Review: ‘Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS, and Survival,’ by Sean Strub

Long time HIV survivor Sean Strub has played a central role in the movement for self-empowerment of the HIV infected. Recently, he has focused on issues of HIV criminalization.

He founded and published POZ, a magazine about living well with HIV. An active member of AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), he has also raised funds for numerous HIV/LGBT causes. He recently published “Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS, and Survival.”

For those of us who lived through the worst of the epidemic, we can now look back on the worst collective “morning after” in our lives, its messy clean up and reflect on what happened. For younger people, this book provides an accessible, quick read about living through an important time in our history. The memoir format emphasizes lived experience rather than reporting objective facts.

Strub also describes two seldom mentioned aspects of the epidemic: the fear of asking about someone you hadn’t seen in a while and the emotional problems of updating your address book when so many in it have died.

The epidemic not only involved death, pain and suffering, but also the community’s adaptation to it and resistance to the right wing’s attempt to use it to further their agenda. One cannot understand that adaptation and resistance without understanding its development.

Strub emphasizes the “Denver principles,” a foundational document for the self-empowerment of the HIV positive community. Eleven gay men with AIDS wrote these principles. They rejected the label of “victim” and asserted the rights of the HIV positive to live full, satisfying sexual and emotional lives, free of scapegoating and pity.

A direct line exists from this early statement to today’s resistance to HIV criminalization. Strub defines HIV criminalization as “…the inappropriate use of one’s HIV status in criminal prosecutions, most notably through criminal statutes that apply only to people with HIV.”

Consistent with the “Denver Principles,” Strub founded POZ.

While centered on living well with HIV, POZ did not shy away from HIV prevention, and its failures. Strub also discusses POZ’s coverage of barebacking at length.

In 1999, POZ published two articles, one by each member of a mixed status couple, who “should have known better” but still managed to transmit the virus. Each explained what happened from his perspective. I remember reading POZ at the time and being blown away. Finally, someone explained how “it” happened, rather than retreating into safe platitudes, or ego inflating moralistic condemnation.

Arguably the most under-utilized resource in HIV prevention, these two articles should be read by everyone working in HIV testing and prevention, or at risk for HIV infection. In a community whose central value lies in the act of “coming out” in public rather than hiding in shame, honest and open discussions of HIV transmission should inform HIV prevention messages.

One minor problem with the book concerns Strub’s writing style. He seems to have known everyone worth knowing, with the exception of porn stars. While most writers refer to people by their full or last names, he frequently refers to people by just their first names. This provides an informal tone but can be confusing at times.

Strub has a long career with many achievements. This book tells his story and, somehow, he manages to tell it without bitterness, bitchy comments or “settling scores,” another major achievement.

To read the “Denver Principles,“ please visit

To read the POZ articles about how two guys who should have known better managed to transmit the virus please visit

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