The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have decided to stop using the term “unprotected sex” to describe sex without condoms . The agreement came on Jan. 23 in a phone conference with advocates from the Chicago-based HIV Prevention Justice Alliance.
The CDC told the Bay Area Reporter that the changes are a long time coming, as “HIV prevention strategies evolve, the terminology needs to evolve as well.”
“As discussions about HIV prevention strategies evolve, the terminology needs to evolve as well – an issue the CDC has been aware of and assessing for some time,” CDC spokesman Scott Bryan said in an email. “In recent conversations with HIV Prevention Justice Alliance, we shared with them our ongoing efforts to align our messages with this changing HIV prevention landscape.”
The change seems to be welcomed from safe-sex and LGBT advocates as well.
“This is a critical victory for prevention and treatment advocates,” said Rod McCullom, who writes television news producer, and political columnist and frequent contributor to The Advocate, the award-winning LGBT news magazine. “The change in language is long overdue. The new language reflects current advances in biomedical, treatment as intervention, viral suppression and more. Perhaps once upon a time, all condomless sex was viewed through a lens of heightened risk for HIV. That is no longer the case. Men and women are using PrEP and antiretrovviral therapy, for instance, as tools to substantially lower their risk. What if you are on treatment and have an undetectable viral load? That is a new ‘proetction’ that thankfully has become available.”
Other HIV experts welcomed the change as well. Dr. Kenneth Mayer, medical research director and co-chair of the Fenway Institute at Boston’s Fenway Health, told the Reporter, “Unprotected sex conveys a sense of irresponsibility that may not accurately reflect a person’s decision about how to avoid HIV and other STD’s.”
“For example,” he added, “someone in a committed monogamous relationship may decide not to use condoms after having been screened for HIV and STDs, and coming to an agreement with a partner about not engaging in intimate relations with others. It would be rare to refer to a heterosexual couple trying to conceive as engaging in ‘unprotected sex.’”
How this language change will play out in the long term is not yet known. For example, it’s not clear whether the CDC will continue to use the phrase “unprotected sex” to refer to sex in which no HIV prevention methods are used or when discussing STDs other than HIV, or whether it will simply retire the term altogether. The HIV Prevention Justice Alliance says it plans to meet with the agency later this month to discuss the change further.
What it all boils down to is protecting yourself and others.