Remember the days when buying condoms was an embarrassing experience? I would casually pile up the counter with a million other toiletries, as if doing so would somehow distract the cashier from my naughty purchase. These days most people buy condoms with pride: “Yep, that’s right. I’m getting laid. Throw in a bottle of lube and some gloves with that, please.”
Thanks to safer sex campaigns, condom advertisements and a greater understanding of risk, people seem more comfortable talking about sex and protection from sexually transmitted infections (STIs). But it doesn’t seem to me that we have the same discourse about testing. Most guys don’t get tested nearly as often as they should.
And is it any wonder? Getting tested, especially when you’re queer, can be quite a traumatic experience. I once visited a downtown clinic instead of my usual gay-friendly one for a blazing urinary tract infection. I ended up leaving in tears. The doctor concluded that I must have an STI because I’m gay. He basically told me I was stupid for having unprotected sex with my boyfriend, even though we’d both been tested, had talked about the risks, and otherwise practised safer sex.
Aids Community Care Montreal’s project, Awareness to Make Change (ATOMc), is designed to destigmatize testing and to get dudes who fuck dudes talking about it. Many sexual health organizations seem to focus on safer sex alone, but ATOMc stresses regular testing and open and frank dialogue about it among partners and fuck-buddies. This incentive-based program, funded by the Montreal Public Health Department, started about two-and-a-half years ago. Here’s how it works: peer recruiters encourage their sex partners to get tested. They give them cards that need to be presented at the testing facility at the time of testing. Each time a card, and its associated new testee, gets tested, the recruiter earns a point. Points can be redeemed for gift cards for joints like Starbucks, iTunes and American Apparel, to name a few. Testees then get a chance to become recruiters themselves so they, too, can earn prizes.
Recruiter Rodrigo Llamas says he decided to participate partly because “healthcare professionals are not always professional. It seems as though they often lack the training required to deal with sensitive issues such as testing . . . They don’t know you and they don’t know who you have sex with. Being a recruiter allows me to let people know they’re not the only ones who get tested; we all do and so do our partners.”
ATOMc’s latest effort, CheckUP! A Testing Party for Boys who Fuck Other Boys,“removes the unpleasant experience of going to a clinic and helps people overcome the barriers associated with testing,” says project coordinator James Mckye. People can get tested without having to wait forever for an appointment or without having to endure the awkward discomfort of sitting in a waiting room with a group of strangers.
The party will feature food, music, videogames and good company. There will also be a nurse who will do the testing without judging you for who you’ve fucked or how many partners you’ve had. There are gift cards for testees and prizes for recruiters who bring in new blood.
“We want not only to make the testing experience a fun one but also to encourage people to have a support person when they get tested,” says Mckye. “For some reason, as much as we talk about sex with our friends, often safer sex is excluded from the conversation.”