Website helps people living with HIV find love online

South African Ben Sassman admits his bid to help a lonely friend living with HIV/Aids started out as a “feel-good project for myself” but is now an online dating service reaching people around the globe.

The Positive Connection, in its third year, can even claim success in the matchmaking game, having brought together a few solid partnerships.

The 39-year-old Cape Town resident, who is married, says his website is “the first and only one in the world solely dedicated” to people living with HIV/Aids.

The idea came after watching the disappointment and stress of an HIV-positive friend repeatedly turned down by women he wanted to date. “Once he disclosed his status, the girl would usually run away.”

Sassman suggested he tap into online dating sites, to meet more woman and more potential dates. But the friend baulked, saying “he’ll still have to disclose his status” and face rejection.

So Sassman came up with his idea—an online resource site and meeting place for people living with the stigma of HIV/Aids.

The site’s “about us” entry, next to a photo of the good-looking Sassman in a smart, dark business suit, says it aims to “eliminate the stress and emotional difficulty of disclosing your status to your partner”.

If people meet someone on www.thepositiveconnection.co.za—launched in September 2003 with a R28 000 ($4 000) investment footed solely by Sassman himself—“you’re both in the same health boat, and you can just go on with the date and not worry about disclosing [your status],” he said.

“Therefore there is no emotional pressure explaining your current health status.
I thought it would add a little class to how they can meet new and interesting people,” the site reads.

The Positive Connection has evolved since 2003, boosting the resource side with recent HIV/Aids research, web articles on the disease, testing centres, support groups, health tips and drug information, including the latest on anti-retroviral treatments and updates from the United States Food and Drug Administration.

The site has filled a niche, now getting about 4 000 visits per month, Sassman said. It also counts 492 registered members—registration is free; there are “no hidden costs”—of whom 291 are from South Africa, a country where about 5,5-million people, or more than 18,8% of the population, are living with HIV or Aids, according to figures published in May by UNAids.

One of these is “Kelly-Babe” a 26-year-old from Cape Town. “I am a lady who is HIV-positive, willing to meet someone who does not have a problem about my status, someone who is friendly and caring,” reads her ad.

“Leoguy” (30) from East London, South Africa, says he has “shy appearance yet fun to be around” and wants “sweetness in a relationship” and in return “will offer love and warmth”.

Farther afield, “Qtype4U”, a 47-year-old woman from Arlington in the US state of Virginia, is an “easy-going Christian woman, professionally employed, lives alone” and looking for companionship while “SharkBoy”, a 36-year-old Canadian, is “discreet, open to any suggestions”.

A proud Sassman says some visitors have found more than a date.

One couple, a woman from the Eastern Cape and a man from Gauteng province where Johannesburg is located, “met online on my site; they’ve moved in together now”.

A Nigerian man and a South African woman, both living in Johannesburg, also met on Sassman’s site “and now, they’re on full-scale dating”.

When the site started up, Sassman was in sales and “earning good money at the company I was working for.” He has since lost his job and is “running out of money” but committed to keeping The Positive Connection going.

To pay monthly costs, he opened advertising space, pledging to “give back to the community who is facing the longest and hardest battle, by donating 10% of all the company’s profits to a different HIV/Aids related charity each month,” the website says.

Easier said than done.

“Lots of companies do not want to associate their brand names or their company names with HIV/Aids,” Sassman said. “I’m having a hard time securing some companies to advertise, it’s quite an upheaval.”

“But I’m hoping that 10 years from now, sites like mine would not be needed, that we will have incorporated HIV-positive people into our communities and fully understood that you can shake people’s hands, you can hang out with someone who is positive without any fear,” he said.

“Ten years from now, sites like mine should not exist.” - Sapa-AFP

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