Lost generation: Are modern HIV campaigns failing younger gays?

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As someone reminded me recently, people born in the early nineties are now reaching adulthood. It is safe to say that these younger gays will not remember the images of the AIDS scare in the 1980s and 1990s.

With modern HIV advertising focusing less on condom use, are the younger generation being ill-advised on the dangers of unsafe sex?

The Terrence Higgins Trust (THT), Britain’s largest sexual health charity, has recently launched a campaign called ‘THIVK’ aimed at knowing your HIV status and getting tested. It is the first ‘testing’ campaign in ten years.

Advertising advocating condom use has become harder to find, with many gay magazines containing none at all.

THT itself has come under scrutiny over its refusal to use hard-hitting campaigns because it does not want to “demonise” HIV sufferers.

The modern promotions are a world apart from the infamous ‘tombstone’ and ‘iceberg’ ads of the 1980s.

But it appears many people still “die of ignorance”. With infection rates among gay men climbing 110 per cent between 1999-2007 (1,450 cases to 3,050), there is an argument for more hard-hitting campaigns.

I spoke to a 20-year-old gay student about his views on safe sex. He said: “Condoms are really important. I always try to use them.” But he added: “Sometimes I forget though, especially when I’m drunk.”

This highlights a growing trend among young gay men who, while knowing the importance of condoms, don’t see it as a priority.

Spike Rhodes, an HIV activist who is HIV-positive, spoke to PinkNews.co.uk about HIV advertising and raising awareness among younger gays.

“Across the scene there is a general relaxing to attitudes towards condom-only sex. Especially with the increase in ‘bareback’ films. . . which are everywhere.”

In regards to more hard-hitting advertising, he said: “I don’t think scaring [people] will help. It will just cause people to turn off and ignore it. The only way forward is . . . to wake up the entire gay community.”

On ‘THIVK’, he said: “It’s great. The ad is very strong but there is fear attached to it [knowing your status].”

Rhodes suggests going further, saying that one shock tactic should be to make HIV tests part of STI screenings, as people have been given the chance to “be adult” about their choices but some are still endangering others.

“When someone comes in with something like gonorrhoea then they’ve been having unprotected sex and chances are they could be infected with HIV.”

“If you know [your status],” he said, then help is available. “If you don’t know and are too scared to take the test. . .then one day you’ll get very ill, and suddenly find yourself in hospital with pneumonia and have no immune system left and then it may be too late for the pills. Then you could die. People do still die from this”.

While Rhodes does make a point for knowing your status, shouldn’t there also be a move to break the blasé attitude that has developed towards condoms?

His arguments suggest mandatory testing would mean people could no longer have “their heads in the sand” and could maybe have a more positive effect on attitudes than shock advertising that people can ignore.

Paul Burston, author of ‘The Gay Divorcee’ also spoke to PinkNews.co.uk about HIV charities.

Burston said: “On the whole I don’t think they are meeting the needs of the people they’re targeting.”

He attacked modern campaigning, aimed more at those who are regularly unsafe, as giving mixed messages that “bare-backing is [apparently] normal”.

“It’s one thing to say ‘don’t demonise them’ [HIV sufferers], which is right, but it’s another thing to not demonise the images that show bare-backing is normal.”

When I suggested that anti-smoking ads do not demonise cancer sufferers, Burston said “That is a really good argument.”

“For those of us who are 40-plus. . .we didn’t need ‘icebergs’, we saw friends die in hospital. The younger generation, thankfully, haven’t witnessed this, and only get these mixed messages from the campaigns.”

He revealed that he had seen a senior HIV policy officer admit gays had been let down.

Burston also noted how, at an event in Liverpool, a 22-year-old told him he was more worried about catching gonorrhoea than HIV.

“What we need is a much more clear campaign aimed at the [gay] general population saying ‘use a condom”,” he said.

Campaigns that “target the majority of men, who use a condom but occasionally slip up” would be more effective, Burston said, as “the message would seep through to” those who are regularly unsafe.

“Bare-backing is just the nice term we use for unsafe sex,” he added.

Burston recalled a campaign in San Francisco a few years ago which coincided with a huge rise in HIV infections. It showed HIV sufferers talking about the realities of combination therapy and how they couldn’t have a normal life.

Subsequently, he said, the infection rates went “right down”.

So while we see some praise for HIV charities moving to get people to know their status, both agree that more needs to be done.

Yusef Azad, the director of policy and campaigns for the National AIDS Trust said: “The sector as a whole needs to constantly look at what we’re doing along the lines of HIV prevention.”

On previous campaigns, such as one which advocating pulling out and ejaculating on a partner’s back, he said there is a need for “targeting particular groups of gay men who engage in a lot of high risk sex” but also a need to “reiterate and reinforce key messages about condom use”.

He added: “There is not much value in beating ourselves up about the past but to look to the future and what we can do.”

Marc Thompson, deputy head of health promotion at THT, said that it was about giving gay men information to make their own choices.

“Condom use is very important,” he said, citing THT’s ‘Get it On’ campaign which focused on condom use, “but knowing your status is equally important”.

Citing undiagnosed HIV cases, he added: “We identified other issues that need to be dealt with.”

“One third of people with HIV don’t know they have it,” he said. “We also know that some men choose not to use condoms.”

“We know that about 80 per cent of gay men use condoms nearly all the time.”

“What we try to say is ‘it’s your choice’. Here is the information to make it safer for you. It’s about giving out information. . .so that people can make informed, educated decisions for themselves.”

On bareback porn, Thompson added: “I don’t think there is any evidence that the rise in barebacking is a direct result of the rise in bareback porn.”

He went on to say: “With some people its a case of ‘monkey-see-monkey-do’ but most don’t [take away that message]”.

So we see that, while many people defend the modern campaigning used, many are calling for more to be done to bring to light the importance of condom use and it seems this point remains a contentious issue.