Undetectable = Untransmittable. Michael Stevens says it’s time New Zealand law caught up with the modern day realities of Safe Sex.

December 1 2022 – World AIDS Day – I’m glad I’m still here to mark it, when so many others aren’t.

Keeping our communities safe from HIV is an ongoing task, and for a long time ‘Safe Sex’ which largely meant condom-culture, has worked well to do that, although it seems, condom use is not as automatic as it was. Let’s face it, they could be a passion killer for many.


Part of the change in condom use is because of the well-known fact that taking PrEP (Pre-exposure prophylaxis) will stop HIV- peeps getting infected if they bareback with someone positive. Taking the PrEP if you’re going to have fun around town will stop you getting HIV. Along with the fact that nearly all HIV+ MSM (who know their status) are on effective treatment that suppresses our viral load so we cannot infect anyone; we’re seeing numbers of new infections drop, which is a very good thing.

This is where U = U comes from: Undetectable = Untransmittable. 

It’s widely accepted by infectious disease doctors and others working in sexual health that once any HIV+ person’s viral load (the level of measurable HIV in the blood), is so small they can’t measure it, there is no way it can be passed on, even without using a condom. 

But it’s still not a legal defence in New Zealand, which just isn’t fair.

Under our laws, HIV+ people don’t have to disclose our status before sex if we ‘take reasonable precaution’”. But so far the courts have said the only ‘reasonable precaution’ is using condoms. Otherwise, we have an obligation to disclose. PrEP is often compared to a “chemical condom”, because the way the meds stop infection for someone who is HIV- if they get exposed. U = U is the flip side, the drugs now make it physically impossible for a HIV+ person to infect someone.

This brings up some contradictions and problems. There are always some people who don’t know that they are positive, so how can they disclose? They could put a sexual partner at risk of infection. Or what if someone discloses, then after the deed is done, the partner freaks out and says they’re going to report them? Or blackmail them? 

Expecting HIV+ people to be the ones who disclose places a huge burden of stigma and pressure on us. If you meet for a hookup off the apps or in a sex-club or sauna, trying to have that conversation is very difficult. A lot of positive people are already dealing with trauma from their infection, so this idea that we will add to it by disclosing seems counter-intuitive, especially now, as so many of us know that factually we can’t infect anyone. And let’s face it, a lot of people are really bad at talking comfortably about sex anyway, let alone sexual health. So remove the obstacles!

It’s time for a clear signal from the government that non-disclosure today is nothing like non-disclosure 30 years ago, and doesn’t deserve the threat of legal punishment. The risks that were once very real aren’t there anymore, and this should be formally acknowledged, because it pretty much seems that this is how gay men and MSM in general are behaving. Safe Sex in today’s world is different than what it was. And that’s a wonderful thing!

The people who are most at risk of infecting someone else with HIV are those who don’t know they have it yet, which is why it’s so important if you have an active sex life, you look after yourself by taking PrEP, if you’re not using condoms. And get tested. Regularly!

I can remember decades ago hooking up with a guy in a sex-club, and nervously telling him before we went too far, “You should know I’m HIV positive”. He hugged me and told me “You don’t need to tell me or anyone that, we just need to have Safe Sex”. And we did.

We need the law in Aotearoa/New Zealand to catch up with the fact that Safe Sex has changed, and today Safe Sex equals PrEP and U = U as well as condoms.