When I think about my past, it amazes me I didn’t end up a drug addict or patient in a psych ward. Surprisingly, I instead grew up to become an openly gay psychologist and sexologist. Most days you can find me working in my central London office helping my patients with a variety of complex mental health, sexual and relationship issues.
I love my job, but like any job it does come with challenges. Some of the hardest tasks I face are dealing with the complexities of the often-irrational human mind and the complicated cases that stem from them.
Recently, a young man came to see me for issues around a conversion party he was invited to.
I have previously done research into ‘bug chasing’ (intentionally seeking to become infected with HIV) and conversion parties (an event designed to infect a HIV neg man with HIV by other HIV positive men).
I admit when I first started to research this issue that I thought anyone who would do this must be crazy. My research resulted in a shift in my perspective. I can confidently write that not everyone who desires to become infected with HIV is suffering from an identified mental disorder, though some certainly do.
My research into this area yielded interesting results. I found the reasons for intentional HIV infection are many, but largely center around existential issues.
These issues affect human beings at both a conscious and subconscious level. They include: meaning, choice, freedom, death anxiety, and existential isolation. Other motivations for intentional HIV infection include:
- A wish to feel closer and to understand people who have HIV better
- taking control over the fears associated with being HIV positive
- a need to feel empowered (the ability to infect another with a disease is a power trip for some people
- a way to lower anxieties: some men feel that it is inevitable and best to get it done and over with
- some men wish to reduce their sexual anxieties
- some men feel very isolated and seek to become part of a community they feel closed off from given their HIV negative status
Clearly, not everyone who has become HIV positive is a ‘bug chaser’. However, there are some men who still desire to become infected with HIV despite the known health risks and methods available such as PrEP to help reduce the chance of HIV transmission.
Sometimes my patients come to me with questions about love, relationships and modern gay life which scare me. I don’t have this fear because I am lost at what to do, but I am afraid because their asking these questions reflects a deeper problem within our gay culture. A problem that I feel is getting worse.
I believe there is a problem with any culture in which conversion parties take place, or which feels they are something to celebrate. Conversion parties are not about having a great time, but are a product of poor education, low self-esteem and a lack of insight into oneself.
People attend these events because they don’t fully understand their subconscious motivations and thoughts that lead to this destructive life-altering choice. There are healthier ways to deal with these issues, i.e. with the assistance of a skilled psychologist.
Conversion parties are just one of the many symptoms of the growing problem within the gay community I hear about in my office daily. There is a serious issue with the type of messages that gay men are subjected to today. There has been a steady stream of men coming in and out of my office for years who feel lost in their lives.
They don’t feel as if they belong to the gay community. They feel as if being ‘traditional’ or ‘conservative’ is wrong, and feel judged for their sexual preferences. In short, they feel confused.
Who can blame them?
There are really no voices to speak to these concerns and to normalise their experiences. This barrage of toxic messages about what it means to be a modern gay man today must change. I devote a large part of my daily professional work to speaking out against this dangerous, overly reductionistic, and lackluster way of being a modern gay man today.
I have noticed an unhealthy change in the gay community over the course of my career and I am convinced this is a growing problem. I am seeing an increase in the number of men who are confused about their morals and values or believe that holding them means they are ‘uncool or backwards.’
Usually, I find out that I am the first person who asks the question: ‘What values are important to you?’ and ‘Which of your regular choices are not a reflection of those values?’
I spoke with the man who wondered if he should go to the conversion party for several more sessions over many weeks. We spoke about this dilemma, his values and morals. He eventually reached the conclusion that allowing himself to knowingly become infected with HIV was against his values of health, honesty and safety.
Gay men need to know that traditional morals and values are not incompatible with modern gay life. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a fool.
On many occasions, when I see my patients makes choices that reflect the values that matter most to them, they report feeling better. They have less relationship drama and enjoy life more.
I am convinced that a life filled with positive choices which who we really are and what matters most to us is the secret to living well.
Justin Duwe is an award winning psychologist, sexologist and author working in a private practice in Central London. He offers practical, tailored in-person and online counselling and psychotherapy for individuals, couples and groups in the areas of addiction, sex/relationship matters, chemsex, self-esteem and body image, anxiety, depression, existential issues and more.