Dating dilemmas: Risk rejection or stick to positive partners?

To avoid the pain of being rejected, many HIV-positive Kenyans are choosing to exclusively date other infected people. But does this make things any easier?

"When I meet someone I like, there is always an argument in my head about how I will tell them about my status. It has turned out to be too hard for me to admit it, so now I have a boyfriend who is also HIV-positive," said Belah Adundo, a university student in the capital, Nairobi.

"I don't have to explain anything to him - he understands the issues I face and we know that with protection we can avoid re-infection. I don't think someone negative can be as understanding and, besides, I have been hurt too much in the past - I don't want to risk it."

Adundo lives in the city's largest slum, Kibera, and although she has not revealed her status publicly, she volunteers as a peer educator and says it is the negative attitudes she still sees in her neighbourhood that make her even more certain she should not try to date someone whose status she is unsure of.

"When we walk around telling people about HIV, they say things like, 'I wish ARVs [life-prolonging antiretroviral drugs] had never come here - then we would know all the people with AIDS and they could all be cleared from our midst'. When I hear things like that I know I have made the right decision."

Live Ochii, 40, a retired navy officer who is HIV positive, said although he wouldn't mind dating an HIV-negative woman, he has found that since his divorce in 2004 he has mostly ended up dating HIV-positive women.

"If it's sex for the sake of sex, then an HIV-positive person is easier because disclosure is not a big issue and you both understand each other. When there are feelings involved and you're getting close to someone on a deeper level, the HIV status is not an issue, although I will only tell a lady if I am certain she will not reject me."

Relationships between HIV-positive people were common, said Lyne Mutheu (not her real name), who works with one of Nairobi's largest networks for people living with HIV. "When we have conferences for people living with HIV, we see very high levels of sexual activity among the participants. It seems like they are trying to expend the sexual energy they have been building up because they feel they cannot date freely in their normal lives."

Ochii noted that because far fewer men were willing to admit to their status and attend such conferences, the competition among the women for men like him was fairly high. "Many women are still young and single, divorced or widowed and they want children or long-term relationships, so they zoom in on us at these events."

Mutheu has just ended a nine-year relationship with an HIV-negative partner who stayed with her despite finding out she was HIV-positive in 2001. She said she was not dating at the moment but did not feel her status would be an obstacle. "When I decide to date I will obviously be careful whom I choose, but my HIV status will not be central to my choice of partner - after all, it's not all that I'm about."

Dating and disclosure are high on the list of issues young HIV-positive people discuss during counselling, according to Harriet Watindi, of the Liverpool University’s Voluntary Counselling and Testing, Care and Treatment Programme in Kenya.

"Our approach is to find out what they want from a relationship, and how they wish to present themselves. Each situation is different, but whatever advice we give ensures that they do not put themselves in danger of re-infection or risk infecting others," she said.

"We encourage disclosure, but only in situations where the person is most likely to get support through disclosure, not when they are likely to be
judged."

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