Collective Memories of HIV Pandemic Helped Men Navigate COVID-19

Men wearing masks sitting on park benches

Photo courtesy of Dollar Gill on Unsplash

Amy Braksmajer, an assistant professor of sociology at SUNY Geneseo, has co-authored two peer-reviewed articles based on interview data collected from 30 sexual minority men (men who have sex with men). One study examines how sexual risk-taking during the COVID-19 pandemic was managed, and the other found evidence that the lessons learned from AIDS epidemic aided in understanding COVID-19.

Shortly after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic in March 2020, governments worldwide issued lockdowns and social distancing guidelines. Along with everyone else, Braksmajer says that researchers also wondered what would happen to interpersonal connections—including intimate relationships and sex—during a pandemic.

Braksmajer and her co-author Robert Cserni, a PhD candidate at Stony Brook University, researched how sexual minority men assess and manage risk incurred with sexual activity during lockdown for their article published in Sociology of Health & Illness. “In other words, how are people having sex? Just like they were during the AIDS epidemic: Very carefully,” Braksmajer says. “Instead of condoms, there are masks; instead of monogamy, there are ‘bubbles’; in place of sexual history assessment, there is an assessment of adherence to COVID-19 safety guidelines; and in both cases, there were changes in sexual practice that helped to mitigate risk,” Braksmajer says.

Braksmajer and Cserni say that instead of a public policy telling individuals to “just say no” to sex, health officials should acknowledge an individual’s motivations—such as a desire for connection and interaction—and encourage appropriate harm reduction strategies, similar to those that were effective at preventing HIV transmission.

Braksmajer says it’s important for researchers to look at the nexus of COVID-19 and HIV more broadly and from the perspective of other underserved populations (e.g., heterosexual men and women of color, or injection drug users). “For example, individuals of color have been disproportionately affected by both the HIV and COVID-19 pandemics due to factors such as discrimination, difficulties in accessing health care, and the unequal distribution of comorbidities, and they may have expressed different perspectives than those in my most recent articles,” she says. “Questions like these deserve future research.”

In Braksmajer’s second article, published in Culture, Health & Sexuality, she and co-author Andrew London, professor of sociology at Syracuse University, found that personal experience and second-hand stories about the AIDS epidemic helped individuals to draw upon collective experiences to inform how they understood COVID-19.

The researchers found that during the early stage of the COVID-19 pandemic, sexual minority men minimized the threat of the contagion until it drew near to them—either geographically or personally. Then they created explanatory frameworks that drew on cultural narratives to estimate the dangers to themselves based not only on COVID risk factors (e.g., age, obesity, other illnesses), but individual behaviors and those of others, which were seen as moral choices. Finally, the men in the study reflected on governmental neglect, differences in the targets of collective action, the speed of COVID-19 vaccine development compared to HIV vaccine development, and the need to engage in collective action and personal risk management for the greater good of the community.

“COVID-19 has been the first pandemic most people have faced,” Braksmajer says. “However, for sexual minority communities who have collectively experienced trauma and loss stemming from the HIV pandemic since the early to mid 1980s, similarities abound.”


Monique Patenaude, PhD
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