Entertainment » Culture

Reinventing Safe Sex

by Scott Stiffler
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Jun 15, 2009

They prevent the transmission of HIV and, as a result, save lives. Perhaps you've heard? Through a variety of mediums (social marketing campaigns, condom commercials, medical/ethical/cultural pundits), the message has been loud and clear for more than a quarter century: If you're involved in anything other than a monogamous sexual relationship, you really should slip on that thin little latex barrier before you go putting your poker in some guy's. . .well. . . you get the picture.

Sure, we all get the picture. So why is it that so many gay men tear through a multitude of partners without embracing the safe sex message? Many will tell you that it just plain feels better-and that's certainly true. But to many researchers and health care professionals, this simple answer is a surface-level excuse dwarfed by the psychological underpinnings responsible for that deadly disconnect between what we know is good for our health and what we choose to do in the heat of the moment.

Is a return to the early AIDS prevention era message that "safe sex can be sexy" a worthy strategy in the ongoing effort to get gay men to use protection? Edge spoke with one of our experts from our recent article Barebacking and AIDS 2009, as well as a few other deep thinkers on matters of unprotected (gay!) sex-and found that while the natural instinct to fuck raw is powerful, it's matters of the mind which really makes our dicks tick.


A message from the 1980s

Carrie Davis, MSW, Director of Adult Services, The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center observes: "Ever since we started to understand HIV and transmission, there have been various campaigns to protect people. Making safer sex sexy goes back to the roots of the movement."

Dr. Barbara Warren, currently a consultant to federal agencies and research initiatives, has led the development of social marketing campaigns targeted to MSM around HIV prevention and alcohol drug use. She regards the numerous early AIDS-era efforts as largely ineffective relics: "Those kind of social marketing campaigns date way back to the advent of HIV."

The message that ’condoms can be fun’, is really, a message from the 80s. I haven’t seen anything in the last decade that talks specifically about the use of latex barriers that makes it safe or sexy. Maybe some Trojan ads awhile back, special condoms with stimulating rings or whatever on them." Instead, she’s glad we’ve moved on to HIV prevention strategies that "have focused either on the issue of relationships and protecting the person you love, or around taking responsibility for your own health and well being-as opposed to death, you’ll die, you’re an asshole."


Condom fatigue

Although she acknowledges the worthiness of the "safe sex can be sexy" message, Davis agrees with Warren that "it’s always more attractive or viable when it comes with an undercurrent of taking care of ourselves mentality. People are smart and you can’t con them into using a condom." The safe sex message "has to be authentic and come from a place that resonates with the community it’s directed towards."

When it comes to men who have sex with men, "any message has to truly resonate with the way that men have sex and how men feel sexy and valued and value their partners." That message, Davis asserts, has to come from within the community-"because gay male culture is still subject to a tremendous amount of stigma.

When one lives within that culture, one knows one is still outside the mainstream culture of America at this time. Certain aspects of cultural privilege are denied." As a result, safe sex messages, which demonize unsafe activity or gay sexuality "are deflected by seeing it as mainstream America trying to curb or impact the non-dominant culture; it feel oppressive."

Condom Fatigue

You know what else feels oppressive? A thin layer of latex wrapped tightly around your Johnson. Gay men, it seems, just can’t get past the fact that the very act of using a condom cramps their style (and let’s not even get started on that rationale as it applies to our promiscuous, disease-spreading, pregnancy-inducing straight male counterparts).

For Warren, such reasoning reveals a shocking lack of trial and error on the part of men whose blood has rushed out of their upstairs head and down to their downstairs one-resulting in a lazy lack of shopping around for the right fit. Citing issues of size and sensitivity, Warren says: "Men would say that the problem is often times the condoms were too small or too tight. In response, some of the condom manufacturers started making condoms in various sizes. The joke was, what man is going to walk into a store and ask for the small sized condom?"

