When ‘Clean’ Has a Negative Connotation

NEGUB2Hello again. Last Friday everyone had fun with Stuart and his questions about why M/M authors write about twitching penises and thumping the hell out of them.:) This week the topic is a little more serious. Here’s what he wanted to know about why authors use this term in M/M books when the connotation is anything but what was intended:

“I’ve noticed that authors of m/m fiction generally refer to being HIV negative as being ‘clean’. I’m a 46 year-old gay man who lived in NYC from 1988 -2004 and I’ve never heard ‘clean’ used among gay men there (or anywhere else I’ve visited) in any sexual situation or in casual conversation. Instead, it’s customary to ask a potential sexual partner if they’re ‘positive’ or ‘negative’.

I’ve always been surprised at the prevalence of ‘clean’ in m/m fiction since it implies that an infected person would have ‘dirty’ blood. In a potential sexual situation where you don’t know your partners sero-status and they don’t know yours, using the word ‘clean’ would be incredibly insulting and would ruin the night. I wonder where and why m/m fiction picked up this trope.”

You may remember the book by horror and M/M author, Rick R. Reed,  NEG UB2 about a gay man who had been diagnosed as HIV+. I don’t recall any mention of the word “clean” in the book to refer to the protagonist’s sero-status, and it would appear that this is a term used exclusively by female M/M writers.

I asked Rick about this because he’s one of my “gay” consultants and here’s his comment

‘”In my own personal life, I have never really heard the word “clean” used much. And I could see how it could be insulting. Most gay men I know would say poz or neg or maybe, if they were online, DDF (drug and disease free). I think the guy from NYC is right. If someone asked me if I was “clean”, it would probably kill the mood. I think it’s much more likely they would ask if I was poz, which is just fact, with no judgment attached (as with using the word “clean”). I hope you can perhaps get some writers to not use this term since it’s demeaning to HIV+ people everywhere. Having a disease (or the antibodies for it) does not make someone “dirty.”‘

Authors, can you clarify why you use the word  ‘clean” in this context? I noticed that gay male M/M writers never use this term in this situation so I’m wondering if this is a case of  ‘follow the leader’ where one M/M writer uses a word and everyone else follows?

As always, I look forward to comments from both authors and readers on this topic.


If you have a burning question on M/M books or gay fiction that hasn’t been answered in any of the polls conducted to date (you can check out all the Polls under “Navigation” on the website – it’s the last topic), please email me and I would be happy to post your question. 


I live in Canada and I love big dogs, music, movies, reading and sports – especially baseball


  • *JenB
    Honestly, though, I don’t think it should be that big of a deal. As a woman, I don’t find it particularly insulting when I read about the hymen being located somewhere in the depths of the uterus, or when virgin blood is described as flowing in copious amounts, etc. Misinformed and ridiculous, yes, but not offensive.
    mmhhh I think it’s extremely offensive, since m/m authors use clean = HIV neg, so the opposite would be dirty/unclean = HIV poz.
    And don’t get me started about all the high risk behavior that goes on in m/m books. What’s up with all these characters just assuming their partner (who they just met a couple of hours/days ago) is aware of his statues and happily jump into bed barebacking.

    • That second point bugs me as well. Okay, risky behaviour is obviously going on in the real world, but when characters who come across as generally sensible and who take care of themselves happily take the word of some guy they’ve just met that it’s all fine they don’t need condoms it bothers me. I mean I could say I’m Queen of Saturn and Empress of Pluto, that doesn’t make it true!

  • Wow, what a fascinating discussion. I’ll echo what people have said as I believe the “I’m clean” discussion comes from m/f romance. It was especially prevalent 5-10 years ago in category romance, iirc. I believe I haven’t used it—that’s partly a function of my writing paranormal/futuristic though so I’m not claiming some kind of higher ground here.

    And, Stuart, I’m so sorry about your experiences with those doctors. Just really awful 🙁

  • This has quite an eye-opening discussion *in more ways than one*.

    *putting historian’s hat on* I think the ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ descriptions have been associated with a person suffering from disease for many years; for eg, it was used in contemporary sources at the time of the plague/s in the Dark Ages.
    It would be interesting – and apologies for this sounding like it’s dismissing the negative connotations of the word – to see whether the word ‘clean’ was first used in reference to HIV and Aids when it became more widely known in the 1970s/1980s and it was often referred to in the media as ‘the gay plague’. Just a thought.

    • Kris
      It seems that we haven’t progressed very far from the 1970s/1980s based on Stuart’s experience with his doctors. Apparently a lot of people still regard gay men as being somehow “unclean” because they have sex with other men and they think that this automatically leads to AIDS. Which is really strange because, according to the latest statistics, the fastest group of new HIV infected people is young black women (I believe the number is 90 – 95%) which happens because black men “on the down low” are having unprotected sex with other men and then infecting their partners.

      • Wave
        “Apparently a lot of people still regard gay men as being somehow “unclean” because they have sex with other men and they think that this automatically leads to AIDS.”
        That makes me think of blood donation. Why are gay men automatically told that they can’t give blood and het men can give it no problem. What makes a het man safer than a gay man or even a woman. What’s to say that the het man doesn’t go around and sleep with other people without his spouse knowing about it. And let’s admit it a het man doesn’t not = a intelligent, responsible I will use protection man.

