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1992: Sex and singles revisited

Only a couple of decades have passed since the height of the AIDS epidemic, but nowadays many young people assume it won’t affect them — if they even think about it at all.

Eva Albert, a Jackson County care coordinator for the Eugene-based nonprofit organization HIV Alliance, says more and more young people between the age of 18 and 24 are being diagnosed with HIV in Jackson County.

“I think medication has made it seem like it’s not out there anymore, but it is,” Albert says. “I think they just think they’re invincible and that it’s not going to happen to them.”

The 1992 issue of Our Valley was titled “A Survival Guide for the Nineties,” and an article in the section titled “Sex and Singles” had a subhead that read, “AIDS scare turns 1990s dating game into serious affair.”

But 27 years later, Albert says fears of contracting the virus have significantly decreased now that there are treatment options. Compared to when she went to school in the ‘80s, there’s not as much education in the schools about the various ways one can contract HIV, she says.

The HIV Alliance works with about 200 people in Jackson County and takes in one to two new clients diagnosed with HIV or AIDS every month. Albert says she knows about 20 to 30 clients younger than 24.

Marilyn Mihacsi, HIV Alliance education coordinator, says as of Feb. 4, 102 males and 26 females in Jackson County were living with HIV, plus 140 males and 27 females with AIDS.

When the HIV Alliance receives new clients, it collects data about whether they’re using dating apps and protection.

“If you are a marginalized population such as a man seeking sex with another man, especially in a rural area, (dating apps) are going to be your best bet in terms of finding someone,” Mihacsi says.

A popular dating app with this population, she says, is Grindr, which allows users to post their HIV status, which can help avoid having difficult conversations.

Several local people interviewed for this story say AIDS had affected the way people date, including using condoms, being more cautious about who they date or just abstaining from sex altogether.

But casual sex is a term that is used openly by many, and countless young people use dating apps such as Tinder to have meaningless sex with other app users — based on a small gallery of pictures and an even shorter bio.

There’s even a joke many men use in their bios along the lines of, “If you’re looking for a relationship, keep swiping.”

Such behavior has created a sense among many singles that frequent, casual sex is the norm and that sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV aren’t prevalent anymore.

Jamie Cook, 30, of Medford, says she’s not looking for one-night stands.

Cook and her friend Jessica Bosman met at Common Block Brewing Co. on a recent Friday night and agreed to talk about what they are seeing on the current dating scene.

“Tinder is the hook-up app and not for relationships,” Cook says. “It hit my self-confidence in a way that I haven’t felt since being single. Am I being swiped left?”

She says she had matched with only one woman in the three days since downloading the app Bumble. She says her friends influenced her to put up flattering pictures of herself and say things to garner attention that she wouldn’t normally say.

“Pick this one, you look adventurous, or pick this one, you look smart, but I’m none of those things,” Cook jokes. “Of course, everyone wants to be the best version of themselves.”

She says she hasn’t thought about contracting HIV from a partner in the 11 months she’s been single, and she says lesbians in general aren’t very concerned with it, either.

She says she wants a long-term relationship, and in general she’s been dissatisfied with dating apps, but she believes it can’t hurt to use apps in the process.

Bosman, 31, says her friends pressured her to use dating apps, but she isn’t satisfied with them, either.

“I grew up in a time when there wasn’t dating apps, and now ... it’s the norm to use them,” Bosman says. “Personally, I believe in meeting someone organically. In this day and age, you never know if you’re going to get an inappropriate message.

“I’ve never used them sober,” Bosman says. “It kind of becomes a game, which has completely ruined dating for millennials. It’s so weird, because it’s as if everyone is like, ‘I’m not comfortable in public, but I’ll go home with you.’”

Some dating apps apparently work, she says, because she’s known people who have met on apps and have been married for years.

She says she doesn’t think about contracting HIV from a partner, because she usually gets to know the person very well before having sex. But she adds that there’s nothing wrong with one-night stands.

“Women are allowed to like sex — it’s 2019,” Bosman says, as a few people at the bar shouted their agreement.

Faith Walker sipped a whiskey drink alone at a table behind the bar as she celebrated a year of post-breast cancer recovery. She says she got divorced before her diagnosis and hasn’t been ready to date yet, but she’s close now that she’s healthy and her hair has grown back.

She says she doesn’t use dating apps and doesn’t think about contracting HIV.

“I’m such a romantic,” she says. “I’m not a casual dater, so I don’t think about that. Being a single mom and a cancer survivor, I’m more intentional about who I spend my time with.”

Walker says she believes in meeting people by crossing paths at the right time.

“I think I’ve redefined my idea of forever, my life is so different now,” Walker says. “After going through that ordeal, I know what I want in my life now, and until I have a man-spice taking me out, I’ll take myself out.”

Neil Bergin, 24, who sat at a picnic table outside the brewery, says he uses dating apps, but he sees them as just another social-media platform that often projects a false representation of a person.

“I’m at a point in my life where I’m done having sex with strangers and then never talking to them again,” Bergin says.

He says he usually uses protection with strangers, but he described himself as “a gambler.”

“The chance of you getting HIV while having protected sex are slim to none, so I’m willing to bet I won’t get AIDS while having sex with a condom,” Bergin says.

People younger than 35 made up approximately 56 percent of new HIV diagnoses in the U.S. in 2017, according to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

Mihacsi says HIV positive people often lead normal lives and can date and have sex with people who don’t have HIV. It takes daily medication and regular check-ups to maintain an undetectable level of the virus. Combine that with condom usage, and a drug called PrEP, which the partner takes, and “the chance of HIV being spread is essentially nonexistent.”

The PrEP drugs can be up to 90 percent effective during sex, considering factors such as how long it’s been taken and what part of the body is used during sex.

She says the existence of such medications is one difference between HIV in our society today compared to the ‘90s.

AIDS was the number one cause of death for U.S. men ages 25-44 in 1992 and was the leading cause of death the following year for young adults in 64 U.S. cities, according to the HIV Alliance.

Headlines late last winter trumpeted the fact that a second person had recently been cured of AIDS, but Albert says it’s not reasonable to expect a cure anytime soon. She says it’s a step in the right direction, but many factors played a role in the so-called cure. Experts say it’s too soon to tell whether the person has truly been cured or is only in remission.

Mihacsi recommends that anyone who needs a test or wants more information should contact the Jackson County Health Department at jacksoncountyor.org/hhs/Public-Health/Welcome.

For information about navigating the system for medications such as PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis), see hivalliance.org.

You can contact Ashland Tidings reporter Caitlin Fowlkes at cfowlkes@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4496. Follow her on Twitter @cfowlkes6.

Jamie Cook, 30, shows what the dating app Bumble looks like as she sits at the bar of Common Block Brewing Co. on a Friday night. Caitlyn Fowlkes / Mail Tribune