The second season of Married at First Sight NZ looks to walk queer representation down the aisle of mainstream New Zealand TV. Dejan Jotanovic writes about a significant misstep the series made this week.
In episide seven of season two of MAFSNZ, Sam (the influencer) and Tayler (the not-influencer) have their first major bout of on-screen friction. Admittedly, I was quickly confused about what the main argument circled on (lack of communication about going to the gym?) but I did think it was pretty cute that one wore an NY cap during his confessional while the other donned an LA cap (A+ symbolism, NZ TV awards here we come).
What grabbed my attention more was a conversation the hubbies had around their kitchen island. “You know how I’ve had three open heart operations over the years… I’ve jumped onto a drug called Truvada, or PrEP”, Tayler shared.
Two openly gay men speaking candidly about sexual health on national television? This is what my dreams look like.
“So Truvada is a drug that prevents you from potentially getting HIV, and for myself that’s a big deal because if I do get HIV it could really destroy my heart and I’d deteriorate quite quickly,” Tayler continues via confessional.
And he’s right. Truvada, or PrEP (Pre-exposure Prophylaxis), is a drug that when taken daily can significantly reduce the risk of becoming infected with HIV during unprotected sex. How significantly, you’re probably wondering? With up to 99% effectiveness, extremely. Among nearly 5,000 people using PrEP in the Kaiser Permanente Northern California health system, no new HIV infections have been recorded.
Tayler reassures Sam that he still wears condoms (PrEP won’t protect you from other sexually transmitted infections) and that it’s all a preventative measure: “I just want to reassure him that I’m not sleeping around but that it’s to protect myself and my heart.” The symbolism writes itself, I swear.
To which Sam replies: “And you’re telling me this because…” For the record, yeah, Sam, I agree. It’s not really a big deal, but good on Tayler for spotlighting HIV prevention to audiences that probably don’t have a robust understanding of it!
Tayler says, quite fairly, “I just wanted to be open…” Good on you, Tayler, the stigma surrounding sexual health is the real villain in this story. Then, the ominous music starts playing!
And then Sam: “Strong topic that you’ve just put on me. It’s going to take a lot more than just toast and coffee to digest this. I’m not judging, don’t worry, I’m not judging…” I’m sorry, what?
“I like this conversation, it’s constructive”, Tayler ends.
Me, as narrator: “It was anything but constructive.”
Sam’s reaction wasn’t just immature, it was extremely unhelpful. Feeding the idea that taking PrEP is somehow shameful or strange only discourages people from access to both education into HIV, and its subsequent prevention and treatment.
In 2017, 197 people in New Zealand were diagnosed with HIV – the first decline in transmission since 2011. The NZ AIDS Foundation project that this drop in transmission “could signal modern prevention strategies such as PrEP and Undetectable Viral Load (UVL) are contributing to the overall reduction.” For those at home scratching their heads at ‘undetectable viral loads’: “People living with HIV who are on anti-retroviral treatment and maintain an undetectable viral load for at least six months do not sexually transmit HIV.”
Now read that last part one more time and remember it. Because the fear, stigma and discrimination prescribed to people living with HIV is difficult to divorce. In 2014 research looked at New Zealand’s attitudes towards people living with HIV. While the vast majority of respondents understood that HIV could not be transmitted through touch or sharing food, 56% still admitted they’d be uncomfortable by having their food prepared by someone living with HIV. This speaks to an internalised and irrational fear many of us still hold.
While stigma can be defeated through education, there are a number of strategies for putting an end to HIV. First, it’s recommended that queer men be tested regularly – at least twice a year for HIV, and quarterly for other STIs depending on your sexual activity. The NZ AIDS Foundation offers free HIV & STI testing at its Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch centres. Second, people living with HIV are encouraged to treat as early as possible to maintain an undetectable viral load (often denoted as +U on our favourite apps).
Condoms (and lube!) are great too, providing broad protection against other STIs. But realistically condoms aren’t always accessible, or 100% effective anyway because yes, you can most definitely get gonorrhea of the throat. One of the most popular strategies is often referred to as TaSP (Treatment as prevention): the use of antiretroviral medication to prevent HIV transmission (hello Truvada/PrEP).
In New Zealand a three-month supply of PrEP will only cost you $5 if you meet the PHARMAC criteria. Ending HIV NZ has prepared an extremely helpful guide for anyone considering the little blue pill, including the potential side-effects, pharmacy cover, and protection from other STIs. The key is, as always, education.
Sure, Sam’s reaction was unhelpful, but I’m also clued up in enough on reality TV to understand the power of the producer and the editing room, and yes, I’ve seen every episode of Unreal. Scandalising Tayler’s use of PrEP – the dramatic music, the confessional cams, and Sam’s discomfort – was reckless. Demonising HIV prevention and PrEP by depicting it as something strange and in need of kitchen island defense is dangerous.
MAFSNZ missed a golden opportunity to open a much-needed national conversation about HIV prevention to audiences that sorely lack the education. Instead, it married the scene into a site of stigma and shame, in turn damaging the very people it was most interested in representing.