30 years ago when the realisation that sexual intercourse was a dangerous pastime, everyone was bombarded by the Conservative’s safe sex television and leaflet campaigns. Images of icebergs and tombstones filled our consciousness along with the tag line, “Don’t die of ignorance.” From then on in the safer sex message cropped up in stage plays, (The normal Heart), films (Longtime Companion) and soap opera storylines, (Eastenders) reminding all of us almost on a daily bases that HIV existed and that as a LGBT community we had to take responsibility in looking after ourselves and each other, and we did. From the terror of what this virus was doing to people we loved, support groups sprung up in the backs of bars and people’s homes making sure the message of safer sex was out there, loud and proud and that anyone who needed
care and support received it. As the years have rolled by, the subject of HIV has slowly dwindled away from the wider public domain, with the issue given an airing to the masses once a year on December the 1st, World Aids Day.
Although there are still premature deaths from HIV infection, the number has been greatly reduced. Despite this, there have been many reports of prejudice with both HIV positive and HIV negative gay/bisexual men blaming each other for the continuous rise in HIV infections. As a collective LGBT community we should stop the blame game and look at how we can help with prevention and support those who are HIV positive. A good place to start would be to lobby the Government and our local MP’s into encouraging schools to expand the present sex education curriculum. At present it is a lottery on how much sex education young LGBT people receive beyond that of heterosexual sex and the stages of reproduction. If young people were provided with the basic information on transmission of HIV and how to look after themselves and each other this would go a long way in preventing further infections and stamp out the ongoing stigma the condition still carries.
Statistics from the Health Protection Agency (HTA) has shown that although new HIV infections in the 16 -24 age group of young gay/bisexual men, the number of new infections has continued to rise year on year. However, it is also encouraging to hear that for the first time in ten years there has been a small drop (1%) in the number of new STI’s, with a significant number of young people (16- 24) receiving negative results, but the report goes on to say,
These latest figures show that the impact of STI
diagnoses is still unacceptably high in this group. Studies suggest that those
who become infected may be more likely to have unsafe sex or lack the skills
and confidence to negotiate safer sex. Dr Gwenda Hughes, head of the HPA’s STI section.
Part of the problem of new HIV infections may also lie in the belief that if a positive diagnoses is made, then a course of medication will deal with the problem. It is a fact that since the introduction of protease inhibitors, people’s lives have been saved and many people are able to get on living their lives; but it would be wrong, as many people still believe, to think that living with an HIV+ diagnoses is no more cumbersome then living with ‘type 2’ diabetes. Although those living with ‘type 2’ diabetes have their own set of problems, it is wrong to compare these two conditions so casually when the transmission, stigma and discrimination between these two conditions could not be further apart.
There also a need for more information to be out there with regards to what a course of Post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) involves. The bottom line is that it may be effective if taken soon after someone is exposed to HIV, and no later than 72 hours. What needs to be stressed is that the treatment has no guarantees and should not be considered as a substitute for safer sex. Equally, protease inhibitors have certainly made a huge difference to the thousands of HIV+ people who use them, but with the possibility of any number of side effects and the fact that they are a life time commitment, more needs to be done in the way of prevention.
