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Sexual health campaigning goes on-line

Credit: Capital Xtra files

With on-line chatrooms and forums quickly becoming the rest stops of choice for gay men cruising for sex, health and wellness workers are looking for innovative ways to reach those logged on and at risk.

Robert Smith, a research/ resource development staff member for HIV Edmonton, says there has been a dramatic increase in the number of contacts with at-risk individuals through on-line venues.

A presenter at the recent Canadian Rainbow Health Coalition conference, Smith says many chatrooms and cruising bulletin boards primarily serve as an area for men to arrange sexual encounters with other men.

“There is a study that [suggests] the internet is replacing the bathhouses as a way for men to connect,” says Smith. Some studies also suggest that men who hook up on-line are more likely to have high-risk sex.

Because of the rise of cybersex, HIV Edmonton and several other AIDS service groups throughout Canada have begun using the web as a vehicle for distributing information and advice regarding sex, sexual health, HIV/AIDS and other related subjects.

Smith says the questions raised through this strategy often lead to more in-depth discussions. Many of the men who cruise on-line may be “new to being gay,” married or in a heterosexual relationship.

“Straight men don’t think they need the information, because they don’t view themselves or their behaviour as gay,” he says. “Gay men have the information. The question is whether or not they choose to use that information.”

Smith’s on-line work began in 2001, when HIV Edmonton began posting on-line warnings regarding the rise in syphilis rates within the province and across Canada.

At first, Smith says he targeted HIV-specific sites, but soon realized that they attracted little or no traffic. He switched gears and posted in “high-traffic rooms where men are sex-seeking,” including and

“I put in a warning on-line about syphilis being back and then the dialogue started,” says Smith.

Smith says that many of the men who cruise on-line are often isolated in rural communities or isolated from urban gay communities. So chatroom outreach can reach men who may not be getting the safe-sex messages anywhere else.

Smith says he’s planning a national project to take a more comprehensive look at the impact direct on-line intervention may have on the health and wellness of on-line cruisers.