I was recently interviewed, as a gay psychiatrist treating gay patients who lived through the AIDS epidemic, about my perspectives on living through a COVID pandemic: Were there parallels and contrasts between the two? A month later, listening to patients remotely via teletherapy, I’m experiencing an unsettling similarity to serosorting, a phenomenon that emerged during the AIDS epidemic.
Serosorting is the practice of choosing a sexual partner based on their HIV serostatus. Sorting out who was positive from who was negative allowed people to give themselves permission to have unprotected sex without risk of getting HIV. However, it was not uncommon to make those decisions without really knowing a potential partner’s actual serostatus. In fact, a lot of people serosorted by guessing.
Why not just ask a potential partner, “What’s your serostatus?” Apparently, for some, introducing the subject of HIV was deemed a sexual buzzkill. Instead, assumptions were made based on outer appearances.
Did someone look healthy? Were they well built? Were they overweight, meaning not emaciated from AIDS? If so, they were presumed negative and safe to have risky, unprotected sex with them.
Some imagined age correlated with serostatus. Since anyone older than some arbitrary age — like 30, to pull a number out of a hat — was expected to be more likely to have HIV than someone under 30, they would use that guideline in choosing sexual partners. However, these decisions were made without factual knowledge, like a blood test, but using some internal reasoning process.
Which brings us to what might be called “COVID-sorting.”
Some of my patients believe they had COVID-19, although they’d not been tested to either confirm or disprove that belief. Others had positive COVID-19 antibody tests, which they believe provides immunity. Among that group, some had symptoms, others did not.
Yet regardless of what they actually know or don’t know, patients are making calculations about managing physical distancing using their own internal formulas. They make risk calculations having little to do with actual knowledge of public health precautions on preventing COVID’s spread.
For example, one patient was planning a Memorial Day weekend in a shared Fire Island house with five friends and acquaintances. All six live alone and, as far as he knows, all are physically distancing. Consequently, my patient doesn’t think house-sharing is anything to worry about, even though he doesn’t know how scrupulously others have followed distancing guidelines.
Another patient, recovering at home after being ill with COVID-19, felt safe inviting someone over for sex who had also been ill and recovered. He didn’t think they could infect each other, presuming, not altogether unreasonably, they were both immune.