‘Moral sex panic’ puts gay men at risk

In the 1980s and ’90s, resources were pumped into public awareness campaigns to paint HIV/AIDS as everyone’s disease...

In the 1980s and ’90s, resources were pumped into public awareness campaigns to paint HIV/AIDS as everyone’s disease. The idea has become so well accepted that bringing the focus back to gay men has not been easy, according to some researchers — at least when it comes to funding dollars allocated for talking about sex.

“Through the work that I’m doing, I see that young gay men today aren’t aware that gay men are more at risk of contracting HIV than their straight friends,” says Olivier Ferlatte, PhD candidate at Simon Fraser University and panelist for the recent Making It Work: A Health Update on Gay and Bi Men in B.C. conference in Victoria. “How is that possible? To me, it’s almost criminal.”

The tone of the HIV/AIDS discussion has changed drastically in the last 30 years. From a death sentence touted as “Gay Cancer” to a manageable illness that now wears the ever morphing mask of woman, child, third-world inhabitant, First Nations person, injection drug user, inmate and gay man, funding to assist those living with the conditions has never been more competitive.

In his publication, Are There Enough Gay Dollars? An Intersectionality-Based Policy Analysis of HIV Prevention Funding for Gay Men in B.C., which was published on the Institute for Intersectionality Research Policy website, Ferlatte explores this discrepancy — and the numbers are disheartening.

Gay men remain the most underfunded risk group in Canada, despite being the only group, worldwide, to have seen a spike in infection rates while other groups have seen steady reductions, according to Ferlatte’s research. HIV prevalence in the general population in B.C. was 1 in 1,000 as of 2009 — yet, for gay men, the number was 1 in 5. In an environmental scan by the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, in 2001 only $104,000 of B.C.’s $7.5 million provincial investment for community action on HIV went directly to HIV prevention for men who have sex with men, yet this group has accounted for 40 per cent of all new HIV infections in B.C. each year for the past decade.

Currently, the Public Health Agency of Canada does not regard sexuality as one of its 12 determinants of health. Yet through the 2003 Canadian Community Health Survey — with 135,000 respondents — Dr. David Brennan,  keynote speaker at this fall’s annual B.C. Gay Men’s Health Summit, analyzed that gay men were three times more likely than straight men to have mood or anxiety disorders, four times more likely to experience a lifetime of suicidal thoughts, and five times more likely to have been diagnosed with an STI.

Today, dialogue about the future of HIV prevention is a province-wide focus on treatment as prevention, or Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP), and universal testing through the STOP HIV/AIDS program.

While PrEP treatment focues on those at risk of infection taking daily medication to prevent infection, rapid HIV testing aims to reach populations who may have experienced barriers to testing from other institutions. Yet both methods still sidestep the issue of sex and don’t address the societal issues faced by gay men, says Ferlatte, and policy makers, in a sort of “moral sex panic,” ignore important facts.

“Service providers who are uncomfortable with certain groups can offer treatment and not talk about sex,” Ferlatte says. “HIV is transmitted through sex. How can we talk about prevention and not talk about sex?” M

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