"Is it okay to stop using condoms with my boyfriend?" The Center on Halsted hosted a community forum Sept. 21 addressing this very question.
The evening nearly packed the Center's Hoover-Leppen Theater with a diverse and attentive crowd as Dr. Patrick Sullivan, associate professor of epidemiology at Emory University, and Dr. Colleen Hoff, a clinical psychologist and professor of sexuality studies from San Francisco State University, presented new data concerning HIV risk among gay men in the United States.
Recent data reveals that HIV infections have increased tremendously over the past decade and in 2006 one study reported that more than 50 percent of new HIV infections in the United States were among men who have sex with men ( "MSM" ) . Because MSM make up 4 percent of the US population, this indicates that a MSM's risk for contracting HIV is 60 percent higher than other men.
Though these numbers are alarming, solutions are in the works. The evening's moderator, Dr. Brian Mustanski, a clinical psychologist and the director of the Impact program at the University of Illinois at Chicago pointed out the relevance of the forum stating that there is now more research than ever before on gay men's health.
The panel presented information that indicated that most new infections for MSM are contracted from a primary partner. The risk depends on several factors including the frequency of sex, amount of unprotected anal sex ( "UAI," which, Hoff revealed accounts for 65 percent of MSM with primary partners ) , the likelihood that a partner is HIV+ and the chance that the HIV+ partner knows his status. When Sullivan polled the audience to compare the average amount of sex per year between straight and gay couples the audience favored the idea that gay couples had at least twice as much sex as heterosexual couples. Sullivan revealed that the average frequency is actually the same between heterosexual and gay couples.
The beginnings of a solution: Couples HIV Voluntary Counseling and Testing ( "CVCT" ) is a program that has been successfully introduced in several HIV-stricken African countries and has proven to work very well in decreasing HIV status among these populations. The idea is that CVCT provides couples an opportunity to support each other and to be aware of each other's status. In fact, it has been reported that it is more likely to contract HIV while using a condom with a casual partner than to become infected during UAI with a primary partner.
Other risk factors include sex outside of a relationship. The panel unanimously agreed on the importance of agreements between partners whether that was monogamy or not. The key to lowering HIV risk is communication between partners and during the study, Hoff found that, more often than not, these agreements were broken and in many cases this information was not disclosed. Hoff pointed out that supporting men's relationships and agreements would likely reduce risk and HIV status stating, "I think you have to take all the things ... into consideration: when was the last time you were tested? When was the last time your partner tested? Are you both negative? What is your agreement? Are you satisfied with your agreement? Can you find a way to keep your agreement current? What do we do if it breaks? Can we come up with a committment to deal with it when it breaks?"
The evening was primarily focused on reporting data, which, though interesting, still avoided the evening's big question. Towards the end of the forum, the panel was asked the big question:" Is it okay to stop using condoms with my boyfriend?"
Hoff, who has experience in sex counseling, admitted that she wished to avoid the question, "but I think there are ways around condom use in relationships."
Sullivan echoed the importance of testing and, if possible, being tested together, stating that, "being tested together is an opportunity to check in on your relationship."