Austin's STI Habitat

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We had set the date a couple of days in advance. A handful of vague text messages and less than two minutes of conversation was about all we knew of each other. The girl was more or less a complete stranger. I had met her in about as un-sexual a setting as possible. We had exchanged a few words, and decided to also exchange numbers.

I was already running late when I left for her house, and after following my instincts and ignoring the directions, I added an extra hour and a half running around lost, in frozen ass January. When I finally did get to her house I was greeted with a smile and mimosas.

We hit it off alright, as unremarkably as any polite and unacquainted non-assholes. After a few minutes of verbal discourse and breaking some ice, it was time to get high. Being a true gentleman I had brought some of my own weed, but she could tell by my nasally voice over the phone, that anything I brought was going to be Austin bullshit some jerk off nurtured in his back yard, fronting its quality for California prices.

“Daaaaamn…!?!” After only a couple of hits from her pipe I was coughing hysterically. This weed was like bonafide Cali-kush. I never asked where it came from, but there was no need to. It was way too chronic to be local. I hadn’t been this high in months. After about 10 minutes of conversation, she segued the discussion to sex.

She made her first pass and I wrote it off, telling myself it was just my penis taking advantage of my chronic state of mind. After she gave a gory testimony of Burning Mans and Rainbow Gatherings, and a few sexual passes later I started to get really stoked.

I commented on how I thought her sex stories were cool, and without trying to sound like a total wiener, inquired about her concerns with sexual infections. (I have been extensively told the term STD is getting phased out; apparently someone can have a venereal infection and spread it without showing any signs of disease).

I neglected to ask if any of the sex from her stories was protected. My mind was made up. I’d rather stay ignorant of any information that was either going to bum me out, or distort my enthusiastic perception of where the night was heading.

She revealed she wasn’t too concerned with STIs. I was looking at it from a narrow and fear mongered perspective and apparently wasn’t taking the more holistic approach. Anything can be cured or prevented with an eclectic diet of traditionally grown vegetables in nutrient rich soil. A weekly douche of kombucha and a touch of sage smoke anointed on undergarments can care for the more severe genital outbreaks.

I had been at her house for little over half of an hour but the weed made it feel like… a lot longer. The conversation wound down and she really wanted to show me her new god awful bed canopy she had recently erected. She claimed she spent a good 40 minutes hammering it into the wall, christening it with asbestos.

We sat on the edge of her bed for a minute bullshitting over some band she thought was cool and finally began initiating some sexual contact. After some conventional foreplay and a wicked BJ, she started to get naked and it dawned on me: shit was about to get real. Completely stoned and a cowardly nerd at heart, I started to flake.

“Waaait... I don’t know if I have a condom… I was gonna get one when we were out…but…”

My mumbling protest was ignored at first. She only seemed to be increasing her enthusiasm. Finally I got her attention after raising an unintelligible fit, and explained myself. She seemed a little shocked that I would derail the moment for something stupid like a condom. I should have been focusing my thoughts in more constructive venues like having sex, rather than spoil the time being, worrying about negative shit like condoms and sex infections.

I reached into my jacket for a condom. I was hoping to save some face and appeal to her newfangled sentiments by the condom’s exotic origins, but she remained visibly annoyed. I never felt more stupid putting a condom on. After completely brining the mood to a screeching halt and a really corny joke about the condom’s biodegradability, I was worried I had just prematurely ended the entire night. Luckily she decided to ignore the recent hiccups and the ridiculous clown suit on my penis.

Afterwards I began pondering on how much the night had totally ruled, but what the hell? Unprotected sex with a complete stranger? Who even did that anymore? The inspiration behind it seemed totally dated and retro, like some weird denial that AIDS and the 80’s ever happened.

The novelty of the situation seemed kinda cool though; some young girl living a sexually relic lifestyle with no visible consequences. But how novel was the experience here? How many more were out there just like her?

I cross referenced the night’s events with friends and co-workers to see how common a night like mine was. Nobody thought much of it. They all considered unprotected sex with acquaintances a fairly standard procedure. Most of my friends and co-workers were new arrivals to the city and they claimed to have already heard rumors about this happening in Austin before they came.

I figured the STI rate would have to be huge and easy to find, but internet research only produced negligible results. I found conflicting statistics from various health websites, a forum with a compiled list of video links featuring UT alumni on a variety of amateur porn sites, and a dated Men’s Health article claiming Austin to be the most sex happy city in the U.S... Over all, there was very little information about the significance of any STI’s in Austin.

