HIV after the death of nuance

So to continue with my complaints about how, in a world where nuance is dead, we’re unable to tell the truth, here’s a piece from Gawker’s Dayna Evans going after Vine star and moron Nash Grier for an ugly video in which he says the word “fag” and suggests that HIV/AIDS is “a gay thing.” Evans writes that Grier “endorses the wrongheaded and homophobic idea that HIV is an issue that exists primarily in the gay community.” The comments, meanwhile, are filled with people arguing that of course, everyone is at equal risk of getting infected. 

This kid, clearly, is an idiot and a jerk. And indeed, the idea that only gay men have to worry about AIDS is simply wrong: there are many heterosexual men and women who are infected with HIV, and no one is truly without risk. That said: it’s simply not true to suggest that men who have sex with men are not at significantly higher risk of getting infected with HIV, outside of the unique epidemiological conditions of sub-Saharan Africa. Here’s a chart of HIV infections in the United States from 2010 from the CDC:

(MSM = men who have sex with men)

Now, does that change the part where this kid is a dumb jerk? Of course not. Does it mean straight people have no risk? Of course not. Does it justify any kind of homophobic reaction, or acting like AIDS is a less important public health problem, or saying that people with HIV “deserve it”? Of course not. There is absolutely no contradiction in saying

1. HIV/AIDS remains a major public health risk, particularly for those without access to combination therapies;
2. Everyone should be smart and careful in their sexual practices, thanks to a variety of STDs, not just HIV;
3. We have a pressing moral responsibility, as a society, to confront HIV/AIDS;
4. In the developed world, men who have sex with men, and intravenous drug users, face far higher infection risks than the public writ large.

That all seems sensible and respectful to me. But I so often see educated, liberal people insisting that there isn’t any difference in risk factors, or reacting with anger to suggestions that different populations are at different risk. And it just gets back to this sense that we’ve made politics so much about signaling your tribal allegiances that you can’t speak with a modicum of nuance or care — either you’re on the team that thinks AIDS is a plague sent by god to punish sinful gays, or you’re on the team that thinks that everyone is perfectly equal in their risk because life is perfectly fair that way. Everything is this way now; you’re never allowed to believe the things you say, but rather have to lard every political statement with a litany of the things you expressly don’t believe, or else get sorted into the camp of the Evil People and get accused of believing things that you haven’t even suggested. It’s exhausting, pointless, and utterly childish, and it makes it so tempting to quit talking about politics entirely.


  1. I agree that it is exhausting and also enervating. The Outrage Machine is not capable of processing nuance. When it comes to discussing HIV in front of a mostly North American audience, I think we are dealing with a discourse that has been shaped by and large by Gen X gay men (and our allies of course) who were just becoming sexually active during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. This was an existential crisis and was quite literally a fight for our lives. The ferocious rhetoric and uncompromising politics of that terrible time have stuck with us. It’s as if we never demoralized and are looking for more wars to prosecute.

  2. As an old fart who remembers the 80s I can tell you that HIV/AIDS was certainly perceived as a “gay” disease back then, not least amongst the gay community, which had two big problems; one, HIV/AIDS, two, getting the rest of society to care (for the youngsters out there who think of gays as cute couples who just want to set up Ward and June Cleaver households like everybody else, gays of the 80s tended to have more pressing concerns). Liberals, undoubtedly well-intentioned, tended to focus on victims such as Magic Johnson and Ryan White to gin up sympathy, and maybe that indeed helped. On the other hand, it also perhaps led to the misconception you point out.

    1. Then you’re also old enough to remember Mathilde Krim, who admitted to intentionally misleading the public about the risk of heterosexual AIDS in the 1980s in order to raise the level of funding for AIDS research. And back then, it seemed like anyone who got AIDS in some television drama got it through heterosexual intercourse, because “it’s not a gay disease.”

      The only place you could hear the truth about heterosexual AIDS back then was in The New Republic (articles by Michael Fumento) or from “shock” comedians like Sam Kinison.

