HIV/AIDS prevention education within the gay men’s community is always a challenge. A message that works for one segment of our community may not work for, or may even be offensive to another part.
Philip Banks, Director of HIV Prevention with AIDS Vancouver, understands those challenges. With both last year’s Think Again campaign and this year’s Gay Men Play Safe (GMPS) campaign, both he and AIDS Vancouver, in partnership with a variety of other AIDS Service Organizations (ASOs) across Canada, have attempted to address the challenge.
While part of the original $700,000 over four years funding, GMPS targets quite a different segment of the gay men’s population than the edgier Think Again campaign did.
The original campaign specifically targeted men who, for a variety of reasons, do not consistently use condoms during anal intercourse. One of the main reasons was an assumption about the other man’s health status (“if he was positive he’d tell me” and “he must be negative”).
“We weren’t trying to get all gay men to stop having condomless anal intercourse,” said Banks. “In the early days of the AIDS education movement, messages were often preachy. They told gay men how to have “correct” sex. That sort of message simply is not sustainable.”
“What we were attempting with the Think Again campaign was to get men to question their assumptions about the men they were fucking. Sometimes anal intercourse without a condom is fine – when the two men are clearly HIV-negative, for instance – but we were concerned many gay men were incorrectly assuming the health status of the other guy.”
GMPS, on the other hand, takes a far more lighthearted, tongue-in-cheek approach while at the same time seeks to honour those gay men who have been practicing safer sex. It routs the popular perception that unsafe sex such as barebacking or ‘bug-chasing’ is on the increase in our communities.
“It has been estimated, based on surveys and focus groups, that approximately 15 to 25 per cent of sexually active gay men do not consistently use condoms during anal sex,” Banks points out. “However that leaves 75 to 85 per cent of sexually active gay men who are really aware of HIV issues and who do consistently use condoms. We hardly ever hear about them.”
The focus of GMPS is towards this segment and seeks to reinforce their resolve to be safer and, in addition, to send out the message to be as safe as one can be.
“Over the last 20-odd years of the AIDS epidemic, those men who have been practicing safer sex, who do use condoms, who take steps to reduce their risk, have rarely received any credit for doing so,” says Banks. “Mainstream media, and even gay media, have tended to focus in on those who are not playing safe.”
The problem with this, says Banks, is that if the only messages gay men are seeing and hearing are about unsafe sexual practices is the insinuation of blame being attached to gay men, then unsafe sexual behaviour becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“I think, over all, the gay men’s community has done an amazing job around HIV/AIDS,” says Banks. “The generation of gay men who first had to deal with the onslaught of AIDS very quickly started changing their sexual behaviour; they adapted very quickly.”
He noted that, before AIDS, gay men did not have to use condoms.
“Condom use was totally foreign to the vast majority of gay men…condoms were something heterosexual men used as contraceptives, primarily. Once HIV/AIDS was identified as a sexually transmitted infection, the community adapted quickly and started using condoms as a matter of course during all sorts of sexual activity, but certainly during anal sex. The gay men’s community was on the forefront of responsible, intelligent, responsive education and the community was successful in accomplishing an almost total paradigm shift to using condoms…we may have seen them as ‘really straight’ and not have liked using them very much, but we did use them. That’s pretty amazing for an entire population to make such a profound shift in perceptions and attitudes in such a short time. GMPS seeks, in part, to acknowledge that and celebrate that.”
GMPS also seeks, in a lighthearted way, to reinforce the continued usage of condoms, which is in reality the broad community norm.
“In the early 1990’s, many gay men were beginning to react to the portrayal of those who, for whatever reason, chose not to use condoms while fucking as ‘the bad gays,’” says Banks.
Some of these men chose not use condoms out of a sort of sexual radicalism, reacting to what they perceived as authority figures trying to control sexual expression. Others succumbed to what has commonly been referred to as ‘condom fatigue’ or ‘safer sex fatigue.’ There were, and are, complex and varied reasons for men choosing not to use condoms and debates have raged in the gay men’s community for years around those reasons.
