Uncircumcised men who wash their penis less than 10 minutes after vaginal sex may increase their risk of acquiring HIV, suggests a study released at an International AIDS Society conference on Jul 25.
But it’s unclear whether gay men should stop washing their cock after play, suggests Jim Pickett, an HIV activist and writer.
The study, led by a team from the Makere University Institute Of Public Health in Uganda, examined 2,552 uncircumcised Ugandan men. The survey focused only on vaginal intercourse, and did not examine whether the results apply to anal intercourse as well.
“Sometimes, these studies are kind of like the latest fad. We all run around like ‘we should stop washing our penises,’ and ‘oh my god, syphilis is back,'” says Pickett.
The findings of the Ugandan survey suggest:
- post-intercourse penile washing does not protect uncircumcised men from acquiring HIV
- HIV-incidence is significantly lower if washing was delayed more than 10 minutes after sexual intercourse
- washing is associated with a “borderline significant trend” of increasing risk of acquiring HIV
Researchers offered a few possible explanations: the acidity of vaginal secretions may impair HIV survival. The research also suggests that the use of water with soap may facilitate survival of the virus.
But the researchers admitted the survey’s limitations — it did not ask for details about how the washing was done or what kind of soap was used. Pickett says he questions whether the increased HIV rates were really just because the men were “washing their dicks off.”
“Let’s step back and think broadly about all kinds of STDs, and our mental, emotional, and sexual health. We need to create and think about messaging that is across the board, as opposed to: don’t wash your dick for five minutes.”
The Ugandan survey follows recent studies that suggest circumcised men are at a lower risk of contracting HIV infection. In March 2007, the World Health Organization and UNAIDS recommended that all heterosexual men undergo circumcision to reduce the chances of infection. The demand for circumcision is growing in places like South Africa, where “unskilled surgeons and quacks” have begun offering circumcision services, leading to infection and even death in some cases, reports PlusNews, a global AIDS news service.
“A bunch of gay men have been getting on the bandwagon around circumcision, yet we don’t have any information. You can’t compare anal sex to vaginal. Unprotected anal sex is much more risky in terms of transmission compared to unprotected vaginal sex,” Pickett says. “The rectum is like a big sponge. It’s looking for things to soak up, including HIV.”
And it’s also unclear whether these studies are applicable to Canada and other Western countries.
“It’s also happening within the context of largely resource-poor countries where issues such as access to healthcare and regular checkups for STIs [sexually transmitted infections] may be very different from high-income countries like Canada and the US. So we don’t really know what the impact is going to be in terms of this sort of call for circumcision for men in terms of what that may do for gay men,” John Maxwell, director of special projects at the AIDS Committee Of Toronto, told Xtra in April.
Pickett says more research needs to be done, to specifically target gay men. He is working with an international group to examine the potential of rectal microbicides — topical STD-prevention. Until then, condoms are our best bet, he says.