I visited a couple of public washrooms the other night. They were on a university campus, not part of my usual tracks through the big city. I was attending a theatre conference — all that free coffee.
Two very different washrooms: a small one, secluded on the top floor of a heritage building, with attractive navy-blue tiles on the walls, subdued lighting — aesthetically pleasing as washrooms go. The other one was huge, on the main floor of a busy bland block of a building; garish, glaringly lit.
But what caught my attention — I was alone on both occasions — were the Zoom Media poster ads above the urinals in both washrooms. I hadn’t seen these specimens before. Really wished I didn’t have to see them now, the CANFAR HIV/AIDS “prevention” ads.
What the hell was that? That was my first reaction to the poster in the pleasant blue washroom: an illustration of a crazed young man brandishing a roll of duct tape. His loins taped and girded. An arrow leading from the boxed words, BAD IDEA. A representation of some sort of party boy, I supposed. I didn’t get the duct tape thing — though I know it’s a culturally significant obsession to some — is it heteronormative marketing? Implied self-mummification?
Below there’s another box with the words GOOD IDEA and an arrow to the word ABSTAIN. Yes, an explanation is needed, and it follows: “Choosing not to have sex is the best way to protect yourself from HIV/AIDS.”
Okay then, what I absorbed during this not-so-brief urinal visit: bad boy out of control versus good boy who doesn’t have sex. Pay attention: the bad boy will get infected, the good chaste boy won’t. How simple, this message of fear. But what about the vast universe in between, where most of us reside?
Over to the urinals up the street. In front of my face a different poster put up by the same organization. At first glance this higher-traffic location seemed to have a more realistic message. Although once again the design is rather ghastly: two stick figures of people leaping out of an airplane; one has a parachute, the other doesn’t. There’s an explanation in big letters: “You wouldn’t jump out of a plane without a parachute. Why have sex without a condom?” Below there’s more: “If you choose to have sex, using a condom is the best way to protect yourself from HIVANDAIDS.”
The last sentence, I’m okay with that. But sex without a condom as an analogy to jumping bareback out of a plane? I don’t think so.
There are many reasons a guy may not wear a condom (reasons to reflect upon and do better); it is not a conscious and considered decision to leap to death from a great height — splat.
While I have a continued interest in remaining HIV-negative, these posters were not intended for me. They are for another generation, primarily 18- to 21-year-old male undergrads. But I do have an additional interest. The current youth market, they were born in the early ’90s. It so happens that in that era I was a member of an AIDS education department. Twenty years ago we put out a series of posters and brochures for gay men, the Safer Choices Campaign. It encouraged personal responsibility and featured attractive photos of local Vancouver men. Sex-positive in other words. (Although, in fact, too sexy for a now-extinct Denman St gay bar, where our brochures were routinely turned over to hide the front cover.)
We did some good work in the bad old days, when our small AIDS Vancouver office, shrouded in bamboo, had no identifying sign on Richards St. Our clients were dying, including some of our very young education volunteers.
Things are much better now, but far from acceptable: HIV may not be a death sentence, but it’s capable of compromising lives. Lives that continue to be stigmatized, even by the HIV-prevention posters that grace our public washrooms. As the two I’ve just seen seem to say, if you become HIV-positive you are either a bad boy or a stupid boy.
I asked a young man, Mark, what he thought of the new abstinence promoting/duct tape poster. “Regressive,” he said. “And sex-negative.”
I wasn’t surprised; I’m confident that the youth at the urinals are smarter than the posters.
Someone has already sketched a small balloon beside the word ABSTAIN, a circled “WTF?”
No more ugly posters, please. Let go the myth that sex-negativity is efficient, trying as some might to drive the whole damn problem underground. Give us some attractive images of ourselves. We’re worth it. It’ll make us feel better; we’ll look after ourselves and others more. Works better than prehistoric images of fear. Fewer of us will just tune out.