      I think the difference is that in the 1980s, people knew they were either lying (Krim) or creating propaganda (television shows and newspaper features), all for a good cause of course. There wasn’t this war on nuance that started in the 1990s and then escalated with the rise of social media. Back in the 1980s it was just good old-fashioned propaganda.

  3. True enough on the facts, but you keep harping on this being some sort of recent “death of nuance,” rather than intellectual laziness and tribal blindness being inescapable and eternal parts of the human makeup. Twitter didn’t invent signaling.

    1. The war on nuance is relatively new, maybe about twenty years old. Thirty years ago people were intellectually lazy and dishonest, but there weren’t all these gleeful rituals of condemnation around. Ideological purity was less important.

      1. I can’t imagine ideological purity hasn’t always been of the utmost importance; some of the most famous figures in history arose by framing their beliefs in opposition to ideologies – Socrates and the casuists, Jesus and the pharisees, etc. And the rituals may not have been so much of the Twitter variety, but, you know, Robespierre, the Spanish Inquisition, even non-violent stuff like McCarthy were always ongoing things. I mean, 1984 was inspired by the present times.

        I guess maybe it’s amplified by current technologies – I don’t think so, but then again I’ve only self-aware a couple decades now – but it seems pretty bold to claim that this is a whole new way of behaving for humans.

        1. (Socrates and the casuists, who knows what that means. Obviously I’m not much of an expert in Socrates, just offering a thought.)

  4. Here’s an unpopular secret: the chance of transmitting HIV through unprotected heterosexual vaginal intercourse between two white and/or Latino people (as long as neither one is bisexual, a prostitute, an IV drug user, has other STD lesions, or is into bizarre African sexual practices) is *minimal*. Unprotected sex between two such people is a *remarkably safe activity*.

    1. Now hold on a second. Is your claim that race actually impacts the chance of infection between an infected and non-infected partner? Because that seems… crazy. On the other hand, if the point is that the rates of infection within different racial categories is unequal, well, sure. But that speaks to the socioeconomic differences between races, and access to sex education, appropriate treatment, and similar, not to intrinsic racial factors.

      1. Why would you assume it’s due to socioeconomic differences?

        We know that whites are somewhat more resistant to HIV, for example, probably as a result of cross-resistance to bubonic plague. My guess is that physiological differences (i.e. ‘intrinsic racial factors’ are much more important than the socioeconomic ones.)

        1. Q: Is it possible to make a very basic point about the dangers of rhetorically exaggerating the social evenness of HIV risk factors, without emboldening the Hector St Clares of the world to start trolling out their pseudoscientic theories of race?

          A: Nope.

          1. Freddie, if this dimwit is allowed to mock me without compunction, then I’m pulling out of your comment section. I have no desire to be insulted.

            Regarding your absurd theory about ‘sex eduction’, you are of course aware that Black people use condoms more often then whites? (I somewhat disapprove of condoms, but that’s by the bye.)

          2. Hector, if you’re offended by the dimwits in my comments section, maybe you shouldn’t be throwing around irresponsible claims without evidence, and by all means: hit the road.

      2. I’m pretty sure that low-income black people are a lot more likely to contract HIV than low-income whites. Black people are about twice as likely to be poor as white people, but 17X more likely to contract syphilis. So it seems sort of clear to me that there’s something other than income going on.

        I think biological explanations are sort of unlikely given that there are giant racial disparities for all STDs and not to my knowledge for non-STDs. The standard explanation I’ve seen in epidemiological papers is partner concurrency. But I’m not really super-aware of the literature.

        1. “I think biological explanations are sort of unlikely given that there are giant racial disparities for all STDs and not to my knowledge for non-STDs.”

          Yep, just like how Native Americans resist small pox as easily as Europeans. And Africans don’t contract malaria nearly as easily as Europeans.

          1. Provide actual scientific evidence that people of European descent are more biologically resistant to HIV. If all you’re doing here is reporting your own deductive thinking, then really you’re just pushing pseudo-science.