“Our messaging now is not so much about ‘peer pressure’ as it is about ‘peer influence,” says Banks. “We aren’t saying to other gay men ‘this is what you have to do’ because that is guaranteed to alienate some segments of our community. It creates a ‘good gay/bad gay’ split.”
“Instead, we are saying we all make choices when it comes to our lives, how we live them, the sex we have, and the type of sex we have. Those are all valid choices for those who make them. We offer a selection of choices, with the information to back it up. What an individual does with that information is up to them to decide, based on informed consent and understanding.”
The Think Again campaign originally targeted six cities (Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal, and Halifax). It then expanded to sixteen cities and then to twenty-two cities. The campaign was originally American; AIDS Vancouver bought it from its American developers, then adapted it to Canadian sensibilities and standards and tailored the campaign for Francophone use in Quebec.
“Many advertisers would not carry the Think Again ads,” says Banks. “Patterson Advertising in Calgary, for instance, refused the ads for their billboards, saying the images were too sexual even though, while highly suggestive about what was happening in the images, were not explicit, often only showing two men’s heads and shoulders.
“Some gay media, such as Outlooks in Calgary, also refused to carry the ads. The publisher of Outlooks said he thought it was too bad ASOs and other agencies still felt it necessary to use sexualized imagery to ’speak‘ to gay men.”
“Gay Calgary Magazine, however, approached us and said they would be glad to run the ads…and did so for no charge, which was fantastic,” notes Banks.
Part of the response to the Think Again campaign sprang from the publicity around the unwillingness of various media outlets to carry the ads.
“That controversy actually stood us in pretty good stead at the end of the day,” says Banks. “It fostered interest, it piqued people’s curiosity, and it made them pay attention. However, we recognized we couldn’t trade on that sort of controversy again with the GMPS. There was no value in creating a campaign in which the ads were not being run.”
While there was a good response to the Think Again campaign based on follow-up surveys, the campaign didn’t affect change in most men. The GMPS campaign had three times the number of respondents to its follow-up survey and the current feedback is that it did affect some change in behaviour.
“That’s fine,” says Banks. “The ads had different objectives and, in our view, both hit the mark.”
GMPS is actually two campaigns. One is a text only campaign targeting public venues such as billboards. The second campaign involves the use of photos of men’s crotches in sexy briefs, jockstraps etc., with the name men give to their penises emblazoned across them (i.e. Butt Pirate, Ass Master, Chicken Baster, Jack Hammer, etc.). The latter campaign is specifically targeted to gay clubs, bathhouses, and queer periodicals.
“We really struggled with keeping this campaign sexy…we didn’t want to take sex out of it,” says Banks. “As men, and certainly as gay men, we are visual creatures. We respond to sexual imagery; we pay attention to it.”
Whether our response to such imagery is the ‘chicken’ or the ‘egg,’ we do respond to such imagery. When talking about sex and sexuality it would also seem to make sense to use sexual and/or sexy imagery.
Rethink Advertising, the ad firm behind both campaigns, was not sure they could produce such images for the original campaign. The AIDS Vancouver team thought otherwise and eventually the ad firm went with their suggestions.
“Of course, what flies in Montreal or Toronto doesn’t necessarily fly in smaller more conservative centres,” says Banks, “and we needed to be conscious of that in the designing of the campaign.”
The cheekiness of the campaign is quite conscious.
“If you live in a war zone long enough,” observes Banks, “then you adapt. HIV infection is our war zone. It still has a huge impact on our community and our lives – and that impact is not always positive. You can’t live for decades with death and dying at the top of your mind; you will begin to shut down. Many older gay men lived through all that, losing loved ones, friendship groups, all that. They adapted and incorporated safer sex into their sexual life.”
“Younger gay men have a totally different perspective on HIV/AIDS. They haven’t gone through what the previous generation of gay men went through. I don’t think anyone would want them to, but because their experience of HIV/AIDS is different, their approach is different and our education efforts need to reflect that.”
For more information on the Gay Men Play Safe campaign log on to www.gaymenplaysafe.com.