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The Stupid Question: “Are You Clean?”

I took a shower this morning. I am clean. I might work out at the gym later, or maybe the trash bag will break on the way outside and I will scoop up coffee grounds and put them back into the bag. I will then be dirty. I will shower again. And I will be clean.

Anyone who questions whether or not HIV stigma is on the rise need look no further than online profiles and hookup sites, in which “Are you clean?” is asked with infuriating regularity. Or perhaps you have suffered the indignity of someone asking you “The Stupid Question” while negotiating a tryst. The sheer ignorance boggles the mind.

Implying that I am somehow “dirty” because I am HIV positive may not be the intention of the person asking the question. Perhaps they are sincerely trying to assess the level of risk they might be taking. But it also implies that they may raise their level of risk-taking should you answer “Yes, I am clean.” To place one’s trust in this answer, and to base your sexual behavior on it, is precisely how people become infected with HIV.

The person being asked may not have tested recently. Or has been infected since the last test. Or is lying because they’re afraid, or ashamed, or nervous, or don’t feel safe being honest because of ramifications about which you have no idea. So it’s ultimately a fairly useless exercise.

Thus, the ignorance and danger of The Stupid Question. And, because it is asked fairly exclusively by people who believe themselves to be HIV negative, it sets up an “Us vs. Them” mentality. Positive vs. Negative. Clean vs. Dirty.

“They don’t mean any harm,” you may be thinking. Well, words have meaning, my friend. The ignorance evident in The Stupid Question makes it no less offensive. While the intent may be harmless, is does do harm to people with HIV by increasing stigma and driving a further wedge between HIV positive and negative people. Like it or not, it is an assessment of the sexual viability of someone, and by extension, their “worthiness” as a human being.

In my more hedonistic days — which admittedly were not exactly long ago in a galaxy far, far away — I was dumbstruck by the conversations I would have in gay public sex venues, even the most anonymous ones. “Are you clean?” would come the question by the gentleman who was fully prepared to engage in unsafe sex should my answer please him. “Really?” I would answer, “I mean, are you serious? You’re going to take the word of someone in a dark room that you couldn’t pick out of a lineup?” I would then explain, spoken at times through a three-inch hole in the wall, that if this question was his sole criteria, then he really needed to leave this place and go directly to an HIV and STD testing center. Post haste.

Can we please remove this insulting, dangerous and unproductive question from our lexicon?

There is an alternative to The Stupid Question. You can simply offer your HIV status and see if your partner does the same. If he does not or you don’t like the answer, it is your right to decline having sex. It is not your right to berate them for their response. Whatever the case, if you are trying to remain negative then sex with someone you don’t know well should only include low-risk activities. If the relationship progresses, you can offer to get tested together and be present for the test results of one another. And that is the alternative to The Stupid Question.

An interesting social marketing campaign has been created by a new organization known as The Stigma Project, which aims to reduce stigma by calling out questions like “Are You Clean?” I appreciate its mission “…to lower the HIV infection rate by defeating the stigma that strengthens it.” If nothing else, it has instigated a dialogue by addressing some of the misconceptions and clumsy thinking that stigmatizes people with HIV.

The environment we have created with questions like this one has implications beyond mere social awkwardness. It has bled into our criminal justice system. Laws now on the books are being used against people with HIV who don’t disclose their status to sex partners – even when they engaged in safe sex, used a condom, and no transmission occurred. The prosecutions are being conducted in a world in which disclosing your status – admitting you are “not clean” – has become increasingly difficult to do because of the very stigma generated by things like The Stupid Question.

To learn more about how criminalization has become a Kafkaesque nightmare for many people, check out some new addictions to the video library for the new organization The SERO Project, the brainchild of activist Sean Strub that is directly addressing HIV criminalization.

If you really want to be heard and make a contribution to this dialogue, I strongly urge you to take a few minutes and answer The SERO Project’s new survey that gauges your attitudes about when and whether people should disclose their HIV status. Even (and perhaps especially) if your views run counter to mine, your input is most welcome and extremely valuable.

Finally, National HIV Testing Day is next week on June 27th. If you’re reading this after that day, please replace it with any date in the next month. Because the funny thing about HIV-negative test results is that they have a very short shelf life.

Last year I produced a short video, “In Praise of HIV Negative Gay Men,” because as an HIV positive man I feel more of a license to say things freely, such as what an accomplishment it is for a sexually active gay man to remain negative. And it was meant with all sincerity (as with all my videos, be my guest to re-post). Alas, it’s awfully tough to heap praise toward one side of the “viral divide” without offending the other, and the video was received with decidedly mixed reviews. Some people thought my delivery was deliberately sarcastic. Or demeaning to those who were positive.

While I admit my theatrical presentation could possibly be misconstrued, I do find it interesting how people project their own attitudes onto what they view, particularly when it comes to HIV status. People are touchy. You know, like when they get asked The Stupid Question. At any rate, check out the video, clear your mind, remember I’m actually a totally sweet guy, and see how the message strikes you.

“Are You Clean?” meanwhile, isn’t a message with value in any context. As a matter of fact, it’s downright filthy.


(Artwork credit: The Stigma Project)




  1. James Allen June 21, 2012 at 5:30 pm

    Thank you for writing this blog and for continuing to address topics which are important to the dignity of everyone. Words do matter and have the capacity to heal or to injure. The way a question is phrased not only indicates how a person feels about the topic but also has the strange power of creating or reinforcing stigma.

