Evan J. Peterson’s journey of sexual discovery started out more or less as an unmitigated disaster. Growing up in the thick of the AIDS pandemic, there was so much stigma attached to gay men, it would cut a bitch. Peterson came out and came of age against a backdrop of panic, loathing, and fear. Not to mention “sex ed” that utterly missed the point. For a significant chunk of his life, this series of unfortunate circumstances made Peterson aware—to a fault—of the risks associated with his sexual orientation and write off poz romantic partners as a matter of course.
After years of hang-ups about his health and emotionally unsatisfying hook-ups later, a therapist-friend pointed out two paradigm-changing things: 1) HIV can be treated/managed before it leads to full blow AIDS with an efficacy rate of 99.9% and 2) positive undetectable status, which means a person is technically carrying the HIV virus, but in such infinitesimally small loads, there is effectively no chance of the virus being transmitted. Bonus advice: Peterson might find the kinds of relationships he craves with poz men. As his therapist explained, poz men are almost by necessity more adept in bed and attuned to their partners.
Armed with a daily prescription for PrEP—which stands for “pre-exposure prophylactic” and in the case of the Truvada that Peterson takes, seems to work like a vaccine in pill form that is taken daily—Peterson explains the positive impact the drug has had on his life. Through a series of personal anecdotes, Peterson treats the readers to several first-hand accounts of what one man’s journey from sexual repression to sexual expression looks like.
First, I want to be very clear: this is a memoir-y nonfiction-y piece. Avid fiction readers: do not let that scare you off. As someone who cannot in any way directly identify with any identifiers the author might use, I found it a delight to read how a gay man addresses the topic of HIV and Truvada. Personally, as someone who reads a lot of m/m fiction written by women for whomever wants to read them, I found it something of an education to read the words of a plain old gay man and compare that with various fiction-informed tropes cluttering up my mind’s eye.
Why might this be significant? Because unlike fiction where an author’s voice can color the story so easily and so completely (and in the case of bad prose, so render what might otherwise be an okay story wholly unreadable), I found Peterson’s writing a wonderful mix of voices—which rings true because people are, by nature, variable. The basic mode of the narration felt pretty straightforward to me, but every so often, he throws in campy turns of phrase. He throws bones to the not-gay-men who might be reading this by drawing parallels with similar (but still different) gender issues, like access to birth control and pronoun usage for non binary people and drag queens.
Not all the anecdotes hit home. As the owner of a uterus, I found some of the comparisons to women’s issues a bit odd (but for some reason, I’ve been hyper sensitive to the fact that I have uterus since about late November 2016). Some of the anecdotes really gave me pause to think, to challenge just how open-minded I am…his account of being sexually assaulted didn’t strike me as sexual assault and it wasn’t relayed in coy terms or set up with strong foreshadowing such as “I will now tell you the story of how I was sexually assaulted.” It was simply told as the story of a sexual encounter with someone the author knew pretty well. It’s the kind of story that, if Peterson were a female, some would definitely accuse Peterson of being a cock-tease or that Peterson was “asking for it” (so what’s the big deal). At the end of this story and when referenced later in the book, Peterson simply calls it for what it is: sexual assault. A lover asked if he could penetrate Peterson, Peterson refused, the lover tried to anyway.
How did this particular anecdote challenge me? It’s one thing to read a piece of fiction where the hero is abused by the antagonist—plus the writer is actively working on manipulating the reader to understand the scene in a certain way. It’s another thing to read a story about a high school football player raping another student with a coat hanger. It’s yet another thing where a situation that started out consensual ends up with one side being sexually assaulted and the other side being ignorant (?) that any transgression has taken place…yet that is still firmly in the sexual assault camp.
The one thing I was less keen on—and it’s a trifling thing—was the way the brand name of the PrEP Peterson is actually taking gets sort of name dropped here and there. I’m not even sure if there are other options for PrEP drug, but there were several times when the name Truvada popped up and the way it fit into some particular narratives felt sort of like an advert for the drug. I give it a soft pass because this IS a memoir and the author presumably IS actually taking this particular medication, but still…the memory remains.
Overall, I found this a great look into the mind, voice, and (s)experiences of a gay man. I enjoyed the comparison between works (probably) written for not gay men and this, definitely written about and for gay men (but Peterson definitely takes care to be inclusive and takes pains to explain gay culture to the uninitiated). If you’re at all interested in a deep dive into gay culture and how it intersects with growing up where gay meant invariably getting AIDS and dying and how that has changed over the last 30 years, this will be a satisfying read for you.