. We spent a lot of time just jumping on a tram and getting lost instead of having to go home to that small box I was too big for.
Among that rag-tag group of wanderers I started to hang out with the gay ones, because I identified with them more, and that’s when I met lots of guys who didn’t have anything to lose but were just so god-damn happy. Knowing these people made it really easy for me to leave home without fear.
I left home because my Dad hit me. Actually, he hit me and I hit back – and I floored him. It was the first and last time I’d hit anyone. I thought, ’This is just wrong; this isn’t how it should be: I’m going to leave now, see you later’. So I left. It wasn’t a huge dramatic deal; I just thought it was the right thing for me to do at the time. I couch-surfed a lot of the time. I was hanging out with all these young, gay street-kids who were doing street-based sex-work in St Kilda but, at first, I didn’t go into sex-work myself.
School and sex-work.
I still wanted to stay in school but I didn’t want my school to know that I had left home, and I didn’t want my parents to know that I was still in school because I thought I should be punishing them; it was a complete pride thing.
So, for the last two years of my high school, I was homeless. I got into sex-work so I could pay my school fees without my school knowing that I’d run away from home. I raised the money through street-based sex-work, because there was no other job that was going to pay a sixteen-year-old enough to let them go to school and give them the time to do it.
It became a sort of a game. Not only did I have to pay my fees but I had to do really well at school because, if I started failing anything, they would contact home and the jig would be up, I thought I’d be put into state care and that, from all accounts, would suck. I made sure I went to school every day. I led this incredible double life where everything was fine at school. I still hung out with my friends on the weekends and after school and then I’d hang out with all the streeties as well.
Sleeping in saunas.
The beauty about street-based sex-work is that you don’t have to have a place to take people back to. You can turn jobs in the clients’ cars or their homes. Not having a place to sleep is a bit of a downer. Some street-based sex-workers have a funny relationship with Subway in the city because it’s the only 24-hour sauna. Quite often, after working on the street, we’d go and sleep there because it was (at the time) an $11 roof over your head for the night. We lived and thrived in sexual environments.
The Peanut Farm Reserve.
There used to be a community of boys that hung out with each other; they’d have cars and there was always somewhere to crash. They’d all work down at the Peanut Farm Reserve in St Kilda. It used to be my job to mind the wine-cask while they were working. It wasn’t my intention to get into sex-work. They would talk about it and we’d quite often score drugs and use. I was just there for conversation and company; I guess they thought that was OK because, although I was quite young, I wasn’t a threat; I looked old enough so as not to attract the attention of the authorities and I looked different enough to not be competition.
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One night I was on the bench there next to the cask and this 22-year-old who pulled up in a Barina and was just like, "Hop on in!" I thought out loud, "OK!" There was no-one else around and I abandoned my wine-minding duties. "Let’s do it." It was easy because this guy wasn’t unattractive. I spent a lot of time talking to him about why he was using sex-workers when I thought he didn’t need to and he just said it’s a lot easier and quicker. It was my first introduction to the client’s perspective and had nothing but respect for it.
No looking back.
He made it effortless for me. I didn’t have to negotiate condom use; I didn’t have to negotiate prices, these were just standard expectations. He knew where to go, so I didn’t have to fudge my way through it. The golden rule of sex-work is that you get the money upfront and I didn’t have to negotiate that either, it was all just very straightforward. It taught me almost everything I needed to know to conduct a job straight away. I knew where to go; I knew how much to charge; it set the benchmark for how a job should run. So from then on there was no looking back.
Condoms for oral.
The condom was for oral sex. It astounds me that whenever I go for my check-up the nurses still ask, "Do you use condoms for oral?" because not a lot of men do and some sex workers don’t – (all the sex-workers are going to kill me for saying that!). Because it was my first job, I probably wouldn’t have negotiated a condom for oral sex either, but because this guy had that expectation it was really easy for me to take it on. And because he was reasonably attractive and acting in that kind of way it role-modelled behaviour for me, to have that expectation for every client from then on. So, I was very lucky and that experience was really positive for me at the start.
