By: Ray Yeo
It’s been a little over a year since the Pitt Men’s Study started reaching out to guys in places like craigslist, gay.com and adam4adam. For the most part, I’d say we’ve been successful in getting our foot in the door and letting folks know we’re online to provide much-needed information about sexual health. But, as with many health intervention programs, there’s a core group of folks that still aren’t getting the message about avoiding sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.
We know that new HIV infections are still on the rise in Pennsylvania—even after all the grass roots sex education that happened early on, when the epidemic first laid waste to the gay community. There’s been a lot of talk about why the virus is still spreading and lots of folks agree we need to step up or efforts to continually educate the public about the risks of unsafe sex. But the one thing I don’t see a lot in the mainstream media is how finding sexual partners on the Internet plays a significant role in these new infections.
Mounting research indicates that guys who hook up online for sex (as apposed to traditional venues like bars and bath houses) have sex more often, have unprotected sex more often, and have more sex with guys who are HIV-positive. So it would seem pretty clear that we need to get our safer sex messages into the same chat rooms where these folks are hooking up.
One of our challenges is that, like the bars and bath houses in the early 1980’s, the owners of sex-related Websites don’t necessarily want to bring up issues of sexual health for fear that it will put off their clientele. The person in charge at Manhunt told me once that if their guys feel harassed by a sexual health educator, they’ll just take their business to gay.com. As a result, on Manhunt, I can’t advise guys about sexual health unless they chat with me first. The problem then, of course, is that if a person is online just for sex, he’s probably not going to make contact with me. The other problem is that guys often don’t know they’re at risk and, therefore, don’t know to ask for safer sex information. So how do we get the word out to guys who are living in an online bubble that’s devoid of safer sex messages?
One solution is to spread the word that men who are looking for sex with men on-line do need special sexual health information. We all know we’re supposed to use a condom for anal sex, but how many guys know that drinking and using drugs can lower your inhibition and turn a moment of safe sexual pleasure into (at best) prolonged medical treatments? How many guys know that, if you don’t like to use a traditional condom (for anal sex) because it doesn’t feel good, you can use a female condom instead? Would you know to call your doctor and ask for immediate “post-exposure prophylaxis” treatment if you know you’ve been exposed to HIV in the last 72 hours?
Another potential solution is to expand our online presence. To this end, we’ve created the gay/bi friendly Website m4mHEALTHYsex.org—a place where guys can go to find out about HIV and other STDs. The site hosts user-friendly “sexual health avatars”—animated characters who can answer basic questions about sexually transmitted diseases. Users can also search by zip code to find information like gay-friendly medical providers and local testing centers. And, if for some reason a person can’t find the information he’s looking for, the user can email the staff at the Pitt Men’s Study and pose questions to our staff of medical professionals (folks who’ve been dealing with the health of gay and bi men for 25 years).
We’ve come a long way in the treatment for HIV infection. And although modern anti-viral drugs are a genuine life-saving breakthrough, we still don’t have a cure or a vaccine to prevent it. Furthermore, as anyone on those miraculous antiviral drugs will tell you, having HIV is still a life-altering experience—and not in a good way.
In short, getting the gay and bi male community to understand that they still need information about safer sex is critical. If you’re picking up guys online for sex, you may be treading on thin ice. You may think you know it all, but, as the indisputable numbers of new HIV infections becomes more apparent, you might want to think twice when you see that “online sexual health educator” profile on Manhunt. Go ahead, ask me a question. I might be able to put you on the right track toward a better, safer sex life.