The usual excuses are pouring forth from our city health department about why they chose to revert to an early ‘80s-style HIV scare campaign to reawaken concern about getting infected. ‘I am completely comfortable with what we put out here’, intoned one Monica Sweeney of the HIV prevention unit in response to the chorus of indignation from community agencies and many HIV-positive individuals. Well, as long as you’re comfortable, Monica, that’s what’s important.
This is reality, she also reminded us, referring to the images of young guys suffering bone degeneration, getting soft in the head from dementia and a full litany of AIDS horrors. So since it’s ‘true’, we can’t criticize the communicational aspects. It’s as if the department pines for the old days when guys got really sick—that sure got everyone’s attention!
I sympathize with the health bureaucrats who have to deal with the steadily growing cost of treating tens of thousands of New Yorkers with expensive medications while the roster of the newly infected continues to grow. Precautions in the sexual arena haven’t gone out the window, but I can attest to the existence of a large hope-for-the-best gay subculture where caution is no longer the default position. I applaud the concern and the interest in understanding how this shift came about.
But it’s another sign of our creepily reactionary times that the department is taking this step backward without even consulting its supposed community ‘partners’. Sure, they held focus groups where, predictably, participants will react to sensational images that ‘they’—meaning those other guys who run risks—should be forced to see.
But the campaign will backfire in one important way: it will reinforce the current sexual apartheid that exists in gay circles here wherein guys no longer adopt universal precautions to avoid HIV infection but simply avoid anyone suspected to be HIV-positive. The hook-up ads are full of demands for ‘ddf’, meaning ‘drug and disease free’ for prospective partners—that means, don’t have HIV if you want to get laid.
The obvious implication is that once you assure me that you don’t have the virus, we can then screw merrily without tiresome old condoms. But this, in a city where one in five gay men is already HIV-infected, is not exactly a winning strategy. The health department’s ads will reinforce this dangerous trend by deepening the fear of the disease without illuminating the gratifying psychological tricks guys play on themselves in pursuit of intimacy and sexual satisfaction.
And the HIV-positive return to their old pariah status—stay away, you can’t be loved. That will certainly encourage responsible behavior.
One can’t be too surprised by this strange relapse from a city bureaucracy run by the monarchy of money. Bloomberg’s team may be encouraged to think it can and should apply the same techniques to HIV that were used in the city’s anti-smoking campaign: graphic imagery and heavy restrictions on behavior like smoke-free bars.
But sex ain’t in the same ballpark, and one doesn’t say goodbye to HIV like an ex-smoker putting down the cigarette pack. Would the city try to combat obesity by putting pictures of fat people on TV and showing how gross their lives are?