Toronto
4 min

Just stop AIDS, okay?

Campaigns are way off-message

Sometimes while writing this column I feel like Carrie Bradshaw scribbling ideas on Sex And The City, the key difference being of course money. (Note to editor: Carrie was once offered $4 a word to write for a US fashion mag.) Also, the fact that my life seems a lot more dangerous than hers.

I mean, in six whole seasons did Carrie ever get even a bad case of crabs? Whereas I seem to be on perpetual alert for a whole host of sexual threats and life just isn’t getting any easier.

Item one: I’m dating a guy this past spring and we’ve been pussyfooting around the whole idea of anal sex for some time when one day he decides he wants to be fucked, and oh, by the way would I please do it without a condom.

“I’m feeling very close to you right now,” he says.

Which is sweet, except that I really don’t want to be close to his microbes. I launch into a mini lecture on how you don’t have to ditch the rubber to feel close to someone, but lectures aren’t my thing, particularly in bed, and his little outburst sets off all kinds of other alarm bells. Like, if he’s taking this kind of risk with me, what the hell is he doing with other people?

Several weeks later, having broken up with the first guy for reasons that have nothing to do with the above, I hit the same hurdle. I’m in bed with someone else and we’re all set to enter intercourse land when the trick du jour decides to get all iffy about the specific type of condoms and lube available at my particular domicile. Too sticky, he says.

“You can fuck me without it,” he says. “I don’t care. Just don’t come inside me. I’ll scream if you come inside me.” News flash, folks: You don’t need ejaculation to spread disease and your asshole is one of the most infection-friendly spots on your body.

This time I am too flabbergasted to say much of anything. I go with the simple approach. “I don’t fuck without condoms,” I say.

What’s going on here? Ten years ago, I’d never heard of such actively suicidal behaviour. Five years ago, I started to hear about it at secondhand, usually from friends who went to the baths fairly regularly. Now it’s it in my bedroom. And I don’t like it.

Neither of these guys was stupid, inexperienced or (as far as I know) on drugs. One of them may have suffered from a mild form of closetry but the other had no known risk factor aside from ignorance. So why would they so casually drop their defences?

People blame the rise of suicidal sex on everything from drug use, to Internet hookups, to the easy availability of bareback porn.

Me, I just think the whole community is seriously off-message. Twenty years ago, safer sex information was everywhere. Now it’s nowhere. You’d think that at this late stage of the game, there would be a simple one-page flyer on safer-sex etiquette in every bar in town, but, amazingly, there isn’t. Of the three current AIDS Committee Of Toronto pamphlets I found, only one addresses risk reduction directly and it spends more time on why people don’t use condoms than why they do. In a 19-page booklet, it lists 18 reasons why people might not want to use condoms.

By the time you?ve read even one or two of these whiny little complaints (“It interrupts the mood?. They always slip off”) you’re more discouraged than energized. To be fair, the pamphlet writers go on to rebut the complaints but by then the damage is done.

The early safer-sex campaigns were empowering. They gave you facts and suggested the goal was doable. The new campaigns are invitations to defeat. Couched in the undemanding language of therapy — the language of acceptance, tolerance and empathy — they ask little of anyone and not surprisingly get little in return.

Ontario’s current “Be Real” campaign is even more spectacularly empty-headed. After spending several hours perusing its website I had no idea why it even exists. The organizers seem to want to help me with my love life, my community life and even my drug life. Everything, that is, except what they might be expected to be most expert in, AIDS prevention. Trying to be all things to all people, they have a clear message for none. Asking why we don’t always use condoms, a key ad in the campaign suggests reasons: “a lot of reasons, some are yours, some are his.” Reasons, you say. Excellent. And what are we supposed to do with these reasons?

Compare this muddle-headed nonsense with perhaps the most successful public education campaign in human history, the antismoking campaign. Nobody ever suggested that quitting smoking was anything but gruelling, and yet antismoking activists haven’t wasted a lot of sympathy on addicts and their withdrawal pains. Instead they’ve stayed relentlessly on message and the message has always been shockingly simple: Smoking kills. Result: even smokers routinely decry smoking as a “dirty habit” and smoking continues to decline.

To be successful, an anti-AIDS campaign needs to be just as direct and just as demanding. Instead of the current mishmash of fuzzy platitudes and empty rhetoric (“Be real,” my ass), we need campaigns that ask something of people and that gives them something in return, mostly the hope that some form of safe sex is within reach. Individuals may falter and fail to reach 100 percent compliance — condoms each time, every time — but as a community we need to demand that they at least try. Anything less is too discouraging to consider.