  2. William Coyne June 21, 2012 at 5:59 pm

    Happy to see that someone else feels the same way. Not only is this demeaning to those of us who are positive, it also leaves room for confusion. Personally when on those sites I won’t bother with people who say “clean” when what they are trying to say is “negative.” Serosorting is an individual choice, and one each individual should have the right to make, but for crying out loud, say what you mean.

  3. Mommie Dammit June 21, 2012 at 7:02 pm

    Personally, I prefer the response, “Yeah, I douched. You?” When they say “that’s not what I meant…” I reply, “I know exactly what you meant, jackass! I have no time to play with little boys. Come back when you grow a pair.” After 20 years of living with this mess, the last thing I need to deal with is somebody as ignorant and prejudiced as would ask me “are you clean?”

    Frankly, I have no interest in nor time for a “zipless fuck” a.k.a. nameless quickie, anonymous sex. I don’t care for the disappointment, nor do I have the energy to waste on the drama. After all, my grandmother always said: “Men are like stray cats. Feed them once and you’ll never get rid of them.” I have enough cats, thank you, and there’s one asshole in my pants already.

    Love ya Mark,

  4. Mommie Dammit June 21, 2012 at 7:09 pm

    …oh, yeah.
    P.S. I did the SERO survey earlier through a link in the POZ news email. Simple enough, and geared for positive and negative respondents. Criminalization is a serious issue that we definitely need to confront more openly in our society, and I think that the majority of cases that I’ve read or heard about are absolutely heinous. If the laws aren’t as ass-backward and draconian as they can humanly be, then you’ve got some little maggot running around looking for a big pay-off. I’m tired, pissed, and this is one issue that gets my bitch-slappin’ pumps clicking reeeaaaly quick.

  5. cliff June 21, 2012 at 7:19 pm

    Great job Mark! No one could make that HYSTERICAL but you!

  6. Terry June 21, 2012 at 8:16 pm

    With all due respect, the question isn’t stupid. It is, perhaps, lacking subtlety and is definitely not the BEST way to get to the point, but I would much rather people ask the question “are you clean” than not ask anything at all of their potential partners. In fact, I’d rather EVERYBODY who is about to have sex with a stranger ask that question than risk the chance that even a single person wouldn’t care enough about his own safety and long-term health by not asking ANY questions.

    When I’m about to go home with someone, I bring up the matter as organically as possible, but the fact is that it doesn’t matter HOW it becomes part of the conversation… just as long as it does. I’m not worried about the feelings of a stranger; I’m worried about my long-term prospects of a life without unnecessary and unwelcome medical problems. The long-term health of one individual is ALWAYS (WITHOUT EXCEPTION) more important than the short-term damage to the ego of another. That’s just the way it has to be if we are truly a community.

    Yes, people should be a little more considerate of others, but the truth is that, when “the question” is raised using such a poor choice of words, it isn’t likely that the man asking it is trying to be hurtful. There are so many factors that come into play. Applying the principal of charity (which means that, of all possible considerations, you assume that the reason for a particular choice of words is the most understandable one imaginable), anybody – disease free or not – can appreciate that there is honest-to-God goodness in a man who cares enough about his own well being to ask. And if you can’t think of at least five or six reasons why it is understandable why someone would ask “are you clean,” then you simply aren’t being charitable enough.

    Yes, you can say something like “well, I think ‘clean’ is a subjective term, but if you are asking if I am drug and disease free, I will certainly tell you the truth; is that what you’re asking?” Then? Well, then you can move on, hopefully call off the PC police and proceed to have a good time or, if the guy doesn’t want to have sex with someone who is positive or has ever done drugs, you sort of have to respect that. Maybe you’ll sit down and have a nice discussion in which you enlighten each other and maybe even become friends? But I’ll tell you something important… BEING OFFENDED BY SOMETHING THAT IS SO TRIVIAL AS SEMANTICS IS SILLY WHEN YOU ARE PART OF A COMMUNITY THAT IS IN THE MIDST OF MORE THAN A FEW DRUG AND DISEASE-RELATED EPIDEMICS.

    Since so much of this post has been about semantics, let’s consider another take on what “clean” might mean. The phrase “come clean” has been part of American English for decades. It means to tell the truth about who you are and what about you is pertinent to the matters at hand. So, we can stop splitting hairs by agreeing that the question “are you clean” will, from here on out until nobody does drugs or has any communicable diseases, be taken to mean “it’s time to come clean about anything that you think I have a right to know.”

  7. Lynda M O June 21, 2012 at 8:53 pm

    I love the last paragraph in the comment by Terry above. When one is asked such an important question the burden of truth is on the responder. Please let us become a society and a culture of truth, compassion and caring.

  8. eric eason June 21, 2012 at 9:00 pm

    Amen Terry. I tried explaining your points on Facebook to no avail. When someone asks if another is clean, it does not always imply that the one asking feels that those who are positive are dirty. Positive individuals have convinced themselves otherwise and no matter what you say they refuse to listen to you. It’s somewhat hypocritical. “It’s a stupid question because I said so.” Religions do the same: “homosexuality is wrong because I said so”

  9. jimagery June 21, 2012 at 10:31 pm

    Mark, thank you.

    Terry, I could talk semantics with you for days. Like the “out” that the question gives those that have no idea what their status is, those that haven’t been tested recently (or ever), or those that justify a positive response (“Yes, I’m clean.) based on semantics (Hey, he asked if I was clean – I just showered – so, yes, I’m clean). On that last one, it’s also an out for the questioner. As gay men we know that “Are you clean,” once meant have you recently showered & douched. Even more, when a guy has a profile that states “Looking for clean AND D&D free” your whole semantics argument falls flat (unless redundancy is now completely acceptable). If you’re man enough to ask the question, then ask THE QUESTION. Don’t give yourself an out by saying, “I asked if he had HIV or had tested recently.” Because you didn’t.

