Nathaniel Hall

The artist and activist on contracting HIV at the age of 16

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Can you remember your first time?

Maybe it’s not yet happened for you yet and that question has prompted you to dream about what it might be like when you finally do it.

Maybe you’re looking back with a warm glow, remembering the first time you fondled with fondness.

Or maybe you’re cringing at how clunky and uncoordinated your first coitals were.

For me, that memory is tinged with trauma and sadness.

My first time, my proper first time, was with an older man. I was 16 and thought I knew exactly what I was doing. In reality, equipped with very little knowledge about heterosexual sex, relationships and consent, and almost no knowledge about those things for gay men, I didn’t have a clue.

Sure, I knew about STIs. And I knew that condoms stopped you from getting them.

But he was older, and wiser… right?

I remember he pulled out a gay men’s safer sex pack – you can pick them up in any gay bar in Manchester for free – and I thought, phew, that’s that awkward conversation dealt with. But he put the condoms to one side and just took the lube.

Whoa, cowboy… I might have been inexperienced, ill-equipped and undereducated, but I wasn’t stupid.

“It’s OK, I’ve been tested, I’ve got the all clear.”

And so the condoms remained wrapped up and unused.

I’d like to say that the lube was useful that first time… but as most gay men will attest, the first time isn’t always the most comfortable or enjoyable. We didn’t actually make it to any real earth-shattering penetrative climax that first time, but in the days and weeks that followed, as I grew in sexual confidence, learning from him, we did.

And each time, the safer sex pack was pulled out of the top drawer and the condoms placed to one side: “I’ve been tested, I’ve got the all clear.”
Only that simply wasn’t true.

A few months later, I was sick… really sick. I couldn’t eat, I lost nearly 2 stone in weight and there was horrendous discharge and pain coming from places no self-respecting, self-conscious teenager wants them to.

Eventually I got tested. I had a veritable shopping list of sexually transmitted infections.
I was offered the big test: HIV.

I refused. I couldn’t possibly have that. But I did and the doctors knew that I did. So they gently encouraged me to take the test. I got the results 2 weeks after my 17th birthday.
HIV+ from my first time…

That feels like a lifetime ago now… 15 years to be precise. For 14 of those I lived in relative silence. Shame, self-stigma and hatred stopped me from telling people.

I didn’t tell my family. I told few friends… and fewer lovers. Until last year, after a Britney-circa-2007-style meltdown, I realised something had to give, and I embarked on a journey towards full disclosure and towards making my first solo show: First Time.

The process of creating First Time has taken me to some difficult and dark places in my past. One particularly painful part has been asking the question, was I complicit in the act?

Did I give consent?

I used to think that I did and therefore must shoulder some responsibility for the resulting diagnosis. But now aged 31, the more I look back at my awkward pale, 16 year old self, in bed with an older man, the more uncomfortable I feel.

There was clearly a power imbalance. He had knowledge and experience that I clearly did not.

And he knew that.

Whether or not he lied about the sexual health screen, I’ll never know.

Whether or not he knew he was HIV+ or not, I’ll never know.

Whether he was simply ignorant to how HIV is transmitted, I’ll never know.

But there was a power imbalance.

Was I groomed? Many would say that I was… for me, the jury is still out. But what is clear, is that an absence of talking openly about consent at school played a part in me not having the confidence to say no.

An absence of good, sex-positive and sexually diverse education played a part in me contracting HIV.

What would I say to my 16-year-old self if I could?

I certainly wouldn’t simply tell him to just say no. It’s more complicated than that.

But I would tell him that he has the power to challenge. Because with that comes empowerment.

And in the years since my diagnosis I’ve most certainly learned that empowered, informed, confident people have much better sex.

First Time is on at Waterside, Sale, Greater Manchester on 29, 30 Nov and 1 Dec 2018. To book tickets click here.

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