It taught me to speak really openly about sex – I was only sixteen at the time – it was developmentally positive for me. You compare that to my personal sex at the time, which was awkward and clumsy and you didn’t talk and there was no skill or negotiation involved; it suddenly opened my eyes to the fact that sex is a big communication process, it’s not just something you fumble your way though.
Sex-work taught me how to make sex safe and secure and not damaging; I guess that’s why, despite years of being a homeless street sex-worker, I’ve never contracted any infection and I don’t hold any negative associations to sex.
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At the beginning I didn’t use another name but it reached the point where there were some clients that were, psychologically, really hard work. I think one of the hardest questions a client can ask you is, "So what are you into?" If you don’t have a persona and you don’t have a prepared statement it can be really quite confronting because you suddenly have to expose yourself to provide an answer. And if you start putting yourself personally into your work you can become quite vulnerable.
There’s a client called ‘Fantasy Man’, who’s this morbidly obese man; we used to say with the boys, "You go with him once, you never go with him after that," because he’s just such hard work. This guy is an absolute sex-pig and unless you protect yourself you can find yourself feeling really negatively about sex in your own sexuality. He asks you: "What are you into? Are you enjoying this?" And the more you personally throw yourself in there - because those are personal questions – the harder it is to do and the harder it is to go with the next client.
Building a persona.
So much of sex-work is building a persona and performing as that character. On the surface, having a persona is for identity protection - think Clark Kent and Superman - but what you learn is that it’s good practice. You put on a persona because, as a sex-worker, you frame sex differently than you do in your personal life. I adopt a persona that enables me to provide a service to clients that book Tyson as opposed to my personal self, who seeks mutual sexual gratification. The separation of personal-self and occupational-self is something everyone does at work; it’s part of being a professional.
Sex-workers employ a range of other skills to protect their sexual health. My personal approach to my clients is one of universal infection control. Every client is HIV-positive in my mind. This does a couple of things: one, you can protect yourself as best you can from every single client and, two, you rationally view those who may be infected without discrimination. I can have sex with them just like anybody else. There are things sex-workers do to protect themselves, such as learning to identify signs of STI’s, learning to communicate about STIs, and learning to negotiate services with clients based on that assessment. Sex-workers have enough knowledge to know what they can do safely. I know what I can’t do; how to protect myself and what I should I do if I get something – for any STI. It’s practical wisdom that sex workers share with each other.
Practical adult sex education.
We don’t just teach ourselves, we teach our clients as well. If we spot an STI on a client, we’re able to give them the run-through of what this means, in terms of what they should do in the future and what we – sex-worker and client – can safely do now. It’s probably the only practical adult sex education that is widespread right now. It’s literally hands-on. Men are probably more likely to talk to a sex-worker about their bits than to any doctor, teacher or priest.
Regular sexual health checks.
I learned this through practice. The other thing that sex-workers do that no one else does and it’s mandated by law, unfortunately, is regular monthly testing. I used to see the Melbourne Sexual Health nurses who came out to RhED (the former Prostitutes Collective of Victoria) in St. Kilda. Getting tested isn’t just the act of being swabbed and having your blood taken, it’s that contact with a health-care professional. Seeing them that regularly means they are able to teach us what they know and we are able to practice that and to pass it on. RHED
I say ‘unfortunately’ about monthly testing because – look, I used to be a homeless, injecting-drug user doing street-based sex-work and, in all the years of it, I’ve never contracted any blood-borne virus or STI ever. My practices keep me safe and that’s the case with most sex-workers generally. So making it mandated for sex-workers is actually quite insulting to us. No-one else is legally obligated to do it or is punished for not doing it, so why should we? Even those who work in illegal, deregulated sex-work go through the testing routine, simply because its good practice. We just think because our bodies are our work, that’s important to us. We are tested in spite of the law not because of it.