    Lynda… amen. I do believe the partner who knows he/she is HIV-positive has slightly more responsibility than the one who is negative, doesn’t know, or is asking the question (like a 51/49 split). But sexuality isn’t black & white and we, as gay men, know there are risks. As Mark writes, basing your behavior on an answer to ANY question is not accepting personal responsibility for your own sexual health. That, in itself, is not an evolved society.

    Eric… there was a time that many Caucasians in this country thought it was perfectly acceptable to use the N-word even when the recipient felt lesser, humiliated, degraded and not equal. If I was a heterosexual male and called you faggot, queer, homo, butt-muncher or any other number of things, I would be called a gay basher and could be charged with a hate crime depending on the circumstances.

    So, before anyone thinks that “Are you clean?” is an acceptable question, think about what it would mean to you as someone who is HIV-negative, herpes-, gonorrhea-, chlamydia-, and syphilis-free if someone said, “I think there may be a chance you’re dirty & untouchable.” I accept, acknowledge, answer honestly and publicly my positive status. If I can do that, you can ask a direct question and then take full responsibility for your actions once you’ve received a reply.

  10. Ken Howard, LCSW June 22, 2012 at 2:49 am

    This article is very similar to one I wrote in 2005, “Educated…UB2”, available here: http://gaytherapyla.com/gay-political-advocacy/educated%E2%80%A6-ub2.

    I say a lot in the above article (see link to read it), but I’ll add a few thoughts here:

    “Clean” as a euphemism or slang for “HIV-negative” is stigmatizing and outrageous. That’s like asking someone if they are “normal” to connote Protestant, straight, etc.

    The HIV virus is deaf; it doesn’t know what people SAY, only what they DO. Someone might SAY they are HIV-negative, and believe it, and yet be recently infected by someone else who also SAID he was negative, when he actually was positive, recently infected, and with a high viral load and infectious. If a person makes a decision to have unprotected sex based on what another person merely SAYS, that is no protection from HIV transmission. This is how many gay men contract HIV these days, is from failed “sero-sorting”. You’re actually at less risk of contracting HIV from a poz guy who is tested and treated with medication so that he is undetectable, than someone who says he is negative but actually isn’t.

    I see many guys in my private practice in psychotherapy who are newly diagnosed from just these circumstances. I also hear frequently about how the effects of irrational fear and stigma about HIV are worse than the actual medical management of it. I would agree, even after 22 years myself of living with HIV and two hip replacements from an HIV-related bone disorder.

    The gay community gains nothing from an “us versus them” mentality about HIV. Learn the facts about how HIV is transmitted — and how it’s not — and protect one another from viral transmission. “Clean” has nothing to do with it.

  11. Roger P June 22, 2012 at 2:57 am

    It’s a pretty stupid question if it doesn’t give you any useful information. As Mark explained, what is the point in asking whether someone has HIV when there is a good chance that your partner has an infection but doesn’t know it?

    In the US, half of all new HIV infections originate in people who have HIV but don’t know it

  12. John June 22, 2012 at 5:59 am

    I’m HIV+ and if someone asks me if I’m poz or asks me what my HIV status is I always tell the truth. If someone online asks my “status” I tell them my relationship status. If someone asks me if I’m “clean” the answer is always yes. Right or wrong that is my answer so for those of you who are neg and think asking someone if they’re “clean” before having unprotected sex will keep you safe then I assure you you are DEAD WRONG! Maybe that’s a good reason to stop this stupid insensitive question. It doesn’t keep anyone safe. In fact my own experience has been that the opposite is true.

  13. Tom June 22, 2012 at 7:13 am

    Thanks, Mark, for helping our communities tackle this difficult subject. The study is very in-depth and takes some personal reflection about our attitudes that will hopefully assist groups and organizations with their outreach to both people living with HIV and other STDs and those who are not as well.

    For me, it still goes back to the same thing, it’s not what you say that matters as much as what you do. I would hope that we have learned that some people do not tell the truth or they have never tested or not in a long time even though they are sexually active. The thing that used to bother me the most were those men whose status was “unknown” when I believe many chose this so that they could engage in risky behaviors without any repercussions. They may or may not have known their status but my point is, like you and many others indicated, that dialogue is important but too often includes lies and distortions.

    Criminalization surely has changed the landscape and unfortunately, I think has deterred efforts for people who are sexually active from getting tested. Knowledge = Informed Decision….

  14. Penny Alesi June 22, 2012 at 8:00 am

    The first time I was asked this stupid question, I had no idea what the guy meant. I asked him and he said he meant drugs. We were both sitting in the AIDS Project living room when he asked me. I explained I didn’t have any substance issues, but I was HIV positive. He looked really confused, and he was one of the counselors there. At the time I had no idea what the stigma was where HIV/AIDS was concerned. I was a newbie, recently diagnosed, scared shitless and crying non-stop. That was 30 months ago. NOW I know how bad the stigma truly is.

  15. Peter Laqueur June 22, 2012 at 9:03 am

    Finally someone has spoken up. Not only is it insulting and stigmatizing, but demonstrates how much more work needs to be done in our community of educating each other regarding the need to be honest, ask questions, disclosure, but more critical respect, sensitivity, and acceptance of each other regardless of HIV/STD status. The more we make individuals who are positive feel “dirty” disrespected, and unwelcome, the less likely they are to be honest and responsible (as I believe most are) when engaging in sexual activities. If one does not want to engage with someone positive just say so… like “negative only” or as I recently saw “sex only with negatives, friendship with pos or neg.”

