A member of the board of directors of the AIDS Committee Of Toronto (ACT) resigned last month to protest the organization’s new safe-sex campaign for young gay and bi men.
Richard Churchill, a gay man who had joined the board a year ago, says the new campaign and other programs such as bathhouse tours actually promote unsafe sex. But ACT says their campaigns follow the organization’s longtime philosophy of disease prevention.
The new campaign consists of 26 cards, called Sex From A To Z, with each card presenting information on a sex act or object, like condoms or lube, beginning with that letter.
“HIV is a preventable disease and, here, we’re doing things that are not preventing it, but complicating it,” Churchill told The Globe And Mail.
Churchill refused an interview with Xtra about his concerns.
“I’m not sure Xtra is the best place to talk about this,” he says. “Xtra sells sex all the time, all day long. I’m not sure you’re objective.”
John Maxwell, ACT’s director of communications and community education, says Churchill is being unrealistic about how safe-sex campaigns work.
“Burying your head in the sand and hoping nothing will happen if you don’t talk about it is a rather unsophisticated analysis of human behaviour.”
Maxwell says the campaign is designed to grab the attention of young people.
“The campaign does take a lighthearted approach, but that’s what people want. We did a research and focus group in the summer. We worked with a design company, came up with a concept, did another focus group.”
Churchill told the Toronto Star that the card that really bothered him was the one presenting information on felching, the act of eating cum from a partner’s asshole.
“This is crazy — it boggles my mind,” he told the Star. “If 90 percent of taxpayers knew they were using tax dollars for this, they would go through the roof.”
The version that sparked Churchill’s objections was not the final one, says Maxwell, adding that the version that will be distributed in bars and bathhouses and through such organizations as Supporting Our Youth is more explicit about the risks.
“[Felching] is risky for HIV and STIs [sexually transmitted infections]. There’s not a lot you can do to protect yourself. But it’s still important that people know about the risks. People are doing the activities, whether they know what it’s called or not.”
Churchill also attacked ACT’s “virgin tours,” which take men unfamiliar with bathhouses around two local establishments. This was the second year for the tour. The tours could end up promoting drug use and unsafe sex, Churchill told the Star. But Maxwell says the tours are aimed at men of all ages who are already thinking about visiting a bathhouse.
“Men who are new to the scene often don’t know the culture. Because they don’t know what to anticipate, they often get themselves into risky situations. This way, they learn the etiquette, how to say no, how to say I’m interested. They learn how to negotiate safer sex. They’re better equipped to be safe.”
Maxwell says that anyone who wants to volunteer at ACT, including sitting on the board, should acquaint themselves with the organization first.
“Any volunteer who comes to ACT should understand the philosophy and buy into the ideas. Otherwise it’s maybe not the best place to do your volunteering.”