Why the CDC Stopped Calling Sex Without a Condom 'Unprotected Sex'

Published: February 24, 2014

For many years, the term “unprotected sex” has been synonymous with “sex without a condom,” and we’ve been told that the only real way for sexually active individuals to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including HIV, is to use a condom every time during sex.

 
Though we know everyone hasn’t followed this advice, the idea became so ingrained in our conversations about safer sex that it was clear protected sex equaled sex with a condom, while unprotected sex equaled sex without one. Some HIV advocates argue, however, that in this day and age of HIV treatment, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), and behavior changes that can decrease risk, this language is no longer accurate or precise. To that end, in December, a group of advocates, spearheaded by the HIV Prevention Justice Alliance, sent a letter to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) requesting a terminology change.
 
In January, the CDC announced on a call with more than 80 advocates that it would indeed change the decades-old language. Now, instead of referring to “unprotected sex” to mean sex without a condom, the CDC will refer simply refer to it as “condomless sex.”
 
The advocates’ argument hinges on the fact that there are now multiple ways to have safer sex when the goal is preventing HIV transmission. Condoms obviously still play an important role, but there are other ways individuals can protect themselves as well. Many HIV experts, for example, talk about treatment as prevention. Individuals who are on antiretroviral therapy (ART), which suppresses the replication of HIV, often have an undetectable viral load (a measure of the number of copies of HIV in a given blood sample). Though it is possible to transmit HIV even when one’s viral load is very low, it is much less likely.
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