Even though HIV and STI specialists were unable to give any clue as to the ratio of unprotected to protected sex, I was told by Micah King from Aids Services of Austin (ASA) that reproductive health workers are noticing an “epidemic” increase of Chlamydia within the past six years with women ages 18-24. On the STD surveillance report from the Texas Department of State Health Services, the rate of reported cases per year has risen almost 200% since 2005 and over 100% since 2007. The spread of Chlamydia is getting so bad that state workers are making plans for a campaign to address the issue. Scott J. Spear MD from Planned Parenthood in Austin suggested that the rising rate isn’t necessarily due to new Chlamydia infections, but could instead be the result of more frequent and better testing for non-symptomatic cases.

There are a lot of HIV and AIDS care groups in Austin, not because there’s a disproportionate amount of HIV infected people here, but because HIV management is a high priority. I talked to some specialists from both ASA and The Wright House Wellness center about what some of the more common problems they run into while working with HIV in Austin. Across the board the most common problems were the stigma of HIV and a general lack of education about the virus.

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October 11, 1988, Demonstrators closed down the U.S. Food and Drug Administration outside of Washington D.C. in reaction to the slow approval process for AIDS medications.

When the AIDS epidemic was first introduced by the U.S. media it received an immediate stigma of being exclusively associated with I.V. drug users and male homosexuals. Politically, HIV was completely ignored as a cause for concern.

While the government was ignoring the growing AIDS casualties, radical advocacy groups like ACT UP were growing. ACT UP was one of the more successful advocacy groups in recent history, effectively changing political polices and bringing public attention to HIV/AIDS.

The success of ACT UP was brought about by hundreds of protests and thousands of arrests. ACT UP was also well known for its creative and bold publicity stunts like temporarily shutting down the FDA, halting trade at the New York Stock Exchange, interrupting a live CBS broadcast, and covering homophobic senator Jesse Helm’s house with a giant condom.

HIV specialists from the Wright House Wellness Center (WHWC) and ASA expressed the feeling that the media had done an inadequate job of updating the current condition of AIDS in the U.S. Initially very little was known about the mysterious new illness. Thousands of people were finding out they had contracted something because they were dying rapidly. News of AIDS was over simplified into a contagious death sentence for deviancy and packaged with the images of death-bound young men withered to shriveled husks of dark lesions. This image, still a worse case possibility, is now only the image of a neglected HIV infection and is easily avoidable if treated with the proper medications. Today, HIV specialists have to work against this imagery still lingering from when the virus first broke headlines into the mainstream.

Michael Laster from The WHWC believes that if HIV were treated like any other life threatening illness, people infected with it would be much more taken care of. Effective treatments must be sought out, and are not readily presented to people once they’re registered as an HIV carrier, making it more laborious to receive assistance. A majority of the thousands of registered HIV patients are not receiving case management. If all at once they did, the current amount of HIV assistance programs would be unable to absorb them all.

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Peter Staley getting arrested. On September 14, 1989, Peter Steley helped organize the New York Stock Exchange demonstration; members chained themselves to the VIP balcony to protest the outlandish pricing of the only approved AIDS drug (AZT).

As it is, the HIV care community is already overburdened. Any large increase of new clients would only instigate a more triage mode of assistance. Currently it’s only the more dire needs of patients that are treated, while the more subtle problems such as mental health care are largely ignored. Michael Laster has also noticed a subtle decline in the cognitive abilities of some of his clients. He says it’s rare when these people get access to a mental health practitioner. He brought up the point that until now there has never been a recorded person who has lived with an HIV infection for 30 or more years. Nobody knows what the long term exposure to either HIV or HIV medications can have on the body. Due to the limited funds of these people, little research has been done.

Ultimately it was the Ryan White controversy, preying on people’s sentiments and empathy, which lead to the progress of de-marginalizing HIV and those suffering from its contraction. Two weeks after his 13th birthday Ryan was diagnosed with AIDS. He was expected to live no longer than six months. Ryan White was a member of the roughly 6,000-10,000 Hemophiliacs treated with expensive blood products, predominately derived from the donated blood of HIV infected junkies. Many of these blood product infections could have been avoided had blood companies not ignored urgent warnings from scientists about contaminated blood banks. Miraculously, he outlived his six month life expectancy, and feeling more and more healthy felt he was ready to continue school.