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Personally, I don’t have orgasms at work, just because it makes it harder to work afterwards (or softer as the case may be). My rule has always been, if you want me to come it will double the fee, which is a win-win situation because, if I come, it will make work harder for the rest of the evening, but if I’ve just made a double fee that doesn’t matter as much.
Clients always want to make me come. Sometimes I’ve said, "Look it’s not my job; it’s not about me", particularly if it’s a client I don’t like.
Then again, if I’m feeling particularly generous, some may get the full explosive extravaganza. No-one has ever complained that it wasn’t worth the money.
The agency charges more to book me because they class me as an executive escort. It all started when I talked a client with major anxiety issues into not only going through with the job (which he was very close to cancelling) but extending for another hour. It shows that sex isn’t the only part of a sex-worker’s skill-base. Many of the clients who book me have some sort of sexual anxiety.
That’s the amazing thing about sex-work: it doesn’t discriminate; everyone needs sex, whether you have anxiety or a disability or HIV. Everyone is the same and our industry treats them all the same. If my employer awards me for anything it’s for this humanitarian approach to sex-work.
For example, there’s this one client who over-associates sex with their ex, who was very dominant in their relationship, so he was always very paranoid about doing the wrong thing during sex. He was quite lost in sexual encounters; it was very hard for him to feel comfortable with anyone because he expected them to dominate him, but he found it hard to negotiate that, especially with someone new. That’s where I came in. And I rocked his world.
People often ask me how can sex-work be empowering? How does it build confidence? I say, think about all the angst you put yourself through when you sleep with someone. What if you don’t connect? What if the other person isn’t compatible? What if they don’t like the way I kiss? You might worry about what they’ll think of you when you take your clothes off - that you might have a fat arse or that your dick isn’t big enough. Sex-workers have to get over all of that self-consciousness and tension and anxiety in about three minutes. That confidence is something we offer our clients, something that others will pay us for.
Sex-worker to Sex-worker.
I’ve found the greatest source of sex-worker power is other sex-workers. Prostitutes throughout history have a proud tradition of supporting each other, quite often because no-one else is going to support us. Even those who pay for our services would rarely stand side-by-side with us in public.
I connected with a collective of sex-workers called Vixen about a year ago. It was such a revelation to me. These were people I admired and who I could bounce ideas off and not have to explain or justify anything to. We celebrate each other. We teach each other skills. We listen and debrief about work and not worry that the other person is judging us or not getting where we come from. We stand up and we fight for each other.
I am so, so grateful to my sex-worker friends; they are the ones who keep me sane, keep me happy and keep me strong to do my job. Vixen taught me that there is no reason to feel alone and no reason to feel badly about my work.
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Seeing a sex-worker can be therapeutic in a way and I’m fairly open to most people. A lot of the skills I use as a social worker, which is my day job, I apply to my sex-work practice, so it has been good to have those two separate but related skill-sets.
I’ve never really had a bad experience in sex-work. I’ve had difficult clients who have tested me, but I guess I’ve never really had anything negative happen to me.
I was never abused as a child; I never felt that anyone ever took advantage of me and because starting sex-work really early on makes you sexually confident, I learned first-and-foremost to protect myself. Sex workers taught me that, yes, sex work can happen in bad circumstances but it doesn’t have to. Any negative concept of sex work is completely unnecessary; there is a right way for it to happen, just like their good working conditions for any other job. We need to become a society that is interested in enabling that right way.
Often if you’re in a room with a client you can’t just up and leave, as much as the law or your employer says you can, it’s actually not that easy. I’ve been able to just manage myself out of any potentially difficult situations. We sex-workers learn those management skills because we have to. In Melbourne the majority of male sex-workers are escorts, so we have to learn to adapt to different environments: it’s not like a brothel where there’s a safety button and staff outside the door.