  16. Marc-André LeBlanc June 22, 2012 at 9:46 am

    Great posting Mark, as always. This issue has been a pet peeve of mine for quite some time. OK, more than a pet peeve. It really pisses me off!

    So when there is space on cruising profiles to add some text beyond MUCH more critical information such as dick size, circumcision status and preferred positioning, I like to add this text:

    “BTW any version of “clean only”, “disease free” or “no poz” will not impress me. You can state that u prefer to have condomless sex without stigmatizing our poz brothers. Be respectful, clear and open. It will greatly improve your chances of getting accurate information. Writing “disease free” then having sex without condoms will only increase your risk, not reduce it! Not let’s all have exactly the kind of hot piggy sex we want!!”

  17. Jack June 22, 2012 at 10:29 am

    I just took the SERO survey and, although it is comprehensive, there is one question that i thought should have been asked: “How detailed do you need to be to indicate you are HIV positive and protect yourself legally?”
    When answering an ad or question, must you, in some form say or indicate you have the HIV virus, or if you say: “looking for pos friendly person” sufficient. To me the last statement should be enough to cover the legal basis, make the reader consider that you might have the HIV virus and, if necessary, ask you for further details.

  18. Terry June 22, 2012 at 12:16 pm

    Again, asking if someone is “clean” can mean any number of things. It is a fair question that is more open-ended than it seems. Sure, it has a “yes or no” tone to it, but it allows for the discussion to go where it should. If someone is more interested in talking about the silliness of the question than getting to the business of specifics, he is doing himself, his community and his potential partner(s) a huge disservice.

    There is no shame is being positive. There is no shame in choosing to use drugs. There is no shame in not douching. There isn’t even any shame in not showering for days at a time. It is only when you are concerned about the questions that shame can be an issue. So, if anybody asks whether or not you are “clean,” you can certainly ask what they mean, but you might do everybody some good by choosing to not be offended (which means that you don’t ASSUME the person posing such questions is intent on offending you).

    Not everybody is comfortable with the conversations involving these issues and a lot of people have a hard time bringing up such matters as these, so getting upset about how somebody chooses to do it is potentially harmful. By getting snarky and sassy and then refusing to talk about what is most important (your status, habits and even whether or not someone’s sheets can get unnecessarily soiled), you aren’t standing up for yourself. You are succumbing to your own ego and, in the process, creating the potential for that same person to stop asking these important questions.

    It’s fine if you are offended but, as part of a community, it isn’t your job to tell someone that he is asking stupid questions; as someone who knows better, it’s your job to explain a better way to ask the questions. We can all complain about how uncouth someone is, but we don’t typically grow up in homes where “etiquette” regarding discussion of these matters is taught. We are each other’s mentors. So, the passive-aggressive response is unfair to the community at large and is, quite frankly, beneath anybody who is able to have the sort of discussion that we’re having here.

  19. TD June 22, 2012 at 1:30 pm

    Terry, I’m really annoyed with your attitude. Instead of YOU just finding an alternative to asking the Stupid Question of “Are you clean?”, you try to put the burden on the other person and say it is “their job to explain a better way to ask questions”. No, it’s not. It’s YOUR job to stop asking the Stupid Question and learn to ask more specifically what you mean. Better yet, shut up and just have safer sex with everyone, and it doesn’t matter what their status is, you’re always protected. If you have unsafe sex, it doesn’t matter whether they SAID they were clean, dirty, or from Mars — you’re at the same risk regardless of what they just said. If they’re poz and undetectable on meds, you’re really safe. If they’re truly neg, you’re really safe. If they think they’re neg but they’re really poz from last week, you’re at more risk. The virus doesn’t know what they said, only that it gets carried along in their semen. Stop defending the Stupid Question and start protecting yourself in REAL ways. And stop lumping being poz, using drugs, not douching, and not showering for days all in the same sentence. It’s clear you are judgmental about all of those equally. Do you not see the stigmatizing attitude in that?? Stop making issues about HIV all about the OTHER lowly person’s “job” and “responsibility” and take some responsibility of your own.

  20. Bobby June 22, 2012 at 1:38 pm

    Keep up your fantastic and vital work. Congrats on spreading this word on Huffington Post! So proud of you and your work.

  21. richard June 22, 2012 at 2:32 pm

    Thanks for making me think. Again. You’re a treasure of a brother.

  22. Suzi June 22, 2012 at 5:22 pm

    Always learning. Thanks, Mark, and everyone for the thoughtful, insightful dialogue. No matter where you are coming from in this conversation, the very fact that it is happening can save lives.

  23. Mark S. King June 22, 2012 at 6:16 pm

    The “viral divide” may be as wide as ever. My unscientific assessment of the comments above is this: those living with HIV (and some who are not) are offended by the use of the question “are you clean?” We find it demeaning.

    Those who don’t feel we have just cause, or the right to be offended, are people who are HIV negative and are having a difficult time understanding what HIV stigma feels like. Rather than simply altering how they get information (what is wrong with simply saying your status and asking theirs?), they prefer to play semantic words games and be apologists for those who appear to equate being HIV positive with being dirty.

    I don’t minimize the frustration inherent with being HIV negative and trying your best to negotiate risk reduction. It’s got to be tough sometimes. And I believe it is that frustration, more than the semantics of this dialogue, that is bubbling to the surface here.

