Two weeks ago, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued its Mortality and Morbidity Weekly report, many outlets were quick to jump on one specific statistic: that unprotected anal sex among men is up nearly 20 percent from 2005 to 2011. In the New York Times, Donald McNeil said that the statistic was “spurring HIV fears” and was “heightening concerns among health officials worldwide.” In Slate, Mark Joseph Stern argued that the “case against barebacking with a non-monogamous partner remains as strong as ever,” and cited monogamy as "clearly the gold standard of sexual health.” And in The New Yorker, Michael Specter wrote, “If unprotected anal intercourse is rising among gay men, the rates of HIV infection will surely follow.” He concluded the piece by quoting Larry Kramer’s landmark 1983 New York Native article, “1112 and Counting”: “Our continued existence depends on just how angry you can get… Unless we fight for our lives we shall die.”
Reading these and other reactions to the report, one has to wonder if the mainstream media has developed an almost Pavlovian response to gay men’s sexual habits. Certainly a rise in unprotected sex among men is cause for concern. But as the face of HIV and the AIDS epidemic changes, our responses to these statistics need to change as well, demonstrating the nuance and complexity necessary to reflect the current landscape. The conclusions above read much like they would have two decades ago: HIV infections are certain to rise. Young gay men don’t get it, or don’t care. Monogamy is the solution. People need to be scared into using condoms again.
And yet, not a single one of those articles mentions another aspect of the CDC report: PrEP, or Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, arguably the biggest breakthrough in HIV prevention medication to come out in the last two years. Truvada, the first PrEP drug, was approved by the FDA last summer. When taken daily, it can prevent transmission of HIV 99 percent of the time if taken every day. Even if taken only four times a week, its effectiveness remains as high as 96 percent. One would think that a statistic like that would be widely reported and celebrated, and yet there are few people outside of the LGBT community who have even heard of PrEP.
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