A national safe-sex campaign last month aimed at high-school and university students included a poster promoting abstinence, a message some AIDS service organizations say is unrealistic for many young people.
This year’s Have A Heart campaign, put on by the Canadian Foundation For AIDS Research (CANFAR), included three posters: one promoting HIV/AIDS research, one promoting condom use by showing a rubber ducky mounting another and one promoting abstinence. At the bottom of the abstinence poster it says, “It’s all about you. Not having sex is the best protection.” The ducky poster makes a similar claim: “A condom is the best way to protect yourself from HIV/AIDS.”
Amanda O’Reilly, communications and marketing manager for CANFAR, says the schools are offered a choice of the three posters, and can take any or all of them.
“Because we’re reaching every region in the country and some Catholic schools, it’s a matter of what they feel comfortable with,” she says. “We weren’t forced into it. It’s just a matter of more choice.”
Ben Houghton, youth community education coordinator with the AIDS Committee Of Toronto, wouldn’t comment directly on the CANFAR campaign, though he says, generally, abstinence campaigns don’t address the realities and may even be harmful to young people.
“We know young people are having sex,” says Houghton. “The negative is that there’s so much judgment involved in abstinence campaigns that any young person who’s sexually active won’t feel comfortable coming to a teacher or a counsellor for help or advice.”
The Have A Heart campaign, now in its 12th year, provides free information materials to participating schools. For a minimum $1 donation, students can send heart-o-grams, consisting of a bag filled with a Valentine’s chocolate, a campaign iron-on and an HIV/AIDS info pamphlet. All the donated money, plus corporate donations, goes to HIV/AIDS research. O’Reilly says about 1,070 schools took part in the campaign this year, and were expected to raise more than $300,000.
O’Reilly says it’s the poster featuring the humping duckies that has stirred up the most controversy; an elementary school in the west put up the poster.
“There was a parent who was volunteering at lunch who got offended and tore them all down. They went to the principal, who had approved the posters, and he said that instead of putting them into a public space like a lunchroom, any teacher who wants can put them up in their classroom.”
A survey released last month by the Canadian Association For Adolescent Health says that 27 percent of Canadian teens are sexually active; of those 75 percent said they used some sort of protection against sexually transmitted diseases the last time they had sex. Two-thirds of teens said they had engaged in oral sex; 25 percent said they did not consider oral to be sex.