    To those who are still unconvinced, I would say, you’ve read my blog. You’ve seen an ad campaign addressing this issue. You’ve heard from multiple people explaining why the question hurts them. To continue insisting in the face of all this that the question doesn’t hurt anyone, to continue calling something black when it is white, is nothing more than a willful disregard for the feelings of an entire group of people. I believe that is known as prejudice.

    And it kinda sucks.

  24. Bill June 22, 2012 at 7:02 pm

    My husband R is positive. He was in a sex club a few years ago and as things started to click he told the guy his status (he doesn’t wait to be asked; he’s a nice guy who believes it’s just polite to share the info). The guy quickly lost interest and moved on. Ok, his prerogrative. But would the guy have ever asked R about his status? Or would he have followed through to completion without ever knowing that detail? That was strike one against the guy.

    Later R walked by a room and lo and behold, there was the guy in a three way. It ate at him for a bit so he went back and politely (seriously, R is just one of the sweetest men ever, he just can’t pull off catty-ness) and asked the guy if he knew without a doubt the status of these two guys with whom he was now swapping fluids. His one hint of bitchyness was to tag on something to the affect “probably not”.

  25. Terry June 23, 2012 at 2:28 am

    I must acknowledge that I did not do a very good job of supporting your feelings, Mark. At the very least, I feel like I’d have better served my own argument by first verbally recognizing your right to experience and work through your feelings as well as expressing my true belief that nobody should have to endure any line of questioning that robs him of even the slightest amount of dignity. Furthermore, I really believe that, no matter what your reaction to any question, your initial feelings are always be “normal” and “fair,” no matter how rational they are.

    As our first reaction to whatever we encounter (be it words or actions), our feelings can mean the difference between success or failure in overcoming the obstacles we face. That said, I do believe we need to work through our emotions to get them to place where they are rational. Without taking the personal steps required in weighing our emotions against our knowledge, we cannot get the best mileage out of our eventual response/reaction.

    Prejudice and judgment are two of my least favorite qualities and behaviors. That is why I am uncomfortable with the idea that any question related to something so important as the issues we’re discussing here can be called “stupid.” I’ve come to the realization that this particular entry would have been more affecting if the matter were framed with the sort of nuance that I’ve come to expect from your writings.

    I suppose, then, the point would have been better made if this post subject were titled “The Hurtful Question” or, better still, “The Ignorant Question,” since it would have more clearly raised the two facts that seem most important: first, that “are you clean” doesn’t really mean anything in particular and, therefore, isn’t likely to get a response that is specific to the concerns of whomever is asking; second, that “are you clean” can be very hurtful on a personal level and even be so destructive on a wider social level, as its continued use will likely result in deeper and further stigmatization where none need exist in the first place.

    Those are important concerns. I really do believe, though, that it is the responsibility of smart, well adjusted gay men to, as often as possible, put aside our emotions and feelings long enough to explain certain things to those who aren’t so well adjusted or educated. It probably isn’t fair that we have to take on these extra burdens, but the power that comes with higher-than-average emotional and intelligence quotients requires that we play the role of the adult in the room, unless, of course, there is another such person around who can play that role while we tend to our hurt feelings and damaged egos.

    When we all do the best that we can, all of our needs will be met. We will educate those who need it, we can lick our proverbial wounds in private (or with the help of another equally evolved brother or sister) and we can put out any unnecessary fires in our community at large. It isn’t always going to be pretty, but it won’t be made any easier when the smart people are calling important questions “stupid” just because they are being asked in the wrong way.

    Eventually, we will all be well enough evolved to handle things in a manner that is befitting humanity. That’s my hope, anyway. And, as someone who has worked as a peer counselor for GMHC, I can tell you, from experience, that even those who are don’t typically handle these issues in the most direct and healthy way are still able to quickly learn once someone takes the time to explain things to them. That person’s status doesn’t matter, as long as he knows the facts and is able to address both the fear and emotions that exists for those on both sides of what you refer to as “the viral divide.”

    (Thanks for your thoughtful and gracious comment(s), Terry. I will admit that, unlike most of my postings, this one was written in a burst of impatience and bemusement at this unattractive question. Since this blog reflects my honest feelings — or as much as I can muster — then I must acknowledge that my own self-righteousness played a role here, and that is part of who I am, too. It’s also true I’m delighted with the interest (and traffic) my very strong views have created. Thanks for gently pointing out the struggle and sincere efforts that exist on both sides of the divide. — Mark)

  26. Paul June 24, 2012 at 10:34 pm

    This is a subject long abhorred by me personally. When I lived in LA from the early 90’s till 2000, 99% of my friends were poz. I just happened to be neg at the time (diagnosed 2001). Way back when, in the early days, when I had friends ‘here’ on day, ‘gone’ the next, I NEVER adopted an “us/them” attitude.

    To me, it reminded me of my kindergarten days when a young, black boy who I attended school with spent time at my house that summer. I grew up in a white, upper middle class town. Back in the early 60’s there WAS a ‘black section’ of town…Billy was my friend…we played together at school and that summer. We had an above-ground pool, and that summer Billy and I had a blast in our pool.

    The next door neighbor phoned my Mom and asked, “Do you know your son is swimming in the same pool as a BLACK boy?”. Mom’s response was, “Yes. I know. Don’t worry. It doesn’t wash off.

    After Billy had gone home, Mom had a talk with me (at the six year old level) and to this day, I STILL remember our talk. I learned about ignorance and prejudice that day, even at a six year old’s level.

