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Who gets to be the ‘risky’ one and why?

July 10th, 2009     by Mir Verburg     Comments

Safe sex messages geared towards young people can be a hard-sell (no pun intended). Maybe it’s because teen sexuality is still incredibly enough a taboo topic, so efforts to create meaningful and effective public health materials reflect a lack of comfort rather than marketing genius? Whatever the case, it seems to me that a successful marketing campaign that deals with HIV and is geared towards young people is a rare occurrence indeed.

Take for example the posters I’ve been seeing around Toronto lately.

Poster by ‘One Life’HIV safety awareness campaign.

One Life Campaign

These posters and the associated messages bother me.

The posters are linked to a website called the One Life Resource Centre and are aimed at gay and straight young people. Judging by the age of the models I’d put ‘young’ at between 19 - 30. This demographic apparently doesn’t know the first thing about safer sex, although that may be an exaggeration.

There are a couple of things about this campaign that make me uncomfortable. The sheer ‘sexiness’ of the models is kinda silly. I mean, sure it’s nice to look at hot people embracing but if the point is to spread a message that everyone is at risk for HIV then pick an ‘everyone’ kind of couple. The multiple arm thing could have worked even if the couple in question were two average-looking young people, making out in a TV room in Scarborough. They don’t have to look like they just stripped in the change room of Abercrombie and Fitch.

Furthermore, though it can be claimed that it is statistically more likely that you will be infected with HIV from a guy, the fact is that girls also transmit the virus.

One Life Campaign

Based on this campaign you would never know that. More to the point, I suspect that the reason there is no discussion of “her past” is that advertisers, (and, make no mistake, public health campaigns like this one are a form of advertising) are still uncomfortable with the idea that girls might have multiple partners, might choose to sleep around for a while. Young women who have a past are pejoratively labelled ‘sluts’ because there is still a bigger taboo against young women exploring their sexuality then there is against young men doing the exact same thing.

Don’t even get me started on the fact that there are no lesbians pictured at all.

Finally having completed the “are you at risk?” quiz I can safely say the ‘health science’ behind this campaign seems to be more about fear and intimidation than education: For example, questions like:

“Have you had sex with people from a country other than Canada?”

Suggests that foreign birth more then sexual practice puts you at risk of HIV, which is just plain silly.

For the record, after filling out the quiz honestly I was informed that, “Based on your answers you are at risk of contracting the HIV virus.”

I was not given any feedback about which of the behaviors I discussed in the quiz had put me at risk, nor was I given any useful information about how I could deal with the apparent possibility that I have contracted HIV.

A possibility, which is in fact an impossibility since even though I answered “yes” to the questions: “Have I had unprotected sex?” “Have I had sex with someone who had an STI?” “Have I had sex while intoxicated?” and: “Have I had sex with someone born outside of Canada?” (Hey, I am 32 - all these things happen) the quiz did not bother to ask me whether the person I had unprotected sex with was HIV positive (they were not, we had been tested previously) or whether I had used a condom during any of these ‘risky’ encounters - I had.

So the quiz is designed to strike fear into the hearts of uninformed or vulnerable populations, without helping them learn to make better choices. And to those of us who do know what constitutes sexual health and safety, it’s pretty much a joke.


Since I don’t like to totally slam a youth-focused initiative without making some positive recommendations, here is what I would suggest the developers of One Life do to improve the take away from their campaign.

The Sense Project is one of the best youth sexual health programs in Canada, working with them on various media projects I learned some important ground rules for talking with young people about making healthy choices around sex and sexuality.

Some of the basics:

_ Respect the choices and decisions young people make. Don’t try to convince them their desires are bad or wrong; try to understand where they are coming from and validate their experiences.

_ Don’t fearmonger, it creates a climate of panic and judgment which means that people will not feel safe asking questions or getting the referrals they need.

_ Don’t make assumptions around people’s gender, sexuality or sexual proclivities. If you only address a straight audience then those are the only people you will hear from. (In the case of this campaign, it’s addressed to an audience of straight and gay youth. Leaving out lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered and transsexual youth, and any youth who have non-normative bodies. The list of young people who are not addressed in this campaign is pretty long.)

_ Don’t assume that just because you believe something is the ‘right’ choice, it will be the right choice for everyone.

In light of those basics, I just can’t get behind the One Life Campaign, no matter how important the message may be.

Tags: body politics

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