Safe Sex and HIV: A New Study Shows Changing Perceptions

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U=U is shorthand for an important HIV discovery: Undetectable levels of HIV are untransmittable, meaning that they can’t be transmitted by sex. The breakthrough, announced by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about two years ago, has the potential to erase much of the stigma surrounding HIV. But does the public buy into it?
 
New research by Professor H. Jonathon Rendina (GC/Hunter, Psychology) offers insight.
 
Rendina, a Graduate Center alumnus and director of the Applied Intersectionality & Minority Stress Lab at Hunter College, led a team of researchers in a study of nearly 112,000 men who have sex with men. The study, published today in the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes found that 84% of those surveyed living with HIV know that people living with undetectable HIV cannot sexually transmit the virus. Rendina spoke to The Graduate Center about the findings and his work.
 
The Graduate Center: What would you say is the significance of these new findings? What implications do they have on the future of HIV prevention and combatting stigma?

Professor H. Jonathon Rendina

Rendina: This increased awareness and acceptance of the message will hopefully, over time, continue to lead to lower levels of HIV stigma, which then hopefully will also enhance health. We hear a lot of stories about people living with HIV … who have felt afraid of having sex since they were diagnosed. Suddenly, now they realize they can have a happy, healthy sex life with partners of any HIV status as long as they're able to maintain an undetectable status.
 
GC: What do you believe has brought about this change in public perception?
 
Rendina: There have been a lot of people living with HIV and allies of people with HIV who have fought really hard for this message to be spoken loud and clear. I think that activists had to do a lot of convincing and a lot of really important science had to be done to get us to the point where both people living with HIV and the scientific community were able to agree that, in fact, the transmission risk is zero with an undetectable status. In addition to that, it took a lot of public health advocacy with statements from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
and from the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
 
I think dating apps for queer men have taken the opportunity to integrate information about U=U and about PrEP and other HIV-prevention options both as educational material within their apps as well as options people can identify as their primary or preferred methods of HIV prevention. I think it has been a full range of things that kind of all came together really quite quickly.
 
GC: Do you believe the number of people who understand U=U will continue to grow?
 
Rendina: I definitely am hopeful that we're going to keep seeing those numbers grow and that that is going to help us to change the conversation around HIV prevention. I think the more that we can start to change the conversation and talk about the fact that we have multiple options now for averting new transmission, the better off we’ll be. I think we’re already starting to see that pay off. New York City was the first health department in the country to buy on to the U=U message and to sign on to the campaign.
 
GC: You’ve been a part of numerous studies on HIV and sexual and gender minority populations; do you consider this your life’s work?
 
Rendina: I think understanding stigma is my life’s work in a broader sense. I think U=U came about at a time when I was able to start developing some research questions around that. I hope that this is the first of many breakthroughs that we see both in the HIV field as well as the field of sexual and gender minority health. I would say that my life’s work can be focused on the role of stigma and identity and how that impacts health and how we can use psychology to improve people’s physical health and social relationships.
 
GC: You’ve done a lot of work in the public health area, but you’ve done it all as a psychologist. How do psychology and public health intersect for you?
 
Rendina: As a social psychologist, I think a lot about people's identities and the meaning of their identities to them. That is what led me into the field of stigma work. I think that that's why I care so much about the U=U message in particular because I think it really is something that can change HIV stigma and change people's identities.
 
Stigma is terrible for health in a lot of different ways and that is a major focus of my work. I think that that's where my psychology background comes into play. I think not just about these public health issues, but also the impact that they can have on individual identities.

Submitted on: DEC 4, 2019

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