In Leander’s Story, he discusses his recent experience and why he thinks it needs to be destigmatised.

My first experience of syphilis happened only a month ago. I noticed a light rash on my chest, stomach and upper legs. It wasn’t uncomfortable or itchy; it was just visible and didn’t look great. I’m a porn actor, so having a visible rash isn’t very good in my profession, so I decided to go and get tested right away. I was scared that I had HIV, syphilis, or another type of STI.

I went to 56 Dean St in London, and the doctor there immediately recognised it and gave me treatment before waiting for the test results. They were extremely friendly, knowledgeable, helpful, and put me at ease. The treatment was an injection in the butt cheeks, which was quick and easy. That evening, I experienced a fever and chills. Medication can cause discomfort but not pain during the syphilis fight. I received immediate treatment, and within 24 hours, I had confirmation of the positive syphilis test result.

Uncovering the Source: Facing the Reality of Contracting it

I’d got syphilis through fucking, which in my job happens fairly frequently. I’m unsure where it originated from, as many people got it roughly simultaneously. I told everyone I had been with about my diagnosis. They were all very grown up, thanked me and went to get tested as soon as possible.

Although it was my first time having syphilis, I knew all about it. It pays to inform yourself about sexual health in my industry. I know first-hand that knowledge of syphilis isn’t that widespread and that stigma exists. There are a lot of people out there who think it disappeared in the 19th century. It did not. Syphilis has had “bad press” for centuries; it reminds us of a time before antibiotics when STIs invariably led to visible, unpleasant and unattractive symptoms. Now we have the meds and the means to test for it quickly and easily, but a bad reputation is hard to shake. Hopefully, people sharing stories like this will help change that. 

Lack of information about syphilis breeds fear and, subsequently, stigma. All STIs face some degree of stigma. This stigma is unjustified. Contracting an STI is no more shameful than catching a cold. Neglecting to get tested is irresponsible and unkind.


I’m a gay man who’s been living with HIV for over 30 years. I never wanted to pass it on to anyone else, so using condoms during sex for most of my diagnosis was a no-brainer. I’m not claiming to be a ‘good HIV+ person’ by doing this. I’m going to be honest – I never liked using them. Condoms were a necessary evil. Not only were they uncomfortable and ugly, but the physical barrier they offered became a psychological barrier to intimacy and connection. Condoms, as effective as they are, were always a reminder of the scary beasts, like HIV and syphilis, in the community right here in the bedroom. 

Sero-sorting (having sex with people with the same HIV status) happened occasionally, which meant condoms went out the window (or stayed in the condom pack). But generally, condom use was consistent. I’m from the generation that was taught ‘Safer Sex’ (condom use) = ‘Hot Sex’ and ‘barebacking’ (condomless sex) = taboo/death. 

As an HIV+ man, I was always aware of syphilis and other STIs, but always in the context that they might make STD transmission to the people I was having sex with easier. Apart from a case of gonorrhoea in the 80s, I hadn’t had a single STI in over 20 years. So, as annoying as those pesky condoms were, they prevented me from passing HIV on to my partners, AND they stopped me from getting any STI. 

In 2009: Embracing a Condomless World

In 2009, after a break-up, I used my newfound freedom and hit my 40s to reconnect with my sex life and get back out there. Something had shifted in me and the world, and condoms seemed…. well, past their sell-by date. On the hook-up apps I joined, I was met with requests for bareback and raw sex. After nearly three decades of vigilant condom use, I embraced a condomless world. With the revelation that HIV-positive individuals on treatment couldn’t transmit the virus and armed with lube and my phone, I ventured into a “condom-free” journey.

But it wasn’t too long before I felt a constant pain in my joints. A red rash appeared across my chest, and I felt a high temperature. I also experienced night sweats (sweating profusely during your sleep), which was particularly frightening as night sweats were a symptom of my STD infection I hadn’t experienced since starting HIV treatment in 2001. I popped along to my GP, who couldn’t work it out. 

Seeking Diagnosis and Treatment: A Journey to the Sexual Clinic

I felt like shit! I was worried and perplexed and didn’t know what to do. About a week after that appointment, a sore appeared on my genitals. That’s when I knew I needed to speak to my HIV clinician. The sexual health clinic I attend for my care diagnosed syphilis straight away. I received my treatment (pretty simple – a couple of shots in the buttocks) and was sent on my way. 

Within a few days, the pain in my joints eased up, the night sweats stopped, and the red rash cleared up. I want to say ‘lesson learnt’, but I’ve since had syphilis twice. I feel no shame in that. It comes with the territory of being an HIV-positive man who has a happy and healthy sex life (although I could always do with more!). 

However, I haven’t completely thrown caution to the wind. I later found out that the symptoms I’d experienced were more severe because of my HIV. And as simple as the treatment of it is, I don’t want numb bum cheeks too often.

So, I do a few things to make sure my partners and I can reduce the risk of passing on or getting it. I test for syphilis at every HIV check-up, which is usually every 3-6 months. And because I’ve had it in the past, some syphilis tests will give a positive result, so I must let the nurse and doctors know I’ve had an infection before. We don’t want to have to start treatment again. 

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