Why I Am a Truvada Whore

5.20.2014

By Christopher Glazek

I've been taking PrEP for over six months, and have urged many friends to follow suit—sadly too late for some.

Last November, one month after he began taking Truvada as part of demonstration project in San Francisco, 26-year-old Adam Zeboski saw an article in Huffington Post that made his blood boil. The article, written by an HIV-positive freelance writer named David Duran, was titled “Truvada Whores?” and expressed concern that promiscuous gay men were lining up to take an AIDS prevention pill so they could continue having dangerous bareback sex. The author was not entirely opposed to PrEP; he thought it was appropriate for serodiscordant couples in monogamous relationshipsnot for unattached young sluts. Many healthcare providers agreed, just as they did in the 1960s, when most doctors refused to prescribe birth control pills to unmarried women.

Zeboski, whose uncle had died of AIDS the year before he was born, was not taking Truvada to become a “whore.” “At the time,” he told me, “I was in a monogamouswell, sort of monogamousrelationship with someone who was HIV positive.” Under Duran’s logic, he was part of PrEP’s “deserving poor,” a category of people who merited protection from HIV because they were purusing stable, domestic relationships and not using PrEP as a sex-life accelerator. Under the birth control analogy, Zeboski was a good 50s housewife, not a radical harlot tempting married men.

Zeboski’s problem was not that he felt targeted by the articleit was that he thought that everyone deserved protection from HIV, not just people who had coupled with someone HIV-positive. Zeboski didn’t have much tolerance for slut-shaminghe had endured quite enough as a Catholic school student growing up in Sacramento, where abstinence-only sex education was the order of the day. He saw a similar spirit behind the AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s vigorous and well-funded PrEP defamation campaign, which was on on vivid display earlier this year when Michael Weinstein, AHF’s president and co-founder, told Buzzfeed Truvada was a “party drug” and that its strongest advocates “have all been associated with bareback porn.”

Where others saw random yelling, Zeboski saw an opportunity. He decided to hijack the “Truvada Whore” meme by designing and selling a sky-blue tshirt printed with the hashtag “#TruvadaWhore.” (Perhaps in a nod to Weinstein’s barebacking claim, he also created an alternate version for his friend, porn star Blue Bailey, that reads “I#TruvadaWhores,” meant to be read “I pound Truvada Whores”). “I knew I wanted to do something connected to social media, and something that was funny and cute,” Zeboski told me. “I also knew I wanted it to be blue, because the pill’s that color.” So far he’s sold about 200 shirts and is funneling the modest profits back to the AIDS organizations.

I am myself a Truvada whore. I’ve been taking the drug since October, when I wrote a piece about Truvada for newyorker.com, and I bought one of Zeboski’s shirts two months ago after seeing it pictured on the facebook page of Peter Staley, the legendary AIDS activist. My conversion into a user was a long time in the making. I first became aware of PrEP after reading about its FDA approval in The New York Times. After reading those initial articles, written by Denise Grady, I knew three things about PrEP: one, that it did not work; two, that it had terrible side effects; and three, that if I took it and somehow seroconverted anyways, that I would have developed resistance to ARVs and would be screwed. None of those things were remotely true, but the Times, whose second piece on the drug had the ominous-sounding headline “Taking Truvada Comes With Risks,” did not seem worried that their misleading reporting, which relied heavily on erroneous quotes from Michael Weinstein, would turn off a generation of gay men. It was only many months later, after a friend I met on Grindr encouraged me to look into PrEP, that I overcame my initial skepticism. Since then, I’ve convinced several people in my immediate social circle to start taking Truvada. For some I was too late: I’ve had three friends seroconvert in the last year; one found out he was positive during the pre-screening for the PrEP program in which I had prompted him to enroll. Each would have taken Truvada had he known about it.

Despite the shitty timing, my positive friends will be fine: they live in a rich country during a period of tremendous breakthroughs in HIV treatment. The far greater tragedy lies in the millions of people around the world who have died over the last twenty years from preventable infections. While PrEP advocates continue to tell us we shouldn’t worry about slow uptake because “sexual health interventions take ten years,” the truth is that we’ve known about PrEP since 1995, when it was established that administering ARVs to pregnant women could prevent mother-to-child transmission. In 1995, of course, the only available ARVs had side effects that were too severe to make it practical to distribute them to HIV negative people on a mass scale. Truvada, though, which has virtually no side effects, was approved all the way back in 2004. The first trial investigating Truvada for prevention started the following year in Cambodia, only to be cancelled at the last minute, owing in part to pressure from ACT UP Paris. My point is that it’s already been ten years, and while I welcome the CDC’s announcement in support of PrEP last week, it’s tragically overdue: Too many people have paid too large a price because of the persistence of puritanical ignorance, not only among gay activists but also among doctors, journalists, and people in government.

The #TruvadaWhore movement is tongue-in-cheekmost people wearing the shirt are not actual whores—but also, in a sense, literal: we’ve all got a little “whore” in us to the extent that we all belong to the human race. According to a CDC analysis released last year, only 15% of gay men use condoms consistently enough to derive substantial benefit from them. Truvada, then, is not a drug for a barebacking, pornographic minority, but for the overwhelming majority of people who do not consistently practice safe sex. As Dr. Judy Auerbach, a former vice president at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation put it to me, “It’s clear that for many people, regardless of sexual orientation, the goal is to have condomless sex. Why don't we acknowledge that desire and not vilify it?"

Zeboski hopes his tshirts will spread awareness about Truvada. He still encounters skepticism about the drug, especially from people he chats with on Grindr or Scruff. “You’ll be chatting and Truvada will come up and people will be like ‘oh, maybe we shouldn’t chat anymore if you’re on PrEP.’” More and more, though, he’s encountering other people who are also on PrEP and aren’t afraid to say it. “It’s great when you find someone you feel comfortable talking about it with.” Of course, there are other benefits besides talking. “When you’re both on PrEPthose hook-ups are the best.”

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