College students contract the highest number of STDs among any age group. One in four of all new HIV infections in the United States occur in people under the legal drinking age.
Staff writer Jill Bauer had to know if she was one of an increasingly large number of young adults with HIV, so she got tested in fear of representing the 25 percent of people who aren’t aware that they are HIV positive.
For the past two years, the thought of having HIV has controlled my life. Understand that when you’re sure you have it, endless lists of numbers trample through your brain: how many people you’ve slept with, how many condoms you’ve used, how many condoms you’ve forgotten to use, how many people you knew, how many people you didn’t know, and the most monolithic number of them all – how many people in the world have the disease.
Forty million people worldwide were living with HIV in 2004. In 2003, 1.2 million Americans were living with the disease, according to the Center for Disease Control. And one in three does not even know it.
I’m not exactly what you’d call the safe-sex poster child; I’m more of your traditional free-love kind of girl, with a semi high-risk sexual history.
So, I got up early one morning and forced myself over to the clinic on Broad and Lombard streets. They have rapid HIV blood testing. I told myself it was like a routine doctor’s exam I had to deal with before I went to the bank. I went to the front desk and told the receptionist I wanted to get tested for HIV. I was so nervous that I could barely say the name of the disease. She gave me a white ticket and said they’d call me when it was my turn. My number was 879.
Thirty minutes later a needle was in my arm. In the time it took to find a vein and draw the blood, 10 people contracted HIV, according to the CDC’s most recent data. With that in mind, I was petrified.
The results from a rapid HIV blood test can come back in as little as 20 minutes or take as long as 45. Sitting in a bleak and noiseless waiting room for 45 minutes is one of the most mind-damaging things you can do to a person. I realized I hadn’t made a plan for what I would do immediately after getting a positive test result. I was alone and no one was available to pick me up. I didn’t have my shift covered at work or my project done for tomorrow’s class, I was behind on running my errands and late for a photo shoot I had set up earlier in the week. My test results were negative. I do not have the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, and that is something that I can now tell the entire world.
But this isn’t just a fortuitous essay about celebrating my escape from the fate that belongs to the 40 million people living with HIV, the 25 million who have already died from AIDS, or the 3,762 college students who tested positive the same year I went on my unprotected sex rampage in 2004.
At age 22, I’ve had sex with several people, had unprotected sex with some I didn’t know and I’ve been on the giving and receiving end of oral sex.
Call me nasty names, but I’m not alone in my numbered promiscuous adventures. Eighty-six percent of my college-aged buddies report having had sexual intercourse, and only 30 percent of college students surveyed used a condom the last time they had sex, according to the CDC. I’m just one of them.
My first unprotected sexual experience was your typical, too-much-to-drink, blurry college sexual escapade. After an ugly breakup, a few too many orange Jell-O shots, and countless cans of cheap beer, I woke up to a horrific scene, justifying an unprotected penis in my bed – and I’m not alone.
In a 2002 survey by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 400,000 students between 18 and 24 had unprotected sex as a result of drinking. And a lot of students drink. In a recent survey, more than 67 percent of students have consumed alcohol in the past 30 days, according to the NIAAA.
The night I first had unprotected sex stuck with me for a while. Even two years after the incident I would have flashbacks from that night and think of ways I could spin the events when I wrote my “My name is Jill and I’m HIV positive” story to spread word on my disease.
You would think one perilous sexual blunder would be my learned lesson, but then I did it again. This time was with another stranger, then with a “friend,” and lastly with my current boyfriend of a year-and-a-half.
It was the unprotected sex with my boyfriend that really got to me. We hadn’t exactly been open about discussing our sexual history, so when I realized that I may have passed to him an incurable disease, the “what if” guilt became unbearable. The question began to drive me crazy. I’d see his parents and wonder how I could tell them that I gave their son HIV. I’d pass a kitchen set in Wal-Mart, and remember that we wouldn’t be able to have a kitchen of our own. It became an obsession before I got tested.
Feeding into my obsession of “having HIV” were the statistics that backed up my theory. After all, there’s nothing un-researched about assuming I had the disease. Twenty-five percent of people infected with HIV don’t know it, according to the CDC. College students have the highest number of STDs among any age group, and one in four of all new HIV infections in America occur in people under the legal drinking age. Kids are walking around with the disease and they just don’t know it.
I became what you can call a “CDC regular.” I’d feel overtired or have a swollen lymph node, and I’d immediately glue myself to the computer and peruse the CDC’s list of early symptoms.
I’d sit next to a HIV/AIDS ad on the subway and scrutinize the lists of HIV statistics. I would constantly calculate the number of times I had unprotected sex, and with how many people, and compare my risks to the behavioral risk levels of others who now live with the disease. I couldn’t concentrate on my life.
Realizing that HIV could also be transmitted through oral sex caught me off guard. I had always known that there was a possible risk of transmitting the disease, thanks to my high school health class, but I was not told people can contract the disease through giving or receiving oral sex. And I’ve had oral sex as a last resort when I didn’t have a condom on-hand.
So this is how it works: The virus is transmitted through direct contact of a mucous membrane with a bodily fluid containing HIV, according to the CDC.
The most common forms of transmission are vaginal sex, anal sex and injected drug use, but oral sex is definitely a risk. Blood in a person’s mouth may enter another’s urethra, vagina or anus, and transmit the disease, according to the CDC.
I do not have HIV, and that is something that I can now tell the entire world. But this isn’t just a fortuitous essay about celebrating my escape from the fate that belongs to the 40 million people living with HIV. This is an emphasis on accepting the cold fact that some of us won’t walk at graduation with the same number of T cells as our peers.
This is an emphasis on getting tested, an open acknowledgement that some of us have HIV and a plea to get tested.
Jillian Bauer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.