Sex, love and relationships with HIV
This Texas mom is on a mission to show the world that you can live life to the fullest when you’re HIV-positive.
At 20 years aged, Jessica Glaspie was like most girls her age. She was in college, living a new life away from her parents and enjoying her independence. One evening, after a night out on the town with a girlfriend, she finds herself sitting in her car at a red light. A man in the vehicle next to her waved and told her to roll down her car window. Against her better judgment, she did. Glaspie exchanged words, then phone numbers, with the handsome stranger, before pressing the gas and heading home. The couple started chatting regularly and quickly fell into a whirlwind of romance.
A few years into their relationship, Glaspie, then 22, tested positive for the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
In the years that followed, the relationship ended, but Glaspie, now 34, continues to believe in love. “I still LOVE love,” she says. “I love the idea of giving and receiving love in all kinds of ways and I love the idea of having a partner for life.” But her outward confidence belies a darker reality: Even in 2022, stigma and misconceptions surround HIV, especially when it comes to black women. Glaspie does his best to get rid of it. “I’m very public and open about my status,” she says. When it comes to dating, her attitude is simple: “At this point, it really is, take it or leave it.”
An unexpected diagnosis
She wasn’t always so confident. In 2009, when she learned she was HIV-positive, the Zion, IL native was living carefree in Atlanta, GA, where she had moved to attend college. Her budding romance with the man she met at the red light had its ups and downs due to her infidelity, but Glaspie was young, in love, and desperate to make the relationship work.
About a year or so after they started dating, she realized that her lymph nodes were swollen and decided to go to the doctor to have them checked out. She wasn’t terribly worried: she had had a physical altercation with her roommate a few weeks earlier and had thought the swelling and tenderness around her neck was the result of their spat. So when her doctor informed her that the lymph nodes all over her body were swollen, Glaspie was surprised.
Her doctor referred her to an otolaryngologist, also known as an otolaryngologist. After performing some tests and evaluating Glaspie, the specialist looked down her throat. She doesn’t remember if he saw white spots or if her throat was swollen, but she remembers what he said next: she might have HIV or lymphoma, he told her, before immediately scheduling a biopsy. She was shocked. Aside from the swollen lymph nodes, Glaspie felt fine. After doing some research on her own, Glaspie dismissed the doctor’s prognosis. After all, she had neither the flu-like symptoms that come with HIV nor the weight loss and fatigue associated with lymphoma.
But during her follow-up visit, the specialist confirmed that she was HIV-positive. Glaspie was devastated. She soon learned that the man she was dating had not only passed the virus on to her, but that he was born with it. His mother, who contracted the virus from sharing needles, passed it on to him during childbirth. He had not taken his medication and had given it to Glaspie during unprotected sex.
Coming of age with HIV
“It was the late 80s, so HIV was a big deal back then,” Glaspie says of her ex-boyfriend who contracted the virus at birth. HIV/AIDS continued to dominate the health care landscape into the 1990s. Between 1994 and 1998, an estimated 51,473 women died of HIV/AIDS in the United States. Her ex-boyfriend’s mother was one of those who perished from the virus; Glaspie admits she empathizes with him now. Due to the epidemic, 97,376 children remained orphans during these years. During its peak in the 1990s, around 600,000 babies worldwide contracted the virus each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Shortly after Glaspie’s diagnosis, the couple gave birth to a baby girl, who is now 11 and HIV-negative. Glaspie is doing her best to raise her child without resentment towards the man who transmitted this virus to her. “Growing up, he wasn’t able to disclose his status without feeling alienated,” Glaspie says of his ex. “But he still has to be held accountable, because if you knew what your life was like growing up with HIV, why would you give HIV to other women?
The silent treatment
Like so many other health issues, HIV hits communities of color the hardest. Black women make up less than 15% of the female population in the United States, but account for 60% of new HIV infections. Ragan Johnson, RN, associate clinical professor at Duke University’s School of Nursing in Durham, North Carolina, says there are myriad reasons for this startling statistic.
“There are structural systems like racism and sexism that don’t value women and see them as objects of sex and not participants in sex,” Johnson says. In what many saw as a blatant example of gender discrimination, in 2019 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Descovy, an HIV prevention drug, for gay men and trans women. Despite the rapid increase in HIV cases among black women, the drug has not been approved for people who were designated female at birth. (“Efficacy in this population has not been evaluated,” the FDA said at the time.)
Descovy’s forgetting may have a historical precedent. Pre-exposure prophylaxis, better known as PrEP, was approved by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) in 2012 to prevent HIV, and women were allowed to take the drug. But to this day, most women, especially black women, are not offered this option. Johnson refers to a 2021 study published in the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome who found an underlying racial bias in clinicians who prescribed PrEP to black women. The online experiment, which included 160 primary care providers located in 48 HIV-prevalent counties in the United States, found that many providers did not believe black women were able or willing to take the drug. one pill a day HIV prevention, so they just never offered it to them. They were, however, more likely to offer it to white women as this group was less vulnerable to the virus.
Looking for love and reuniting with family
Beyond all the obstacles, Johnson encourages HIV-positive women to have healthy relationships and sex lives. “I’m glad we have options available, and women can be open, honest and take control of their sexuality by offering their partner PReP so they reduce their risk,” she adds.
After splitting from her college boyfriend, Glaspie started antiretroviral therapy (ART) – a one-pill-a-day treatment that made her HIV undetectable, meaning the level of virus in her body is so low that it can no longer be located by blood tests and she cannot transmit HIV to her sexual partner. She entered into a new relationship and from this union gave birth to a son. When that relationship didn’t work out, Glaspie married and had another son. In both cases, she was candid with her partners about her HIV status. Glaspie is now divorced, but her ex-husband took PReP when they were together and was also HIV negative. Her three children (ages 11, 9 and 4) are also all HIV-negative.
The dating scene
Glaspie, who is currently dating, usually takes a while to smell a person before revealing their HIV status. Sometimes she will tell them on the first date or wait a few weeks. She never engages in intimacy without disclosing her status. “I think it’s important to get to know the person,” she adds. “But I knew what it was like to not be told, so if you want to invest in someone, be honest.”
On the other hand, when she reveals her status, she is surprised that some men no longer care about having safe sex. “It’s never been a problem when it comes to sex,” Glaspie says. “If I wanted to have a very active sex life, I certainly could.” In fact, says Glaspie, more often than not, when a man learns that his HIV status is undetectable, he no longer makes safety a priority. It’s as if they take protection against HIV to mean immunity against all other STDs as well. “After having this discussion, many men forget that other sexually transmitted infections exist,” she says. “I’m always the one to say no, we don’t have unprotected sex.”
The mother-of-three has become an HIV advocate who hopes to help other women regain their confidence, regardless of their past. In his book, Life, Love and HIV: A Memoir, Glaspie candidly tells his story and offers insight into navigating the virus. She encourages HIV-positive women to seek therapy, take their medications as prescribed, and remember that they deserve love. “This is our life, this is how we have to live every day,” Glaspie says. “What if you had to take a few pills a day? We are here and we are healthy.