Escorting is about 50/50 men’s homes and hotels. I get to see a lot of Melbourne’s hotels and that’s quite fun. You have to learn to be discreet; you have to learn to walk into a hotel and not feel that you don’t belong there, because the people at the desk will spot it straight away. As an escort you learn to be invisible. Sometimes I get a bit cheeky. I’ll look at the reception staff and give a little nod, like I’m a guest at the hotel or something. Sometimes I’ll go for the wink or the smirk. Usually I’ll get a "Good evening Sir". Other times I’ll get the wink back, kind of a secret acknowledgement that we all know the game. At the end of the day we’re all hospo-whores.
There are so many things we sex-workers want to tell everyone. First thing is that sex-work is a job, like any other job. We do it because we need the money, like everyone does. If my story can show you anything it’s that the decision to become a sex-worker and grow as a sex-worker is one that can empower individuals and sustainably break the poverty cycle with nothing but self-determination. As honourable as that all is, we the sex-workers are constantly punished by social stigma and legislated discrimination. I am an out and proud person yet my real name never once appears on this page.
Another thing I’d like to tell people about accessing sex-workers is that it’s absolutely OK to do so. People have this anxiety about sex and that’s because there are so many sex-negative messages out there about STIs or pregnancy or threats to domesticity, whatever. Sex-workers are happy to see clients. This is an industry that can accommodate everyone because everyone has a sexuality, the expression of which is a fundamental human right.
Sex is GREAT!
There are so many sex-negative messages out there but sex is GREAT and people should be having it. The positive effect of sex in people’s lives can be profound. This is made clear when you listen to the stories of people with a disability who access the sex industry. For some of them their whole lives change, things become clear, purpose is found. I’m so grateful to my clients with a disability. They have taught me how very vital sex-work and sex can be.
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I’ve had one condom break at work. I was fine with it. It happened about midnight one night. I knew about PEP and figured I’d get it the next day. I was working a 9-5 job at the time and I had a 7 o’clock meeting that night so I planned that between 5 and 7pm was when I was going to pick up my PEP. At the time there were seven clinics that dispensed PEP; I called six of them and none of them could fit me in and that’s when I began to stress out. I thought they’d give priority to someone who needs PEP but, when you call, you’re not talking to a healthcare professional, you’re dealing with the receptionist, so quite often they didn’t understand the urgency.
Then I called the PEP-line and they referred me back to all the clinics I’d already called. You get messages like, "Our clinic isn’t seeing any new people at the moment" or, "The doctor that usually does that isn’t in" or, "You can see the doctor, but the chemist will be closed by then so you won’t be able to get the prescription". All this was based on misinformation. That’s when I started to panic.
Because my boss had worked in public health for a long time, I disclosed what had happened and she was great; she gave me the afternoon off to get into the clinic and said, "If you can’t get a booking call me and I will." It was a major stress and I’m not someone who stresses out.
After that it was fine. I took the treatments for a month and I didn’t have any side-effects; it didn’t knock me around. I didn’t appreciate the talk about not being able to do sex-work for a month. I took it on board for about a week and then thought, "OK, I’m over it, this is an exaggeration of risk and I have bills to pay" and I went back to work.
I’ve never ever contracted anything. Part of that is luck but I’d say, particularly to new sex-workers, you approach sex in a particular way to ensure that safety. You approach with confidence knowing that, whatever you do, every single STI is preventable and treatable and you enter every single service without fear. That’s what has protected me.
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Sex-work both has and hasn’t caused a problem for me in my personal relationships. In the past ten years I stopped doing sex-work for three years. As a sex-worker, the only other people you think you can have a sexual relationship with are other sex-workers, because they understand what you’re going through. You’re both on an even footing because they’re doing what you’re doing. They’re not going to become paranoid about your work – you don’t have to explain everything every time.
