Finding love is inherently difficult for almost anybody. But for South African native Mary, simple dating carried potentially disastrous consequences.
Mary was HIV-positive and was plagued with issues of revealing her HIV infection to a prospective partner -- planning for a long-term relationship when she does not know what the next day holds, and keeping a partner safe from her virus.
In search of an answer, Mary went online and discovered a dating Web site for people living with HIV and AIDS called The Positive Connection. Mary immediately signed up, and after a few months, had gotten to know two men who were in the "same situation" as her, one from the United Kingdom and the other from South Africa.
Mary's story is just one of many that Ben Sassman, founder of The Positive Connection, hears everyday. Sassman is one of the few who dares to concern himself with the "living" part of living with HIV, and saw the need for an online dating opportunity for HIV-positive patients.
In an effort to help an old friend who was in the same predicament as Mary, Sassman self-funded his own online dating service. Since its start in 2003, Sassman's friend, Mary and thousands of other HIV-infected people were able to find love through his website.
Sassman (who is not infected with HIV himself) has no more knowledge about the HIV and AIDS epidemic than any other person. He adamantly tells ABC News that he "never pretended to be an expert on HIV or AIDS." Instead, he is simply a person who cared about a friend.
On a vacation to Cape Town, Sassman reconnected with an old friend who disclosed to him that he was HIV-positive. But instead of focusing on the physical effects of his illness, Sassman's friend began to describe the difficulties of dating women as an HIV patient. He often felt morally obligated to immediately inform each potential date that he was infected with HIV -- almost guaranteeing a rejection for a second date.
In trying to remedy his friend's dating dilemma, Sassman suggested that his friend find someone through an online dating service. But in South Africa, online dating sites did not offer singles the opportunity to divulge their HIV status, despite the fact that South Africa contains 64 percent of the world population living with HIV, accordingly to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
Logging onto Sassman's website, users can get a preview of members' profiles, but are unlikely to find mention of HIV or AIDS. Instead the dating site resembles any other -- each profile a mélange of photos, interests and personality traits such as "outgoing" or "quiet." Identification of one's self in terms of an illness is noticeably absent.
Mary says the purpose of her visit to Sassman's site was "to get somebody who was in the same situation as me."
According to Sassman, about 66 percent of Positive Connection singles are from South Africa but the site is quickly growing to an international level. About 156 members are from the United States. Sassman acknowledges he "had no idea" the site would be such a success.
Sassman, a South African citizen, had studied in the U.S. and traveled to India and found that "stigmas are an equal problem in every country, and no one talks about it openly."
David Patient, one of the longest-documented survivors of HIV infection, feels the solution to the problem of stigmatization and representation of HIV-infected people needs to be initiated at the grass roots level within South Africa.
"The odd thing is that if every HIV-positive person stood up in [South Africa] and 'got counted,' our numbers would exceed the total number of people who voted for our current government, myself included," said Patient. "We could be the single largest lobby group in the country with a membership of anywhere from 5 to 6 million people. Maybe at some point, we will turn our wishbone mindset into a back bone of action."
While the site serves to connect and validate a stigmatized community, its success also exposes the growing population of South Africans infected with HIV.
Today, Sassman is having trouble funding The Positive Connection. Advertisers seem reluctant to collaborate with Sassman, necessitating that he support the site with his own earnings. He recently upgraded his site to support the volume of members by using his credit card that is supported by his day job. "I hope that the media will do more to encourage awareness everywhere," he said.
And it seems his wish is gradually coming true. Since its start three years ago, more STD, HIV and AIDS-related dating sites have popped up -- including Date Positive.net, PositiveSingles.com and Pozmatch.com, all with the hope of helping people not only survive the virus but live with it.
However, the CDC feels it is important to note that an HIV patient who has unprotected sex could still be put at risk for acquiring either an additional strain or a drug resistant strain of HIV, as well as other sexually transmitted diseases.
The difference Sassman's site has made in connecting and de-stigmatizing those living with HIV and AIDS is indisputable. Ultimately, the romantic prospect from South Africa won over Mary's heart, and it looks as though they have been successful in transferring the word "positive" from their diagnoses to the outlook of their relationship.
David Patient sums it up on Sassman's Web site, saying, "AIDS is not a death sentence. AIDS is a call to aliveness. I think of my infection as a second chance to start living my life, my way and on my terms."