Organisations like Terrence Higgins Trust (THT) continue to offer help and education on safer sex with various groups and drop-ins available to a range of ages and sexualities across the board, but for many young people they would only access these servicers when HIV becomes a direct issue for them, but even then many are put off. Taking this information on board THT (south) in Brighton is putting together a group for young positive people aged, 16-24. Feedback from this age group has suggested that they would not interact with traditional servicers like the counselling, or group therapy. Instead these young gay/bisexual men, newly diagnosed with HIV have said they would prefer the idea of a safe social space where they could discuss issues around disclosure, sexual health, sexuality and what it means to them to be young gay/bisexual and HIV+. Beyond the offices of THT, outreach programs have been so important in getting across the safer sex message to the next generation of LGBT people hitting the scene for the first time. One of the ways this is done is through HIV positive THT volunteers visiting schools and colleges to discuss the issues they face and to reduce much of the misinformation and stigma that still exists. Other organisations like Stonewall www.stonewall.org.uk and new ventures like Diversity Role Models, www.diversityrolemodels.org visit schools to with the aim of; Educating all young people about differences in sexuality and to stop bullying before it happens by,” Diversity Role ModelThese and other interventions all go some way in helping to stamp out the stigma attached with LGBT sexualities, which will hopefully instil a sense of worth when it comes to negotiating safer sex, but more still needs to be done. Other projects involves paid workers and volunteers having a visible presence at universities on Fresher Week and Student Gay Pride offering advice as well as packs of condoms and lube. The same successful strategy is used in the gay bars, clubs, saunas and cruising grounds in the campaign to keep the safer sex message alive.
These types of interventions have gone some way in combating the rise of new HIV infections, helping people to consider their options with regards to safe sex with many venues keeping condom packs within easy reach for whoever wants to take them. There is of course many young
gay, bisexual and MSM (men who have sex with men) who are either not interested in the gay scene, preferring to party at other (straight) venues were the safer sex message is not as prevalent. Then there are those who are just discovering their sexuality and have not ventured further then there bedrooms. For this group, many find the information regarding sex and sexuality via the internet through either pornography or any number of the social websites and dating/cruising forums as their first encounter with other gay/bisexual/MSM men.
This is without doubt one way the internet has revolutionised the way many LGBT people now explore and think about their sexuality, it has also gone some way in taking the fear out of visiting a gay venue at a later date. However, amongst the reams of dating and porn sites the safer sex message is lost; particularly for gay bisexual and MSM men in the 16 to 24 age group. Part of the problem comes back to the lack of proper sex education in schools and so young people turning to pornography to educate themselves about the mechanics of sex. With the amount of bareback pornography (penetrative sex without a condom) and other porn sites showing snippets of porn with the process of putting a condom on removed, when viewed often enough these practises are seen as the norm and once again the safer sex message is lost.
No one wants their party dampened by a lot of preaching, but a universal banner reminding us all about safer sex on these sites may go some way of keeping the message in the back of everyone’s minds. Beyond the porn sites there are of course plenty of websites out there targeting this age
group, carrying the safer sex message, but each of these websites are relying on the target group to actively search them out. The other problem is that many of the sites are a laden down with information and set out in such a way that the target group quickly switches off.
One website that has got the right balance without being patronising is Scarleteen. The website offers clear no nonsense advice to teenagers of all sexualities. Scarleteen understands its core audience ensuring it is linked to social website including Twitter and Facebook to get its message
across to as many people as possible. THT have also made use of ‘gay personals’ website, Gaydar as a way of reaching out to people spreading the message of safer sex in this way. The project is called Netreach and is run by THT paid workers and trained volunteers enabling people to hook up in the chat rooms and discuss anything regarding their sexuality and sexual health. Feedback from both these initiatives have been extremely encouraging, showing more could be done in spreading the message of safer sex through these medias, particularly when targeting young gay/bisexual/MSM men.
As much as is being done to help prevent more cases of HIV, particularly among gay/bisexual/MSM in the community, there needs to be more focus on getting the message of safer sex out there. As previously mentioned a universal logo for safer sex to appear on websites, and download Apps like Grinder and Scruff and gay targeted magazines would be a simple and cheap way of getting the message of safer sex across to all ages, but particularly to the next generation of gay/bisexual men.
At present there are some fantastic community campaigns telling young people, ‘It Gets Better’, ‘Some People Are Gay, Get Over It’, ‘Be Switched On Embrace Diversity In Our Community’ all of which is helping to stamp out the prejudices young LGBT people may feel about their sexuality. Let’s us stop pointing the blame and adding to the stigma of HIV, or our sexuality. Long gone are the days of don’t die of Ignorance; now would be a good time for a new safer sex message, any ideas?