    Fast forward thirty years. HOW on earth could I adopt the very same “ignorance” as it applied to my “brothers” and “mentors” when I had learned this lesson in ignorance as a child.? I was taught that there’s no such thing as “a stupid question” however, there ARE ignorant questions! That the stigma exists at all, to me, is a sad testament to our “community”. I am NOT afraid to testify to my status even on my Facebook wall. My cousin’s daughter only recently sent me a private message on Facebook when I posted about this very subject in response to my ‘share’ concerning Mark’s blog and “The Stupid Question”. She told me how proud she is to be my relative and (despite her own family health issues at this time) asked very INTELLIGENT questions i.e.”What is my CD-4 etc.).

    I am continually impressed by those who do NOT stigmatize ‘us’ for ANY reason. IT’S A LABEL. LABELS belong on cans, like Libby’s, Libby’s, Libby’s!

    As a person who tends to shy away from confrontation, especially the physical kind (I am 6’1, and handily defend myself!), I look back 15-20 years ago and my street activism – shenanigans as they were! Activism has changed as the internet has grown in popularity. I still won’t back down from my beliefs and I DO support free speech TO A DEGREE. When another’s words are used to stir the pot and spew hatred, I jump feet first into the mix. POLITELY at first…

    Several years ago, a woman posted on an AOL thread (Yes, many of us had AOL then!) in response to a gay couple discussing “spooning”. The woman mistakenly thought “spooning” was a sexual act. We exchanged several emails, finally agreeing to disagree about homosexuality however, she THANKED me for being so polite (as many posters jumped her ass!) in emailing her to explain that “spooning” was a simple, loving gesture one did with a loved one (or the loved one they were with at the time!). It took me perhaps 15-20 minutes of MY time to ‘win’ this woman over…and show her that while so many others were hateful to her publicly.

    My time was well spent as I had shown her through my emails that we were/are not at “war”. Her “us/them” mentality ‘wall’ dropped a bit after our exchanges. Perhaps today her attitude has altered somewhat because of our exchange. It’s always wonderful to me to be referred to as a “gentleman” as that IS how I was raised.

    To ask another if they are “clean”, to me, is simple ignorance…some people have the capacity to overcome their ignorance. Those who choose not to, despite our efforts, are THEN asking “The Stupid Question”. I cannot count how many times I have been approached on ‘dating sites’ and after a few exchanges been told “I am really ‘poz’ ” or I have been asked for advice from many who have recently sero-converted – and scared, yet NOT enough to admit their status on the site. (I am THANKFULLY and happily – yes, and finally, with a good gentleman now).

    I mean, COUNSELLING on a dating site? REALLY?


    I have even had the pleasure of receiving notes from others on these very same sites (again…THANKFULLY that BS is over for me) telling me how ‘disgusting’ I am for ‘sleeping around’. THIS from our very own ‘tribe’, our ‘brothers’. I choose to not even address such out-of-line ignorance. Others who have approached me online, I have given short, but direct, advice to. We owe each other THAT much; to respond in a dignified, kind way however, when others choose to ignore our efforts and continue to choose ignorance as their path, I can only offer so many words, then my REAL life takes precedence once again.

    These past few years I have chosen (wisely I trust) to give my time, advice, and friendship to those who truly deserve it. I will plop myself in the middle of a scuffle like the one here on Mark’s blog however, as one “kid” on Facebook continued to harp on the word “dirty” as not having any connotation despite a number of people’s comments to the contrary, he chose to continue to live with his ignorance…and we all have a choice: to live in fear and darkness or light and love. If that sounds a bit “hokey”, try repeating it to yourself over the next few days especially when confronted with situations that COULD make you respond negatively or even if you witness those who chose to remain miserable and attempt to slough their misery on other (best place is the check-out line at the supermarket!!!). Do this and I promise you that inside of 3-4 days, you will begin to see a noticeable difference within!

    Among us exist too many others whose lives are unhappy and/or miserable and beware those who live in such fear and darkness as they will do their very best to ‘pull you in’ to their own fears. Instead, consciously choose to live in the light (and love) as we ARE all connected…what one of any of you do to another today may very well affect me tomorrow. It doesn’t take much effort at all to be kind to others (I make note now that those who appear to appreciate such kindnesses are the elderly for they often come with wisdom).

    In light and love,

  27. Jason July 13, 2012 at 3:02 pm

    All I can really say is THANK YOU for writing this. I was beginning to think I was the only one who thought this was a stupid question.


  28. David Stalling December 2, 2012 at 3:44 am

    Thanks for writing and posting this and helping people — such as me — become more aware about the impacts of words we choose to use. I have often referred to my status as “clean,” and asked others if they were “clean,” and I never considered how rude, insulting and offensive that can be. I will never do it again, and I will point out to others why it is, indeed, a really stupid question. Thanks!

  29. AJ June 20, 2013 at 9:56 am

    Eric, you sound like a straight who says “that’s so gay” and then says “I don’t mean gay people” or who calls someone a “faggot” with the same response, that’s the gay people who can’t see what you really mean. “Are you clean” has meaning behind it that might have merit, but the questioning, supposition, and delivery is repulsive.

  30. Wolf August 10, 2013 at 8:44 am

    My only problem with “Are You Clean?” question is that it is a weak question. If you want to know if a potential partner is HIV positive then you need to ask directly with all candor the following two questions. WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME YOU HAVE BEEN TESTED FOR HIV? (HIV is the Virus that causes AIDS.) Question 2 is ARE YOU HIV POSITIVE, Yes, No or I Don’t Know? The respondents honest answer to the two prior questions will yield the best Sero-Sorting tools. Sero-Sorting depends on honesty from all parties which in itself is a profound risk given some gay men lie to secure sex at any cost.

