The Positive Side

Fall/Winter 2005 

Sexual Healing: Interview with Stephen Frey

Interview by Darien Taylor


Diagnosed with HIV in 1992

I’m single. I’ve dated and been in relationships, but nothing really long term. I’m not the kind of person who goes looking for a boyfriend. If it happens, it happens. I’m not too hung up on it. I find it difficult when I start dating somebody because sometimes I just don’t feel very sexual.

A few years ago I met somebody in Germany. I liked him very much and we got along very well. He visited me a couple weeks later. When he was here, I wasn’t getting horny. I wasn’t able to get an erection. I think with gay men sometimes if sex isn’t pretty good fairly soon they lose interest. I just wasn’t feeling sexual and I wasn’t able to perform, and he lost interest pretty quickly. I regret that because he was quite special.

It made me very insecure. I suppose the tendency would be to go for anonymous situations where there’s no chance of bonding in that kind of way, which isn’t really what I want. So I went to my doctor. This was before sexual function problems were discussed very often in the medical community with HIV positive people. I was embarrassed bringing up this problem with my doctor. I assume a lot of men are. When it comes to self-image maybe we put too much emphasis on our erections. I told my doctor: “I’m 38. I’m with somebody I get along with, I’ve been honest with and I’m attracted to, and it’s just not happening for me. That’s not normal.” My doctor agreed. He prescribed testosterone patches, which helped make a difference — there was a subtle improvement and no side effects.

I smoke cigarettes, which doesn’t help the situation. I was also having anxiety problems, and my inability to perform seemed to do with that as well. I tend to be kind of a nervous person. I’ve worked rather hard to be more comfortable with myself, but I have other issues outside of HIV and sex.

Can we talk about that? Because it’s not like life begins or ends with HIV — we carry who we are into our diagnosis. So, tell me about that person that you are.

I always had sexual hang-ups. I started becoming sexually active in the early ’80s. I had a very romanticized view of how things would be and I ended up with guys who would cheat on me or lie to me, which was devastating. It made having relationships a lot more difficult, because here were people who supposedly cared for me who didn’t treat me very well. I had trouble standing up for myself and I carried that for a long time. So I think my nervousness was already there, and HIV exacerbated it. One good thing that came out of being HIV positive is that I work very hard at being more open and addressing these things.

Has HIV had a negative impact on your sex life?

After my diagnosis, it was almost like I became hypersexual but without necessarily acting on it. I just wasn’t able to function in the same way. It was very weird. My sex drive increased but my ability to get an erection decreased. I was nervous about sex as it was anyway, so then having trouble with sexual function and getting an erection just made me more nervous and less open.

So would you say your major sexual issue is your inability to get an erection?

I’d say the issues are both physical (erection problems, loss of libido) and psychological (anxiety about erection problems, fear of passing on the virus, negative self-esteem due to body shape changes). I’m part of an online group for gay positive men called Other positive men I’ve chatted with online have told me that they have similar issues concerning sex.

What have you done to address the physical problem, besides taking testosterone?

A couple of years after using the testosterone patch, my doctor took me off it because my levels were high and it seemed to add to my anxiety. My GP sent me to a urologist. I was the only person under 50 in the room. The urologist prescribed Viagra, which didn’t work that well for me. Now I take Cialis from time to time, which I find works better than Viagra.

Have you tried any complementary therapies?

Gingko is supposed to help blood circulation and help with erections. I tried it, but it didn’t seem to make much of a difference. Maybe I didn’t use it enough. I kept reading about possible interactions between herbs and HIV meds, and I decided to stay away.

What about the smoking? Did any of the doctors say that could be implicated?

Definitely. I smoke about half a pack a day. I’m trying to quit. It’s very difficult. It’s always in the back of my head that I should quit for a whole bunch of reasons but I haven’t yet.

And how have you dealt with the psychological issues?

I saw a psychologist and I joined group therapy. The focus of the group therapy was intimacy, and it helped but it was a slow process. I was also seeing a psychiatrist periodically to adjust my antidepressants.

Antidepressants can also have an effect on sexual function.

The one I’m on now, Wellbutrin, doesn’t. I would say it helps sexual function more than anything. I was on Celexa first, and that made it almost impossible to reach orgasm.

How is your overall health?

Not bad. I’ve been on quite a few combinations. Now I’m on Sustiva (efavirenz), Viread (tenofovir) and Videx (ddI). I’m taking part in SMART, a study about structured treatment interruptions. I stopped meds in May, but my numbers declined rather quickly so I had to go back on in July.

I felt good being off meds. I sort of felt more like me. To be perfectly honest, I found it a lot easier to get an erection off meds. Was it psychological? I don’t know. But I’ve noticed a change since I’ve been back on meds, and I don’t think it’s just in my head.

How do condoms fit into this for you? Many men find that condoms inhibit their erections.

Yeah, putting a condom on can basically kill it. That’s why I think a lot of positive men choose not to use them. That said, I do find condom usage to be fairly high in Halifax and I use them myself.

What’s the situation with your sex life now?

I’m not looking for a boyfriend at the moment. I have sexual partners from time to time. For the last three years that I was living in Montreal, I didn’t have sex much at all. I was avoiding it. When I moved to Halifax, my doctor asked about my sexual activity, and my reply was “not very often.” He said, “Oh, that’ll change. You’re in Halifax.”

In many ways, things are better for me here. I do have more sex here. There seems to be a lot of sex going on in this town. And I’m more comfortable with myself. A lot of guys are chatting online. I’ve done that a few times but I haven’t actually met anyone “in the flesh” this way. I prefer meeting people one on one. Exchanging pictures doesn’t do it for me. A picture doesn’t show all of somebody’s attractiveness, so I don’t put a lot of stock into that.

I’m still basically a romantic at heart. I think a lot of gay men have trouble combining sex and intimacy, and I’ve been one of them. I’m hopeful I’ll get it right one of these days.

Sexual Healing: Interview with David Hoe
Sexual Healing: Interview with Liz Welkert
Sexual Healing: Interview with Danielle Layman-Pleet
Sexual Healing: 8 Experts Talk Sex