You’ve probably used an online dating service or app at some point in your adult life.
If you’re a gay man or MSM (men who have sex with men), you’ve probably experienced a twinge of guilt over just how much time you’ve spent looking at profiles, answering ads or trading photos.
For many people, the dating app has replaced the gay bar and dance club. The internet has completely changed the way we perform the choreography of hooking up. What hasn’t changed are the questions of whether we’re hot enough, rich enough, masculine enough or even just geographically close enough to connect.
In the economics of desire, your physical statistics (or “stats” as they are commonly referred to) are a form of currency. Many websites and apps ask and sometimes even require users to list their height, weight and age, usually leaving room to elaborate on any physical characteristics or personality traits.
Until recently, masculinity was the ultimate fun token. Profiles with headlines like “No Fats / No Fems” were common and the term “masc” was so ubiquitous that it inspired an entire art and fashion movement aimed at dismantling preconceived ideas of what it means to be masculine. While men have stopped asserting the measure of their masculinity, one word you’ll still find being used often is “clean.”
When someone says they are clean, they aren’t referring to hygiene (although this is sometimes the case). Most often the word is paired with the abbreviation DDF or “drug and disease free”. If you’re at all interested in language and how it’s used, you might immediately recognize this as problematic because of the implied binary. If you’re not clean—meaning you have been diagnosed with HIV or any other STI — then you are “dirty.” The problem here isn’t just the perception that someone is dirty. In fact, some people wear the term with pride, using it to spice up their verbal play and might request their partner call them something like “dirty little whore.”
The problem isn’t where the term gets used, it’s why. People most frequently use the term in order to serosort, which means to sort their potential partners into categories of negative and positive HIV status. In the online dating era, serosorting has gained popularity as a safer sex strategy. But serosorting is one of the main reasons—if not the main reason—that HIV is still being transmitted among men who have sex with men. It is literally killing us.
Serosorting relies on the assumption that a potential partner knows their status, which in the most simplistic terms would mean that they’ve been tested repeatedly since their last sexual encounter and that these tests have occurred during a period of at least six months to a year of abstinence. The reality is that most people who are up on their sexual health only get tested once a year.
Prevention campaigns with slogans—like “Know your status. Get tested!”—made some progress towards normalizing testing as part of individual self-care routines. What they didn’t do was get to the root issues around the reasons people don’t get tested. Too many people, especially men who are closeted or married yet engage in sex with men, conflate status with identity. Most people want to be clean, especially when the consequences of being dirty are that you will read hundreds of thousands of profiles saying that you do not qualify as someone who deserves to have sex.
According to the CDC (Center for Disease Control), 20 percent of gay men are HIV-positive, but nearly half don't know it. These are men who are claiming to be clean. These are also men who are not being treated with the medicine that can save their lives and prevent transmission to their partners.
It’s a natural human impulse to be afraid of the monster in the room. That fear is diminished when the lights in the room are turned off. Words like clean and phrases like DDF, when used to identify potential partners, create an illusion of safety by blocking out conversations around testing, treatment, status and transmission. While SILENCE EQUALS DEATH was the early battle cry for HIV prevention, the implications of TasP (treatment as prevention) are just beginning to see the light. Too many people, especially men who have sex with men, do not know about or have access to PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis). Too many people do not know what it means to have an undetectable viral load and how that can be achieved. Too many people rely on language to keep themselves and their partners safe and use it in a way that does just the opposite.
In these times, we all need more pleasure in our lives. The pathway to a healthy experience of physical intimacy has always included personal responsibility. Being dirty should be a choice, not something anyone
is made to feel.