    Are you clean is just plain ghetto slang used by cowards to frightened to ask the questions required to sero-sort.. A man or Woman with HIV is NOT DIRTY! To suggest that ANY PERSON is DIRTY because they are HIV positive is not just insulting it is downright cruel, debased and dehumanizing. Any person who is HIV Positive has enough problems surviving with dignity to be brought down by such an ignorant pointless question.

    People who want to know a persons status before deciding to have sex with them should be MAN OR WOMAN ENOUGH TO ASK A DIRECT QUESTION as previously shared. A person too stupid, young, gutless or immature to ask directly about a potential partners HIV \ Disease \ Drug Status and recent testing information is too dumb to be having sex in the first place. Personally I don’t feel comfortable having any kind of sex with an HIV positive person and say so very loud and clear in ALL COMMUNICATIONS. I am not afraid of any causal contact with HIV positive people as its settled that HIV does not transmit in causal contact situations. However just because; don’t want to be sexually intimate with a positive person does not give me the right to trample their feelings by asking “ARE YOU CLEAN!” Are you clean is not a question it is ghetto slang used by sexual cowards who are too ignorant or plain stupid to take full responsibility for their sexual needs and resulting choices.

    Are you clean should be a question asked in a shower stall it has no place in a sexual conversation between two consenting adults. My advice to people who like to ask Are You Clean GROW UP or PLEASE PRETEND TO BE AN ADULT. As an adult please rethink using hurtful questions like Are You Clean as a tool to assess someone’s HIV status. Refraining from use of the ARE YOU CLEAN question in sero-sorting is not about being politically correct it’s all about being man or woman enough to ask the proactive HIV\ Drug \Disease state and testing history questions you really want and need answered.

  31. chuck jarvis January 1, 2014 at 12:04 pm

    I don’t deserve any medals. I kept doing what my friends who became pos. Crazily i was in some sort of weird reaction to stuff and just wanted to go where they did. I have NO IDEA how or why i never became HIV+. I am ashamed but also been told it is like survivor syndrome?? or guilt. I have it concerning VietNam stuff too. I appreciate what Mark is saying and why he is saying it. HIV negative folks might like to know that they are needed and appreciated if they role model more especially for those who don’t think they can get it. There ARE good reasons why some don’t become positive. I just don’t know the reason about me.

  32. Chad February 17, 2014 at 8:52 pm

    I think its pointless, I asked the question as politely as possible with alternatives. By this I mean I said if you are poz I can massage u or jack u off or something very safe. Instead he showed me a wedding band and said I have to be neg, I have a wife and kids. I sucked him and then he said I used you in the worst way. I have untreated million viral load. I didn’t even know what that meant except he lied to me. Im very ill and dying from oral sex with a man who lived a full life, all I wanted was the same chance at youth he had. I asked the right ?s and even gave compromises that made sense, but he was out for revenge.

  33. tens October 16, 2014 at 6:05 am

    I have always thought the question “are you clean?” is a dumb question because it is not anywhere specific enough. And I have never thought of the question as specific to HIV, but more to all of the STDS, including hepatitis and syphillis and also, to severe drug abuse like meth and heroin.

    I’v always thought of HIV as a special case with regards to the STDS, since it is a MUCH worse disease than all of the other STDS combined. I’ve always asked specifically, are you HIV negative? And you have to be specific because some people think it is OK to answer yes to a question of are you disease free because they may be undetectable in terms of viral load… which really means little as this can fluctuate. Who knows what the viral load is at the time of sex. So I always ask very specifically if they are HIV negative. They may lie or not really know, but I try to get the question at least right.

    That said, I take the answer with a grain of salt and only use it as part of my decision to have sex with a condom. If the person appears healthy and they answer no to the question of being hiv positive, then I will consider having safe sex with them. That may sound excessive, but I’d rather be very safe then very unsafe like so many and catch a virus that is still a huge health burden and hugely stigmatized and is essentially utterly avoidable.

    As has been said, many people lie or only know their status from months ago and even knowing your status today means nothing as you may be in the window period is you engage in risky sex. So I always assume a person is HIV + but I still ask anyway as depending on the answer as well as other answers to questions like can we bareback, I can make a decision if I want to engage in the very small risk of safe sex (condom breakage etc).

  34. tens October 17, 2014 at 7:20 am

    One more thing I’d like to add is that I think many people, when they ask, are you clean?, mean no offense by the term.

    Are you clean?… is more an expression which means, in the sex context, do you have any STDS, including the big dangerous one, HIV. Separate from that, as an expression, it can also mean “are you abusing drugs”? Same in that context, are you clean doesn’t mean are you dirty, it means are you back to engaging in an unhealthy addiction.

    I don’t think the intention is any way to suggest that people who are HIV+ are “unclean” or dirty or evil or whatever. I think it is a little unfair to guilt and shame someone who is using it in a non literal way.

    That said, like I said, it is not the best question to ask if you are trying to avoid STDS including HIV because it is so unspecific. Best is to ask a person directly what their HIV and STD testing status is. Are you HIV negative? What about other STDS?

    One simple reason I ask it is to see the attitude of the person in response to my question. If they seem annoyed or bothered by it, and I have seen that, regardless of their answer, I immediately know I will not have safe sex with them. I personally am always impressed when I am asked it, because it shows me the person cares about health and is being smart. It’s a turn on for me personally.

