The Resonance Project

What we heard from gay men and their service providers about: Trust and Deception 

What we heard from gay men and their service providers about:

Gay men discussed whether or not they felt they could trust other gay men around sexual encounters, particularly in regards to serostatus (when a sex partner stated he was HIV-negative or had undetectable viral load), testing frequency and test results, use of condoms, use of PrEP, and being monogamous. They also wondered whether some gay men deliberately lied or sought to deceive, particularly in the online dating scene.

Trust regarding serostatus, testing, PrEP, condoms, monogamy

Sometimes participants distinguished PrEP and undetectable viral load as strategies that are distinct from condoms because unlike the first two, condoms were used directly during the sexual encounter and they could be seen. The third quote comes from a participant who called into question all three – serostatus, testing, and PrEP.

You see it sometimes on the sites. ‘Neg as of’ last December. OK, six months have passed. Why bother telling me that you were negative six months ago? How am I supposed to know now?  Pos, <35, MTL3

If you’re positive, you’re positive. That’s the clearer one. But when it comes to undetectable and negative, it’s not as clear. You don’t know you’re still undetectable. You don’t know you’re still negative… Pos, 35-49, TO2

It’s the fact that he specifies that he’s negative, on PrEP, and tested every three months… Why would I take that as a guarantee of my own sexual health as a bottom? Pos, <35, MTL3

However, as we see in the next quotes, even condom use raised questions of trust. Some of the gay men described encounters in which they questioned whether or not the sexual partner was keeping the condom on (or even if he had tampered with the condom).

Let’s say they are topping you, you didn’t check the condom or something. He could open the condom or tear it before and put it on because he’s into barebacking right? Neg, <35, TO4

He was positive but he told me he was negative. I was wearing a rubber but we were having drunk sex. But he was holding the penis and as my penis was going in and out, the condom was coming off. He’s done this to 10 other guys and he infected 10 of us.  Pos, 35-49, TO1

Below is an exchange between HIV-positive and HIV-negative men. We can see here that trust was an important factor in calculating risk, in addition to the biomedical information that they had to consider.

I was in a relationship for more than a year. We had gone for our tests. We weren’t using condoms anymore and my boyfriend cheated on me. He got it and gave it to me… But who’s going to get tested every three months when you’re in a relationship...  Pos, <35, MTL1

Q: When you’re in a couple, are you going to use a condom every time?

  • Yes, me yes. Neg, 35-49, MTL1
  • Well, bravo! [sarcastic, group laughter] Neg, <35, MTL1
  • Because you just don’t know. He could be lying. Neg, 35-49, MTL1
  • It seems to me that after so much time as a couple, it could be perceived as a lack of trust. Pos, <35, MTL1
  • But we have to accept that we’re men… Neg, 35-49, MTL1

Deliberate deception

In discussing the dating profiles, many of the gay men made reference to (dis)honesty in the ads. Some of the gay men had the impression that online dating sites and apps were not conducive to honesty among potential sexual partners. This theme was also evident among service providers, as well as a generally pronounced sense of distrust.

There’s a lot of insincerity online. Neg, 35-49, TO4

  • Fidelity doesn’t exist. Pos, 50+, MTL3
  • Even less so in the gay world. Pos 50+, MTL3
  • How many times do you lie to get sex? Neg, 35-49, TO2
  • All the time… just kidding [laughter].  Pos, 35-49, TO2
  • No, yeah, seriously. People tell small lies, half lies, lies of omission, different levels of lies to get laid. It happens everywhere, not just gay people but everywhere. Neg, 35-49, TO2

I’m not quite as much of a romantic as you are. You still have to behave all the time in your own best interest. I’m sorry, that’s what’s called survival. Neg, 50+, VAN1

Encouraging (healthy) distrust

Service providers discussed whether or not they felt gay men  should trust other gay men, particularly what they said around sexual encounters (e.g., negative or undetectable serostatus, testing frequency and test results, use of condoms, being monogamous).

We’re not like condom assholes or ignoring all the relationship nuances. But we say: ‘when you’re ready to give your partner your passport or your credit card, have a conversation about condom use and get tested.’ It’s not that difficult right. We really need to educate men to determine the difference between intimacy and love and trust and condomless sex. SP, 35-49, CLIN, TO

Some of the service providers said that they often actively encouraged their clients to be distrustful, stating that some gay men deliberately lied, and that it was an inherent part of being gay and/or being a man.

  • Just the spectacular lying that goes on in the gay community.  SP, 50+, PSY, VAN
  • I think that sometimes being gay facilitates a certain need to be a bit of a different person, putting on different masks, in a sense of creating different personas. I think that gay men can certainly become quite adept at making those personas and lying to themselves or lying to others. Deception becomes in a sense a masculine trait if you will. SP, 35-49, PSY, VAN

Some of the service providers described being ‘shocked’ and ‘scared’ at how ‘naïve’ gay men were, stating that they engaged in ‘wishful thinking’ and made decisions about risk based on very partial information. Service providers generally expressed and encouraged greater trust in someone’s claim of being HIV-positive and/or undetectable than HIV-negative, encouraging clients to be mindful of the risks of acute infection.

Negative’s the last year’s unknown… Negative is an assumption that people make. SP, 35-49, CBO, TO

The thing that scares me is that people will choose a risk based on just that tiny little piece of information that they’ve gathered that isn’t really part of a whole picture. SP, 35-49, CLIN, VAN

On a dating site the extent of the inquiry that’s directed towards me about my HIV status is usually half a sentence ‘are you clean, are you negative, are you tested?’… People really want to get laid and they don’t want to put too many things in the way of that. But they also want to deal with their anxiety. But they deal with it in a very minimal way that relies on my word or their word. It’s shocking to me. It’s really shocking… after all this time, how naïve that is. SP, 50+, PSY, VAN

Patten S, LeBlanc MA, Jackson E, Adam B (2016). The Resonance Project Community Report: Emerging biomedical discourses on HIV among gay men and their service providers.