          2. Hector St Clare:

            Just so we’re on the same page: that med journal article you just linked to very clearly argues that, nope, the black plague in Europe has nothing to do with modern-day incidence of HIV resistance.

            You chose to link to this particular article, so am I to gather from this choice that you’ve changed your mind about the entire issue?

          3. Hector St Clare:

            To sate my own curiosity, I’ve been spending the morning reading some of the articles cited by the article you provided. It’s certainly an interesting topic (and sorry, Freddie, for indulging in this tangent). At best, what this medical literature says is that, yes, there’s a small minority of people in the world with an HIV-resistant allele, and, yes, this minority is primarily from Europe and Western Asia.

            But, this still doesn’t help the case you’ve been making in this thread. In most places in Europe and Western Asia, only 4%-5% of the population has the HIV-resistant allele. Incidence of the allele peaks around Finland and NW Russia at 16%. In other words, there is no population where the incidence of this allele is high enough to make unprotected sex a “remarkably safe activity” (your irresponsible assertion above).

  5. “I so often see educated, liberal people insisting that there isn’t any difference in risk factors, or reacting with anger to suggestions that different populations are at different risk…[that] everyone is perfectly equal in their risk because life is perfectly fair that way”

    As a gay man in the developed world I find this sad. Sexually active closeted gay men are not helped by that attitude one bit.

  6. I guess to finish my thought above, I think the argument can be made that the totalizing and justifiably furious rhetoric of Gen X gay men and our allies during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s has informed the argumentative style of a new generation of politically dispossessed people. This is probably too reductive, but perhaps part of the Millennial problem is that the targets of their thoroughly justifiable anger are so much more numerous and changeable. It’s almost as if all this inchoate outrage were an expression of nostalgia for a simpler time when Reagan was the villain and ACT UP! shutting down a city like New York was ann unquestionable moral imperative.

  7. Freddie,

    I provided evidence, and more to the point, what evidence did YOU provide for your fluffy hand-waving about socioeconomic differences and ‘sex education’? I would argue it is YOU being the irresponsible one here, not me.

    A pity, really: I had thought your recent tiff with cultural liberals in the blogosphere would have taught you some lessons about the idiocy of political correctness, but apparently not.

      1. Freddie,
        Hector might appear to be disagreeable but he does have point. More importantly there is nothing that precludes African susceptibility to HIV since we know there are general ethnic differences in susceptibility to diseases in general. I have the sickel cell trait, I have had malaria probably 10 times, I am quite certain that I have coped better because of my sickel cell trait. There is some school of thought that the sickel cell trait also happens to make one more susceptible to HIV.

        Point isn’t the convince you that this is true but that it is probably more plausible or just as plausible as the socio-economic reasons you propose

  8. “Nash Grier, former star of the traveling teen Vine convention Magcon and current internet-famous “film actor,” deleted a Vine he made that endorses the wrongheaded and homophobic idea that HIV is an issue that exists primarily in the gay community.”

    Is this statement factually incorrect? Not really.

    “The comments, meanwhile, are filled with people arguing that of course, everyone is at equal risk of getting infected. ”

    Is this statement factually incorrect? Yeah, pretty much.

  9. I was discussing this general phenomena with a friend the other day, and he pointed out that, as a current in recent American politics, the relentless focus on the evils of the other side was a successful invention by Rush Limbaugh, with the suggestion that liberals have simply if lately gotten used to employing the same tactics.

    There is also something about spending your life on Twitter that turns would be intellectuals into the Sharks and the Jets. Immediately before I quit Twitter, I took a very mildly anti-urbanism stance in response to some maximalizing rhetoric (basically saying that for most people in the country, given current policy, incomes, and housing stock, suburbia makes a lot of sense, and isn’t particularly immoral) and what was striking was the feeling of being ganged-up on, having multiple people (each of whom within this limited sphere is much more influential than you) punching down at you and then loudly writing you off.

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