KHOPOTSO: Ben Sassman is 40 years old, a husband and a father. He doesn’t have HIV, nor is he looking for a love interest. In September 2003, he launched the world’s only on-line dating site for people living with HIV. Why did he care?
BEN SASSMAN: I live in Johannesburg and I used to visit my family in Cape Town. And on one visit I bumped into two of my buddies that were at school with me and they both disclosed their status to me that they were positive’¦ When they disclosed their status to me they told me the problems they were having with dating girls and disclosing their status to these girls. They would actually run away. They would not come back for a second date or a good-bye kiss. And, stupid me, I suggested ‘why don’t they go on the internet and register on one of the dating sites because there’s a lot of dating sites on the internet’? And my friend, Deon, told me he can register on-line, he’ll get more dates, definitely, but he’ll still have to disclose his status to the girls when he meets them. So, the trauma or the stress that’s coupled with disclosing will still be there.
KHOPOTSO: That encounter was to plant a seed in Sassman’s head to start a dating service for people living with HIV.
BEN SASSMAN: Then I came back to Johannesburg and I was thinking, ‘there must be an on-line dating service for people living with HIV/AIDS on the internet’. Now, this was June 2003. And I spent about two weeks on the internet looking at every dating site. I’m a married man and I’m on there looking’¦ There are no sites solely for people living with HIV/AIDS, not just in South Africa, but anywhere in the world ‘ and I’ve looked at a lot of sites over two weeks’¦ So, I came up with the idea to actually’¦ put something together and in September 2003, I launched thepositiveconnection.co.za.
KHOPOTSO: Feedback to the site has been a mixture of positive and negative, with some asking the necessity of having an exclusive dating service for people with HIV. Since its formation, the site has between 1.2 million and 1.4 million hits per month. As he pulls a chair to a computer to log on to the site, I realise that the site actually provides much more than a dating service.
BEN SASSMAN: The home page is also a resources page’¦ If you’re living in Nelspruit and you find out that you’re HIV-positive, you can go on to the resource site and look for a treatment campaign that’s in your area’¦ There’s phone numbers, e-mail addresses’¦ I also have a section about Questions and Answers about HIV/AIDS’¦ I also try to dispel a lot of rumours about sex with virgins, sex with children, the usage of condoms, oral sex’¦ People tend to say that it’s a gay disease or that it’s a black disease. I try to dispel all those rumours. As you can see my logo, I’ve got a white male and a black female just to show that it’s a heterosexual, it’s a gay thing, it’s a black, it’s a white, it’s all things, there’s no age discrimination, either.
KHOPOTSO: For that reason, visitors to the site are not all HIV-positive. But Sassman says he has a legal obligation to state explicitly the intentions of the service.
BEN SASSMAN: (On) every page that I have on my website, I must say ‘this is a dating site for people living with HIV/AIDS’. I don’t want anyone who is not infected to come on-line and meet someone and, possibly, get infected. For legal purposes, I have to do that.
KHOPOTSO: The site aims to provide members with an opportunity to meet others with a similar need of finding affection and acceptance within a space that is free of judgement and stigma. The Positive Connection offers a free service and most of the costs are financed by Sassman himself. To keep the site going, sponsorships are welcome.
BEN SASSMAN: This is an e-mail from one of my members’¦ ‘If the site is down it will affect a lot of people, as I’m one of the lucky people to meet my soul-mate through your website’’¦ This is just one of the e-mails that I can show you. A lot of people are meeting each other from Port Elizabeth, Cape Town, Johannesburg. There’s a lot of success stories, and I’m glad, you know. It makes me feel good.
KHOPOTSO: His friends back in Cape Town have also successfully managed to beat the dating blues through the site.
BEN SASSMAN: Both of them, especially Deon, uses it quite a lot. He’s currently dating someone’¦ Lots of my members e-mail me about success stories’¦ But they’re very cautious about speaking to anyone outside thepositiveconnection about this.
KHOPOTSO: Ben Sassman can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org