Killer Sex: Midlife Women and HIV

1 in 3 women newly infected with HIV is age 40 or over.

By Alexis Jetter
Photograph: Todd Hido

The first glimmer of awareness came when Delores’s boyfriend told her that he had come down with hepatitis C, a virus that can, though rarely, be spread through unprotected sex. When Delores went to get tested, her doctor suggested an HIV check as well. "Why not?" Delores agreed. The results showed she didn’t have hepatitis. But her HIV test said, in red letters, "positive."

When Delores told her boyfriend about the diagnosis, he promptly dropped out of her life. She also told her mother, her three sisters and her entire church. "I got up in front of 500 people," she says, sounding as if she still can’t quite believe she did it. But talking about HIV to her children, especially her younger daughter, was a different story; she didn’t want her kids to know until she could talk to them without falling apart. "I hid it very well," she says. "I cried in the shower, where no one would hear me. I took more showers! I was the cleanest person walking around."

She bustled her older daughter, then 18, off to college, and broke the news to her six months later. But her younger daughter, then 9, found out on her own. Delores had been taking her every month to their local health center, where the girl played in the children’s area and Delores attended a support group for women with HIV that met in a room nearby. Delores hadn’t noticed the poster in the waiting area, displaying a typical array of anti-HIV medication. But the little girl saw it. One night on the way home, she started to cry. "Those are the drugs you take," Delores remembers her saying. "Those are the drugs you have in your cabinet. You have AIDS, and you’re going to die."

From that day on, every night before bed, Delores read to her daughter about people living fully, despite the disease. "We would read stories and testimonies," she says. "What I learned, she learned." And part of what Delores learned was to wrap some privacy around her family. "If I didn’t have children, I would come out, full-fledged," she says. "But I need to protect my youngest child, because kids can be cruel."

Some women never tell their children that they’re infected. One of Gallagher’s patients, a dignified African-American woman in Boston, went to her grave without revealing it. "Her five children to this day do not know that she died of AIDS," Gallagher says. "Or that their father, who infected her after seeing prostitutes for years, also died of it."

But that wasn’t Delores’s style. Getting HIV was a turning point for her — and not all of what happened next was bad: She quit her job, started giving talks about the virus in schools and prisons, and now coordinates a program for youths and families dealing with the disease. "This is my life calling," she says. "This I learned raw." Then, a few years ago, without really looking, Dolores met a gentle, thoughtful man who felt right. Telling him about her condition was hard. "I was at his house, and it was getting hot and heavy. I said, ‘I have something to tell you. I’m HIV-positive. Now you can take me home.’"

"He just stood there and looked at me," Delores says. "And then he cried."

Today they’re married, and their only nod to the disease is that Delores’s husband uses condoms and gets annual HIV screenings. "But we’re not too sexually active," Delores admits. "The medications do tap into that. Plus, I’m going through the changes. So sex isn’t the biggest thing on my list."

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