    In any case, the answer to these questions in my opinion should never be used as a basis to make the decision to have unprotected anal/vaginal intercourse since you can’t know for sure if a person is HIV free even if you had their most up to date validated test results in hand, since there is a window period where a person can be highly infectious and test negative. The only way to know for sure, and even this way will require a degree of trust, is to get tested together after a few months of monogamous safe sex.

    While safe sex has a very low risk of STD transmission, it’s not zero, and I use the HIV question as part of my decision process to determine if I will have safe sex or no sex. I reserve sex without condoms for monagamous relationships. That is how I have avoided HIV and all other STDs as a bisexual bottom.

  35. tens October 17, 2014 at 3:45 pm

    In addition to the above, one other way I stay safe is to watch the alcohol drinking. Lately, I actually totally avoid alcohol and I’ve never felt or looked better in my life. Even just giving up moderate drinking has led to so many benefits. Most of the alcohol studies lately show no benefits to drinking, with even light drinking causing heart problems and cancer.

    One thing that I have always found striking is the involvement of heavy drinking or binge drinking in so many cases of HIV infection. It is relatively rare when I have read of an infection that did not involve heavy drinking. I find this amazing. But it also of course makes sense as it does not take much drinking to make profoundly degrade the decision making process.

    I find it odd that some people who have such bad experiences drinking, from car accidents to HIV infection, would continue drinking in any form. I realize there may be an addiction component to it, but there has to come a time when one realizes that it is just not a working strategy for pleasant living. As well, it affects the immune system very negatively yet people still continue to drink even after something like HIV infection which may have been caused by drinking in the first place. That I don’t understand.

    Anyway, be careful with alcohol.

  36. steve November 2, 2014 at 10:11 am


    …regardless of what it implies, it is flawed on so many levels.

    Firstly, if you are going to ask that question to someone, and obviously discriminate against them depending on the reply, do you seriously believe that person is going to answer truthfully if they are in fact positive, particularly in a sexually charged environment or under the influence of drugs or alcohol?

    Secondly, even if that person responds negative and is being truthful, that answer is only to the best of his knowledge at that moment in time. He may well have caught the HIV virus or any other STD since his last test and not even know about it.

    Safe sex is called ‘safe ‘ sex for a reason, i.e. it’s safe!! If you truly value your health then just assume everyone may potentially have some STD, knowingly or not. That’s is all you can really be sure of!

  37. HIV Neg January 25, 2015 at 11:46 am

    People like you only show why so many people are HIV positive, dirty and sick. Yes, dirty and sick is what a HIV positive person is. You infect people if you have unsafe sex, so your anything but clean. A good part of the gay world, and probably the world in general, think because there’s drugs to take, they can go out and do whatever they want, with whomever they want. With more than a few not declaring their health status. Of course its the responsibility of the healthy, clean person to ensure they stay that way, but bug chasers thinking, just because they can live long lives, that they can do whatever they want. Its not okay, and its even sadder that people like you want to make light of good clean, healthy people. Its those good clean, healthy people that will be around to find cures for the dirty sick ones, like you!

    (You see, folks? I’ll print any comment. This reminds me why it remains so important to combat ignorance and HIV stigma. Just imagining that someone took the time to write this clueless vitriol is kind of mind-blowing, isn’t it? But the most disheartening part of this comment is that some people still don’t know the difference between “your” and “you’re.” — Mark)

  38. John May 9, 2015 at 11:27 pm

    All separatism aside, it has been commonly taught that “Men only have ONE thing on their minds & will say whatever you want hear to get it.” Back in the innocent days he only had to say he “Loved” you. I have found the best way to deal with this absurdist mindset is to redirect it with a few simple questions of my own… What would you do with someone who tells you they are “Neg” that you wouldn’t do with someone who openly identifies themselves as “Poz” and why would you BELIEVE them enough to take the risk?

  39. Frank July 7, 2015 at 9:38 am

    It’s 2015.
    Undetectable = Clean.
    Clean = Undetectable.
    Reclaim it.
    I have.

  40. Chad l. January 8, 2016 at 1:14 am

    I think its pointless, I asked the question as politely as possible with alternatives. By this I mean I said if you are poz I can massage u or jack u off or something very safe. Instead he showed me a wedding band and said I have to be neg, I have a wife and kids. I sucked him and then he said I used you in the worst way. I have untreated million viral load. I didn’t even know what that meant except he lied to me. Im very ill and dying from oral sex with a man who lived a full life, all I wanted was the same chance at youth he had. I asked the right ?s and even gave compromises that made sense, but he was out for revenge.

    (Oh, my. How dramatic. HIV infection, through oral sex no less, by a psychotic stranger, out for revenge, posing as a straight man. See, folks? I even post the batshit crazy comments. I don’t believe a word, Brad, but nice try. — Mark)

  41. Loz December 31, 2016 at 5:49 pm

    Hmm, old topic but I’ll chuck in my $0.02.

    I’m not a fan of ‘The Stupid Question’, but am also aware the world contains a lot of stupid people who will ever be untouched by logic or any incitement to change.

    Personally, i just whack a big ol’ [+u] on any and every profile I have and leave it there. If you’re stupid enough to ask if I’m ‘clean’ after that, you get a scathing remark and blocked.

    Maybe HIV testing should be mandatory, every three months. With the result tattooed on your face. I reckon a terrifying amount of people would actually be in support of that :-/

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