In 2001, at 125 pounds and with HIV coursing through his veins, a man named Rick Burton launched a website called HIVNet, one of the first STD-focused dating communities on the internet. "It was started for purely selfish reasons...I thought it would last six months or a year," he recalls. "I could meet some people and shut the thing down."
Burton was first diagnosed in the 1980s, when much of America was still treating HIV and AIDS like a problem that didn't matter much because it supposedly only killed gay people and White House officials laughed about the problem. He describes those early years as living in "survival mode." He was part of a community of people either scared to death or resigned to their fate, bracing themselves for whatever was around the corner. But by the mid-'90s, as the first protease inhibitors were integrated into healthcare and HIV-positive people started getting a little less sick, it became clear there was still a life left to lead.
"Instead of living on a six month timeframe, all the sudden you were thinking 'You know, I might have a couple years left here,'" says Burton. But survivors still had to cope with the social stigma. "The minute you told your friends about it, they were gone. You told your family about it and they were gone. The Internet was a gold nugget we found because we could socialize with other positive people all over the country. To me, that was a life-saver."
More than 15 years later, HIVNet is still going strong, with some members dating back to the original founding of the site. Its membership is restricted to people who are actively living with the virus—a point of pride for Burton—but it's far from the only site of its kind on the Internet. There's PositiveSingles, a dating app that's marketed to people with both HIV and herpes. There's Hope, which bills itself as "the best free herpes dating site and App for singles with herpes and other STDs to find love and support." There's POZ, a New York-based media outlet with an extensive personals section that boasts over 150,000 members. And there's PozMatch, a site that, like HIVNet, has an HIV-positive owner and has been around since the late '90s.
The interface of these services are not unlike what you might find on Tinder or OKCupid. An "about me," an interests section, a questionnaire for height, weight, religion, and sexuality. The only noticeable difference is the space to disclose what you're living with: Chlamydia, Hepatitis, HPV, Herpes, or HIV/AIDS. On PositiveSingles you can find message boards full of treatment advice and date success stories, as well as a navigator that points you to your nearest care center.
Disclosure is the most important part of dating with an STD. It's not something that ever feels routine, but it's also not something you can—much less should—avoid. There is strict legislation across the U.S. that punishes the failure to disclose STD-positive status with prison time. Beyond that, Ii's easy to feel alienated or unwanted when a bombshell lingers over every flirt, making it only natural that many Americans turn to dating apps targeted specifically at the positive community.
As such, these sites offer safe harbor for folks like John Anderson. A couple years ago, he took home a one-night stand from a friend's house party, and soon after contracted Herpes. "I knew what I had wasn't life ending in any way, but I was also very aware that it was life altering," recalls the 27-year-old member of the Canadian Army. "My common sense told me my personal life had taken a hard right turn."
Anderson immediately deleted his Tinder and Plenty of Fish accounts. It was a dark few months—he returned to mainstream online dating briefly, but was quickly rebuffed by a few potential matches after his status was revealed, and has not been back. Rattled by those rejections, he signed up for PositiveSingles, believing it offered a better shot at a long lasting relationship.
He was right.
"The disclosure is stressful in the beginning, but then becomes almost empowering," Anderson says. "You are with people who have been through exactly what you are going through and know exactly how you feel. People who have thought similar thoughts and reacted in ways you can sympathize with. It makes sending that first message to a girl much easier."
Beyond the simple disclosure, though, Anderson says the site also offered an unexpected peace of mind. "I could at least not worry about infecting another person," he explains. "The idea of infecting another person terrifies me as I wasn't informed prior to having sex with the woman who infected me; she took away my choice in the matter and that is something I can never do to another person."
Lindsay Connors, 35, feels much the same way. She found out she was HIV positive in 2001, and tried a few targeted dating networks in the early days of her diagnosis. Back then, she found a small pool of users and limited heterosexual options, and so has dated "normally" (a phrase she uses, but also hates) since, and tells me almost everyone she's ever slept with or dated has been negative. But recently, after the dissolution of a five-year relationship, she felt compelled to sign up at PositiveSingles.
"I wanted to have people in my life that I didn't feel I was hiding a secret from," she says. "For most of us, it's so comforting to know you don't have to hide your meds,"
Connors has a good support system: She's a veteran survivor with plenty of people in her life that know her status, but recently she's found herself on dates with men who have been positive for less than a year, and are just as freaked out as she was as a 20-year old.
"It's funny, they're usually a lot older than me, where it feels like I should be seeking advice from them, but they're like, 'Oh my gosh, you have so much information,'" Connors says. "I have a friend right now who's a doctor and was diagnosed in the last year, and he's terrified because it could absolutely destroy his career, and I just talk him through it, and he's like, ''You don't understand what you've done for me.'
"I'm happy to help, because when I was going through it, I had nobody."
That kind of connection is what makes HIV and STD dating networks special: They're basically just dating tools like the rest, but a negative person's relationship to Tinder is very different from a positive person's relationship to these communities. On the former, there is no shared experience in swiping right or swiping left beyond the desire for sex or romance. But sites like HIVNet, Hope, and Poz are built as safe spaces, corners of the Internet where positive people can connect with those experiencing similar fears. People sign up for dating sites to hook up; people sign up for STD dating sites to feel recognized—and then hook up.
Rick Burton learned he had HIV on an answering machine in the middle of the night. Back then, he had no access to counseling, therapy, or anything else. The infrastructure is better now, and he believes websites like his own helped make it so. If nothing else, HIVNet and its counterparts have given their users reason to believe that testing positive doesn't shut the door on authentic, transparent intimacy.
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