About five years ago I decided, just for something different, I was going to stop doing sex-work and try to get into a relationship. So I stopped and about a week later I met somebody and embarked on a three-year relationship. The third month into the relationship I was still going for my monthly STI screens. My nurse at the time was doing the pre-test counselling and risk assessment – she asked me how many sexual partners I’d had in the past three months. The answer was one. She said, "You’re actually not at risk of anything; I don’t need to test you". That was the first time I realised how much I had been indoctrinated with discrimination against sex-work and that it was OK to not be tested so often. That really challenged my identity because for the longest time it had been drummed into me that testing was so important.
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I was with this person for three years during which I asked him to marry me, but I hadn’t come out to my parents. My approach had always been that they will just have to die and that’s it – I wouldn’t come out to them - but I didn’t feel good about asking someone to marry me without having come out to my parents.
I had asked my partner’s parents if I could marry him, so, on Christmas Eve, I went down to my parents’ house, which was weird because I never see them, and I told my Mum, "Look, I’m asking someone to marry me.." she sighed happily. I added, "And his name is Jarrod!" She sighed again, this time with disappointment.
She pulled out every single stereotype: "Oh, it’s just a phase, you haven’t met the right girl, yadda yadda!" I knew they wouldn’t react too badly and I didn’t have a relationship with them anyway so, at the end of the day, it wasn’t going to matter too much, but it still stung a little.
My little brother.
I could only tell my father while he was driving me to the station because then I knew he wasn’t looking at my face, which is how a lot of conversations with my Dad have gone. My little brother was in the back of the car; he was listening to his IPOD. I told my Dad and he was like, "OK", and we didn’t talk for the rest of the trip. When I went to get out of the car my little brother pulled out his earphones and said, "So you’re getting married?" I said, "Yeah" and he said, "To another guy?" And I said apprehensively, "Yes". There was a bit of a pause and then he said, "That’s cool," and that was that. He was about fifteen.
I thought I couldn’t do sex-work and relationships at the same time. It’s really hard to have to explain to people that you’re a sex-worker. People don’t get it. "You’re too smart for that: I thought you were better than that!" That’s what I get, all those clichés. I thought I’d give myself a decent crack at a relationship, which is why I put sex-work to the side.
After we broke up my Mum said, "Maybe its God’s will; I’ll pray for you to meet the right girl." I went back to sex-work when we split up, because I had this huge tax bill that I wanted to get rid of. I took the break-up pretty badly; it completely shattered my confidence. You grapple with your brain – "Oh, you’re taking a step backwards into sex-work, blah blah", but when I got back I realised I had given a lot of my confidence away by being in a relationship; I had actually lost quite a large part of myself. I grew as a sex-worker and it allowed me to become stronger in certain ways so to come back to it was to recognise where those strengths were and to heal myself.
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I just don’t have the time for a relationship right now. I’m meeting lots of people who could have a relationship with me as a sex-worker, so it’s not like I can’t have one, I choose not to. Intimacy fits into my life with my friends, I guess. I only have a handful of friends and they are really close good friends who know my history in sex-work and all support me as a sex-worker.
They know there are certain things I, and they, gain from me being a sex-worker. There are a million questions people ask and you realise those questions aren’t just about sex-work they’re actually just about sex and relationships and men and being a human being, so I’m able to talk them through that. As a sex-worker you find that you can be that rare breed of people who can be genuinely sex-positive and that attitude actually puts things into a particular perspective. They experience a same sort of therapy my clients do.
Clients constantly want to do a ‘Pretty Woman’ and take you away from sex-work. One client threw down ten grand for me to give him my personal number and wanted to whisk me away. It’s funny, people have this idea that prostitutes are only in it for the money, or that we need rescuing and that we hate our jobs, but most of us don’t. I knew that if I accepted the cash it would change what sex work means to me, so I turned down ten grand. I sleep easy at night and that’s what that ten grand paid for: I’m my own person; I don’t owe anyone anything. I don’t judge others for taking up the sugar-daddy option when it comes up; I just know it’s not necessarily for me. I sometimes think about that ten grand - but not for too long!
Tyson grew up in Melbourne