The very idea of maintaining an active sex life with our partner into our golden years—much less finding that partner in the first place—is an often unspoken anxiety that is only multiplied for people living with HIV. The challenge often begins with HIV disclosure itself, and extends to the physical demands of aging that can impede desire and sexual response.
I spoke with three HIV-positive seniors who have navigated the sexual terrain; their experiences range from adventurous, to romantic, to a happy dismissal of sex altogether.
Rob ‘There is a difference between sex and love’
We’re never too old for life to teach us something. For Rob de Groot, a 73-year-old man from the Netherlands, an unexpected sexual adventure provided an important lesson for him and his partner about what they truly valued in their relationship.
Rob, who has lived with HIV for 30 years, had found himself “incapable and uninterested” in sex prior to meeting his partner six years ago. But Rob’s new boyfriend was nine years younger and “had not been able to turn off that switch,” as Rob explained. Before long, Rob’s partner began a sexual affair with a younger man, leaving Rob devastated.
“I was afraid he would leave me,” Rob said. He also wanted to meet his “competition.” This was arranged. “Then I found out that this young man was also interested in me! So, at 67 years old, I had a couple of threesomes.” Rob took part because he wanted to demonstrate to his partner that “there is a difference between sex and love.
“Luckily, he came to understand the difference, and the affair ended. It became the most rewarding relationship I have known.”
Rob lost his partner suddenly three years ago, along with the intimacy that their foray into sexual adventurousness had helped create. “I miss him coming up behind me while brushing my teeth,” he says wistfully, “and feeling his arms around me.”
Rob accepts his advanced age without romanticizing it. “I know that, at 73, I am an old man that is still interested in life around me,” he said. He devotes his time to serving as a mentor to younger people living with HIV.
“I may be an old physical wreck,” said Rob, “but I never complain about that, especially to younger people.”
Asha ‘We deserve intimate relationships’
Anyone who fears that seniors living with HIV are beyond romantic possibilities can take heart in the story of Asha Molock. The 65-year-old woman from Philadelphia is being courted by someone special, and love might be in the air.
“We have known each other for 10 years, and he already knew about my HIV status,”
Asha explained. “He treats me with respect.”
Recently, the two friends talked about getting more serious. “I was hesitant at first,” she said, “not because of my HIV status, but because I didn’t want to ruin a good friendship if it didn’t work out.”
They are taking things slowly, but fans of the terribly romantic will be pleased to know that the couple have held hands and kissed. Should things become more physical, “there will be no fear of intimacy from either of us,” said Asha. “We talk about HIV a lot, and he understands how it is transmitted and what it takes for us to be safe.”
For a time, fear of HIV criminalization kept Asha from “even thinking about trying to have another relationship.” In a majority of states, there are HIV non-disclosure laws that have been used to target people with HIV, even if a condom was used or the person with HIV otherwise posed no risk of transmission.
“People with HIV deserve intimate relationships,” she said, “no matter what age. Having been married twice, I don’t desire to get married again, but having companionship and intimacy is important to me because I am human.”
Asha’s words of advice for elders? “Make yourself a priority,” she said. “Don’t feel guilty about being a little selfish and spending time on yourself. We live in a society where the elderly are ignored, and adding HIV to that can make life more difficult. Turn up your life, don’t isolate yourself, and get out and socialize!”
Asha takes her own advice to heart. “I plan to live my life like it is gold,” she said confidently, “way into my golden years.”
Tim ‘Sex was my hobby’
After decades of what he describes as an exhausting pursuit of sex and dating partners, 64-year-old Tim Patten made a decision to stop having sex altogether. It is a choice he believes has made his life significantly more satisfying.
“Sex was my hobby,” said Tim, a gay author and financial adviser from San Francisco. “I have transitioned from someone who needed sex as a way to make me feel good about myself to someone who is in love with my creativity and generosity toward others.
“I thought sex made me feel like a man; but today I know I am a man, making contributions to others in much more amazing ways,” he said.
Tim began to experience some sexual changes several years ago. “I was having fewer erections in the morning,” he said. “I had little of the nagging desire to have sex or masturbate. When I realized this, I made a mental decision to stop cruising, dating, or watching porn. Today, I still love that sex has no hold over me. I have discovered friends, giving, and writing. I’ve written four books and dozens of articles on the web over the past seven years.”
Tim knows that he has rejected sex amid a culture that values sexual prowess, but he has no regrets. The rewards to his time and focus have been considerable. “I have helped young friends in their 20s find their way into careers, loves, and marriage. I helped them write resumes, cover letters, and practice job interviews. I have helped young men in other countries cope with HIV at very young ages.
“Growing and changing is the best part of living,” said Tim. “I absolutely love this part of my life.”