        • Elyane

          Funny you should mention the issue of blood donations by gays. Recently in Ottawa (Canada – for those living outside the Great White North):) a gay man sued the Canadian Blood Services (CBS), our blood collection agency that replaced the Red Cross which was found negligent several years and lost its status in this area. The Red Cross, I believe, was found guilty of not testing the blood collected and several people contracted Hepatitis C (I may have some of my facts wrong here but that’s the gist of it).


          Anyway this man (Mr. Freedman) claimed that his Charter rights and those of other gay men were violated because the questionnaire used by CBS was developed specifically to screen out gay men – the main “offensive” question related to having sex with other men, even once, since 1977 (I have no idea of the significance of the 1977 date. )


          The case is still before the Superior Court of Canada although Mr. Freedman, the donor in question, agreed to pay $10,000 in damages because he knew he was breaking the rules by lying on the collection form, but he would pay ONLY if the court found that his Charter rights were not violated. He is, in turn, suing CBS for $250,000 after the CBS sued him for negligent misrepresentation because he admitted he knew that he was breaking the rules. Mr. Freedman who is tested regularly is HIV free. (To Be Continued):) TMI??


          As you said, many straight men and women engage in risky sex with women AND men, yet they are not subject to scrutiny and barred from giving blood. I think that everyone who gives blood should be tested (or, the blood itself should be tested prior to being used for transfusions) so that there is no discrimination against gays or straight people, male or female.

          I just found out (because the newspaper, the National Post, has an editorial on this case in Wednesday’s edition) that the 1977 date was when the FDA in the US and and Australian Red Cross established their guidelines prohibiting gay men from donating blood. Apparently US figures (I don’t know the source) show that gay men are 200 times more likely to have HIV than the average first time blood donor. In addition, in repeat blood donors the ratio rises to 2000:1 (all information quoted from US sources by the National Post, and I have no idea how recent it is). There is no similar statistic about straight men, who we know engage in risky behaviour as well! Of course women never do.:)

    • KKM

      “** crazy segue, wave**
      is it possible to number comments? it would help me track ‘em better…

      I don’t know if it’s possible. I could ask Christian at some point but right now he has a number of projects underway for the website and he would kick my ass for even suggesting another one. Numbering would only be necessary on posts like this with a huge response.:)

  • **stuart!**
    late to the party – girl’s gotta work – but i think i love you! as a science educator your comments make perfect, perfect sense…

  • What a horrible thing for a DOCTOR to say! God, that makes me sick. As a nurse, I don’t like being associated with “people” (and I use the term very, very loosely) like that. However, I don’t think that authors using the term “clean” without knowing that many gay men find it offensive (because for straight people, it’s a very neutral term) is at all the same thing as someone knowingly, cruelly, deliberately belittling you the way those horrible people did. I can understand where you’re coming from. But, yeah. You know we’re not those doctors, right? I kills me to think I might unwittingly hurt anyone that badly 🙁


    For the record, if anyone reading my books finds offensive terms, PLEASE email me and tell me. I would never, ever use an offensive term knowingly, and I’d much rather someone let me know it’s offensive than go talk about what an offensive author I am all over the web. And I’m not talking about you, Stuart! This whole discussion just brought to mind the possibility that this might, in fact, happen. I’d really rather it didn’t.

  • I agree with Katrina that most of these issues aren’t unique to m/m romance. Or, heck, even to m/f romance.

    I’ve read plenty of genre fiction and classics peppered with cliches and silly descriptions, and music is full of them too.

    Oh, and when was the last time you read a “professional” book review? Full of words like “poignant,” “stunning,” “timely,” etc. Barrrrff.

    But I do believe “clean” in regard to STDs came directly from m/f romance (and cable TV shows), where I don’t think it has a negative connotation at all. If anything, I’d call it neutral.

    Honestly, though, I don’t think it should be that big of a deal. As a woman, I don’t find it particularly insulting when I read about the hymen being located somewhere in the depths of the uterus, or when virgin blood is described as flowing in copious amounts, etc. Misinformed and ridiculous, yes, but not offensive.

    Authors, take note and try to be a little more informed. Readers, have a sense of humor about some of this stuff.

    • Hi Jen,

      About 10 years ago, I went to a local family practice physician in Brooklyn (in NYC! for God’s sake!!) who wouldn’t treat me by giving me an examination and an HIV test because “I wasn’t the right sort of person for his practice.” Really! He felt like he could say that to my face!! Very upset, I went, instead, to Methodist Hospital where the doctor THERE asked me: “How do you KNOW you’re gay maybe you haven’t met the right woman yet? Women are pretty wonderful.” I remember being so angry that I was having my sexuality called into question during the vulnerable experience of a medical exam. It was awful!! Things may have gotten better, but there’s still so much medical prejudice out there against Gay, Lesbian, and Transgendered people. When I read words like ‘clean,’ it’s not funny like all the cliches like copious amounts of virgin’s blood. “Clean” brings up all the feelings about the millions in America who view me as unclean and contaminated just for making love to a man. I think I have a good sense of humor as a reader, but about this I can’t.



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