If I have heard it once, I have heard it a hundred times; so many people have accused me of trying to make HIV look "sexy." In my line of work, many detractors have voiced the general notion that it is dangerous to appear in any way that may come across as provocative, arousing, or — as much as I try to avoid it — slutty. This logic is rooted in the idea that using healthy, sexual images in HIV messaging will dilute the fear of contracting the virus and further increase the risk of infection for my peers and the younger gay men on the up and up. This argument, on its face, makes sense. But make no mistake; it is completely and fundamentally flawed.
As much as I may secretly find myself flattered by the indirect compliment in being urged to cover up my implied sexiness, I certainly was not, in any way, making HIV look sexy. I was, however, making sex look sexy. Yes, I do have the sex. And you have the sex. We all have the sex, and that is also how HIV is transmitted.
It would seem, however, that popular campaigns only use sex when referencing HIV-negative men and the risk of the unknown. Two sexy men on the verge of complete nakedness grab for a condom. The assumption is they are both HIV-negative but smart, not risk-takers. Now, slap a plus sign on one of their foreheads and the marketing campaign immediately morphs into an individual in a turtleneck.
He is smiling but completely void of sexuality, and the messaging usually reads something like, “I am HIV-positive and nothing is going to get me down.” Well, nothing except for all the erections that will be staying down with this “awareness” campaign.
There are HIV prevention campaigns and there are HIV awareness campaigns. In order to prevent HIV, you need to be knowledgeable about the virus and the reality of people living with it today. And the only way that anyone who is HIV-negative is going to engage in a conversation about HIV is to use one of the same weapons that the virus uses to spread: sex.
There are some campaigns that are the exception. The Impulse Group has made great strides in bringing sex to the awareness of HIV and sexual transmission. This group has created several billboards and viral content that push the boundaries on what living with HIV means today and how sex is still a part of the equation. But one glance at the criticism of this campaign shows just how resistant some people are to viewing HIV without the stigma of being sexual pariahs.
“Advocating for positive people is vital, and [treatment as prevention] is one of the most underrated forms of prevention,” says Kevin Pakdivichit, vice president of Impulse Group L.A. “Criticism towards our stance has ranged from calling us AIDS-enablers to blaming us for making people with HIV seem normal, acceptable, and even — OMG — sexy.”
The images that promote sexual behavior are also what can make someone susceptible to risky behavior. If provocative imagery is only used in campaigns where the status of the partners is unknown but at least assumed to be negative, then we will only continue to promote the status quo, which is a staggering 50,000 HIV infections in the U.S. each year.
Most people can agree that it would be beneficial if more people got tested more often and were open about their status if they were HIV-positive. But in a culture that often condemns HIV-positive men and women for wanting to be viewed as sexually desirable, I doubt few will be willing to step up to the plate.
Now that HIV is a chronic, manageable disease, any HIV message that intends on engaging both statuses in a conversation has to follow the rules of every other marketing campaign in the U.S. And the first rule, the main rule, is that sex always rules.
There are plenty of options an informed person can choose from when it comes to HIV prevention, but one that is no longer effective is being able to tell if a person is positive from their appearance. The hot guy at the gym, your Friday night date, or even the model in the underwear ad could be living with HIV. If they have told you about their status, then you are that much less at risk of contracting the virus. But if they are unaware of their status and you are one of the many other gay men who get "caught up in the moment," the sex you have could be one time that makes all the difference.
Unless, that is, if you read something, heard something, or saw something that showcased HIV-positive men as fully realized, sexually active, and sexually desirable adults. A message that made both the head on your shoulders think at the same time as the head between your legs.
People living with HIV are sexual beings, just like anyone else. And in my opinion, there is nothing sexier than people who are in control of their life, taking care of themselves, and not afraid to be open about who they are.
Now, put that on a billboard already.