Perry N. Halkitis, director of NYU’s Center for Health, Identity, Behavior & Prevention Studies (www.chipbs.org) argues that argue that those people who cite lack of sensation as the number one excuse for having unprotected sex "aren’t use the correct kind of condom; and they don’t really know how to use a condom. Condom education has disappeared" he laments-recalling one very effective safe sex message of the early AIDS era. People need to be made aware, perhaps all over again, of the value of "working with different kinds of condoms and lube to see what works best for them. Perhaps it does feel better without a condom, but with the correct condom, the difference should not be that much." That said, Halkitis translates the "statement that it feels better without a condom" to "It feels better because I think I’m being more intimate with my partner."

Message Fatigue

If gay men easily tire of trying various condoms until they find the right fit, that pales in comparison to the fatigue experienced by hearing a safe sex message whose song remains the same-while the same basic problem, HIV, remains the big pink elephant in the room.

Something happened to prevention efforts, Davis reasons, when HIV went from an impending death sentence to a manageable life situation: "When something becomes manageable, the culture takes a different perspective on it. If you’re not as likely to die instantly than you were, it resides in a different dimension in terms of how we access the world. When HIV went from acute to chronic, they (gay men) related to safer sex differently." A community that loses hope for a cure, she says, "starts to behave differently."


Talk to your friends

So what is the root causes of engaging in unsafe sex? Halkitis identifies "elevated levels of depression, feelings of insecurity, need for acceptance and unstable levels of self esteem." A scan of the HIV prevention literature over the past 25 years, he says, "and time and time again, you see these are the antecedents to the risk." So instead of eroticizing the act of putting on a condom, Halkitis wonders "Why then don’t we target the antecedents to the risk instead of the risk itself?"

Still don’t believe that self-image has more to do with forgoing the condom than the simple fact that raw just plain feels better? Halkitis recommends accessing the facts, anecdotes and evidence meticulously laid out in The Non-sexual Needs of Men that motivate them to Engage in High-Risk Sexual Practices with Other Men. That mouthful, by Fern?ndez-D?vila P, can be found at this website.

As for the prevention strategies he’d embrace, Halkitis would "like to start seeing campaigns around safer sex that say stuff like ’talk to your friends if you’re feeling lonely. Feeling bad about yourself? Don’t fuck without a condom.’ We need people who understand media, who take the research and translate it into messages that can still be sexy."

What’s also needed are messages designed to reach those who either weren’t alive or sexually active during the original round of safe sex saturation messages. Halkitis, whose Project Desire surveyed 14-29 year-olds, found that "When you talk to these young guys, what becomes really clear is they don’t even feel safe having conversations about sex and risky sex with their closest friends. There’s a whole skill set that is missing. In their inability to talk to their friends, they’re going to feel lonely and act in ways that are not healthy."

So how do we put messages out there to encourage these young men-and all other gay men for that matter-to seek out support that encourages them to communicate?
That said, however, Davis notes that we shouldn’t rely upon one-stop psychological reasons to explain unsafe sexual behavior: "What I want to avoid is trying to attribute some kind of magic cause to people’s behaviors. The LGBT community is vast; they’re part of every religion and culture; and each of those common experiences the world in such a different way, you can’t just say people are tired of having safe sex. That oversimplified model doesn’t apply to a culture as diverse as ours."

For Halkitis, the lack of physical pleasure afforded by a condom is "an oversimplification of what the barrier does. It creates an emotional barrier more problematic than a physical barrier." His work has focused instead on the "psychological reasons people engage in safe and unsafe sex." For that reason, Halkitis questions whether "eroticizing safer sex is a sufficient means to understanding why people aren’t having safer sex." Although promoting the erotic potential of sex with a condom "captures attention, and that’s fine," he doubts "you’re getting to the root of the problem."


Halkitis suggests "A campaign that says ’Feeling horny tonight? Want to have risky sex? Pick up the phone and talk to your friends first.’ " That, he believes, will be a better way to spend our time and effort than the meager results gleaned from "the same old message about how it’s sexy to put on a condom."


Scott Stiffler is a New York City based writer and comedian who has performed stand-up, improv, and sketch comedy. His show, "Sammy’s at The Palace. . .at Don’t Tell Mama"---a spoof of Liza Minnelli’s 2008 NYC performance at The Palace Theatre, recently had a NYC run. He must eat twice his weight in fish every day, or he becomes radioactive.


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