Equality, Diversity & Inclusion

All About PrEP: The HIV Prevention Drug That Queer Men Should Be Taking

Ryan Keane

My muscles tensed. My heart raced. Adrenaline coursed through my veins. I was sitting on my bed when the thought hit me. I kept telling myself I was just being paranoid but the fear wouldn’t dissipate.

It was the middle of winter and I was feeling ill. My arms ached. My nose was blocked. My throat was sore. If it was any other middle of winter, I’d have put it all down to a nasty case of the common cold. But just under a week previous, I’d been sexually intimate with another man and I was petrified he’d given me HIV.

I knew very little about HIV. Except that the first symptoms include cold-like symptoms. Months later, I plucked up the courage to have a full STI screening. Or, as I like to call them, sexual-health MOTs. The nurse had me lie down and then she felt the lymph nodes around my groin.

I’d read in politician Sean Strub’s 2014 AIDS-crisis memoir Body Counts that swollen lymph nodes are an indication of HIV. I studied her facial expressions while she inspected them. Then, she turned towards me.“They’re not swollen so that’s a good sign,” she said, smiling.

I breathed a sigh of relief. But it wasn’t until a few weeks later that I got the official results. Negative. Of course, I was happy I didn’t have HIV. But I still felt a little dejected by the whole situation.

If we had queer sex education, I wouldn’t have panicked when I had cold symptoms five days after having sex

We queer people never had sex education at school that reflected our livelihoods. The classes were all about male-on-female intercourse. About how men can stimulate the clitoris. About checking your testicles for lumps. Never about topping vs bottoming or how two men prepare for anal sex.

If we had queer sex education, I wouldn’t have panicked when I had cold symptoms five days after having sex. HIV symptoms don’t typically arise until three weeks or so after transmission. Even then, they can take years to show up.

The bottom line is, queer people typically aren’t equipped to deal with sex as adults. Most of sex we learn is from dramatic porn scenes or word of mouth. Seldom do we have a trusted adult telling us what to do and how to stay safe doing it.

It’s why I’m detailing the following advice on a game-changing HIV prevention drug – PrEP. PrEP is short for pre-exposure prophylaxis. It’s a blue pill people can take to reduce their chances of contracting HIV by up to 99%. In late 2020, it was finally made free on the NHS.

In 2019, there were 105,200 people living in the UK with HIV

Why PrEP is so important

Despite HIV transmission rates having fallen dramatically in the UK over the last two decades, it’s still out there. According to the Terrence Higgins Trust, in 2019, there were 105,200 people living in the UK with HIV. 6,600 of these people didn’t know they were HIV positive. This virus can affect anyone, even high-profile celebrities. Beloved Queer Eye stylist Jonathan Van Ness has gone public about contracting HIV.

Getting on a drug like PrEP is so vital. Besides, the queer men and trans women of the 1980s and ‘90s would have killed for PrEP. The AIDS crisis during these decades decimated entire communities of queer people. We owe it to them to approach sex more responsibly and dilute the spread of HIV where we can.

How do I get hold of PrEP?

PrEP can be given to you at your local sexual health clinic. Call them up and express an interest in taking it. A medical official will call you as part of a phone consultation. Then, you’ll be invited into the clinic.

Before you’re given a dosage, you’ll have a HIV test. They’ll also check your kidney function. It’s rare but kidneys can be affected by the drug. Still, don’t let that put you off taking it. The clinic will run regular kidney function tests so there’s nothing to worry about.

How do I take PrEP?

It can be taken daily. Alternatively, you can take it “on demand,” but this is only suitable for anal sex. Speak with your local clinician to work out which course is better suited to you.

Are there any side effects?

Like any drug, some takers have side effects. If you’re concerned about what these might be, your local clinician can put you deeper in the picture. However, significant side effects on PrEP are rare.

How can I also be safe sexually?

It’s a cliché but use condoms during sex, especially if you tend to bottom. You’re more likely to contract HIV bottoming. Since PrEP is 99% effective, it’s unlikely you’ll get HIV if you’re on this drug. However, there’s still a surfeit of other STIs out there. Something like chlamydia is easily treated but it’s still not pleasant knowing you have it.

Understanding sexual health as a queer person

Most of us enjoy sex. Some more than others. Sadly, for queer people, however, it can be challenging. Men who bottom usually have to douche (you can Google that if you don’t know what it means) and a lack of holistic sex education can leave us in the dark.

It’s why learning more about sexual health, how STIs operate and the medical services available to us is so valuable for queer people. Thanks to the treasure trove that is the internet, there’s many resources out there. Although, to make it easier for you, here’s some keys links:

For more information on PrEP and other HIV-preventative measures, visit https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/hiv-and-aids/prevention/

For more information on HIV/AIDS, visit https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/hiv-and-aids/

For information on Nottingham’s sexual health services, visit https://www.nuh.nhs.uk/sexual-health-services/

Ryan Keane

Featured image courtesy of Joshua Stitt on Unsplash. Image license found hereNo changes were made to this image. 

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