Despite the acknowledgement from both the Indiana State health commissioner and the Federal Centers for Disease Control that White’s presence at the school was not an endangerment to other students, 117 parents and 50 teachers signed a petition pressuring school officials to ban White from school. Contrary to scientific evidence being publicly released on a regular basis, the American Medical Association continued to suggest the possibility of HIV contraction through casual contact. After three failed attempts to legally keep White from reentering school, it was determined unlawful to physically bar him because of his contraction of HIV.

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January 22, 1991, John Weir during the live interruption of a CBS update on Operation Desert Storm, rushing the camera with two other activists chanting “AIDS is news. Fight AIDS, not Arabs.”

As the months continued, so did the town’s increasing threats of violence and aggressive homosexual accusations towards Ryan (a self-proclaimed heterosexual). Eventually the town’s hostility reached its peak after a drive by shooting of his family’s home.
The sensational news coverage of these events conveyed life lessons like: “What if this happened to your strait little boy?” or “don’t hate all people with AIDS, because some of them are strait.” This turned Ryan White into a media icon and the national poster child for HIV/AIDS research.

His constant media appearances resulted in a number of friendships and gifts from celebrity A-listers like Elton John, Ronald Reagan, and Michael Jackson (who gifted a mustang convertible to Ryan in his high school days).

‘“Ryan knows how I want to be treated, because it’s how he wants to be treated.’” Jeanne White-Ginder quoting The Undisputed King of Pop, The New York Times 11/24/92

Due to Ryan White’s star status and unique story, he was regularly invited to high profile events, speaking about HIV and his life with AIDS. He also became a frequent guest on Phil Donahue’s talk show where he spoke from the AIDS perspective.

Shortly after White’s death, the U.S. Congress passed the Ryan White Care Act. With a budget of just over $2 billion, the Ryan White programs are the largest federally funded provider for HIV and AIDS in the U.S. These programs provide funding to thousands of various HIV and AIDS oriented organizations and services around the U.S., including the AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP).

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Ryan White and MJ, play’n serious.

Here in central Texas, the ADAP provides 14,000 low-income Texans living with HIV and AIDS financial assistance for their life-sustaining drugs. Unassisted, the annual cost for these medications is upwards of $30,000 per person. There is an expected 14% growth in the number of people needing drug assistance over the next two years. The anticipated increase of applicants is due to population growth, better more frequent testing, and increased life expectancies from better HIV medications.

The Texas ADAP claims it’s going to require an additional $19.2 million of funding this time around to maintain an effective program. This includes compensating for the annual rise of Texas ADAP applicants. The program is already stretched to its limits, and the $19.2 million needed to sustain ADAP has currently been denied by the mostly Republican budget makers. ADAP was suggested to pursue any additional funding from the Texas Health and Human Services with Medicaid savings (another underfunded program).This isn’t the first time Republicans in state office have tried to flex budget-nuts on the ADAP. It was defunded back in 2005 and has since been revived.

Without ADAP’s additional $19.2 million request, the less severe cases of infection will have to be excluded in attempts to help more desperate clients. AIDS is a manageable disease if you have access to healthcare. Unfortunately 14,000 HIV infected Texans don’t, with an estimation of roughly 1,800 more on the way.

It’s been argued that any money saved by cutting ADAP’s funding is going to be lost in the substantial medical expenditures that accompany caring for thousands of cases of untreaated AIDS. But who or why would anyone want to care for the clients rejected by ADAP? These people are already lacking health insurance, so there’s pretty much no monetary incentive for any hospital to accept them. Without the proper HIV/AIDS medications that these people will potentially be denied, any hospital would be no more helpful than a hospice.

Scientists know more about the disease than ever before. More effective treatments are continuously being discovered and implemented, and the best medications yet, exist today. Despite all of this, it might be one of the worst times in a while to have AIDS in Texas.

Maybe you could get away with casual unprotected sex in Austin years ago, but with Chlamydia and Syphilis on the rise, and a largely Republican government communicating loud and clear it doesn’t give a fuck if you get AIDS, unprotected sex with strangers is kind of a lost cause. The population of Austin is climbing as well as its variety of communicable diseases. It’s one thing to be a little bummed about Austin’s transition from small chill city to hectic metropolitan area, but being in total denial of it and endangering yourself for whatever eccentric sex custom is a whole other. There’s nothing chill about a rotten genital.

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