14 Nov 2004

Let's beat AIDS, without talking about sex

November 2004
© Yawning Bread

Let's beat AIDS, without talking about sex

The junior minister for Health said we're not doing enough to stop the spread of HIV. He said "clear messaging" is needed to get results. "Alarm would be more appropriate." (See the article Minister warns of AIDS epidemic)

The junior minister for Health said an "in-your-face approach" was not the right way to alarm people. "Sexual behaviour... is something people don't want to talk about, it's not discussed in polite society." Thus we must remain prissy. We must find a way to alarm people without being impolite; we must send clear messages about AIDS without raising the subject of sex.


But the direct approach, with condoms marching down the street, has worked in Thailand and Cambodia. To that, the minister's response was that we "need to recognise there were conservative people here." Does he think there are no conservative people in our neighbouring countries?

In his speech on 10 November, the minister cited Randy Shiltz' book, "And the band played on" about how, in the 1980s, people tried to ignore the growing threat and carry on in denial. What does he think he is suggesting now?

I mentioned in another article, Gambling on the Singapore model, that one of the weaknesses of Singapore in coping with change is our tendency to "concede at least part of the way to the conservatives."

"But in these times, when we need to make dramatic changes of course to cope with a rapidly changing external environment, the inability to shake off our conservatism, our unwillingness to challenge archaic tenets, holds us back."

* * * * *

But why can't we just stick to talking about abstinence? That will please the conservatives and beat AIDS. Very simply, because it is unrealistic.

People are not going to give up sex, anymore than you can expect people to stop craving sugary food, or making rude gestures when they are annoyed. These are deep instincts.

The other problem with talking about abstinence is that it invariably pulls in the word "promiscuity". Even if the state-sponsored messages don't use the word, you can bet your last dollar the religious groups will. They cannot resist riding the bandwagon to promote their idea of morality. So each time the secular government says. "abstain", the ride-along accusation "You're a promiscuous sinner!" rings in people's ears.

Let's understand something about psychology: you cannot convince people to do what you ask if at the same time they sense they are being condemned.

The other thing about promiscuity as a risk factor in HIV transmission, is that it assumes all sex is insertive sex. This is more or less true with heterosex, but it isn't so with homosex. Frottage and mutual masturbation figure prominently in homosexual practices. As someone on SiGNeL pointed out, you can have a hundred men in a night, but if mutual masturbation is all you do, you've hardly been reckless. But the guy who has unprotected sex with a pretty sex worker just once a year - he is the reckless one.

So what then happens is that the "abstinence" message, based on a heterosexual equivalence between sex and insertive sex, is also seen as unnecessarily wide-ranging for gay people. It IS possible to have gay sex without protection, with next to no risk, for gay men, and certainly for gay women. Lesbians are considered to be one of the lowest risk groups.

So here's another thing about psychology: when people see that your message over-reaches reality, they see your message as alarmist, and perhaps as something driven by another agenda - homophobia, sexophobia, religious crusading, perhaps. Your message is then discounted.

* * * * *

If we want to be effective, we have no choice but to get to the point. We have to talk frankly and in detail about the various kinds of sex, the risk each kind entails, and when protection is necessary. We have to make the idea of wearing a condom as un-titillating as wearing a baseball cap. People must stop being squeamish about asking for one, buying one, handling one, wearing one. We have to talk about the danger without being conservative. We have to talk about the danger without appeasing or giving a free ride to the conservatives.

© Yawning Bread

Singapore will not promote condom use publicly to fight AIDS: report

Sun Nov 14, 2:03 AM ET

SINGAPORE (AFP) - Despite facing an "alarming AIDS (news - web sites) epidemic," Singapore will not go on a publicity blitz to promote condom use out of respect for residents who hold conservative views on sexual behaviour, a minister said.

"To educate people you don't have to be offensive," Senior Minister of State for Health Balaji Sadasivan was quoted as saying on the website of Channel NewsAsia, a Singapore-based regional broadcaster.

"We must recognise there are conservative people in Singapore and there's no need to say the only way to educate people is to try do it in an in-your-face approach," Balaji said late Saturday.

Balaji warned in an address to medics last week that the number of new AIDS cases in Singapore was doubling every three to four years.

Figures from the World Health Organisation showed an estimated 4,000 Singaporeans had HIV (news - web sites), the virus that leads to AIDS, he said. There are about three million Singaporeans living in the city-state and another 1.3 million foreigners.

"If we do not act, by 2010 we may have more than 15,000 HIV persons in Singapore," Balaji said.

"We are facing an alarming AIDS epidemic in Singapore," he said.

He said gay men's unsafe sexual practices were the biggest cause of concern amid the alarming rise in HIV/AIDS infection cases.

Some one should inform the Minister that we don't actually want the condom, "In his face", we want it "On his penis."

Where is the evidence that Singaporeans are conservative? Get the minister to cite empirical evidence, say, 'Attitudes on Family in Singapore' or the "Flight from Marriage in South and South East Asia."


Agagooga said...

How long are we going to pretend? I hope they wake up and face reality before it's too late and the AIDS epidemic becomes uncontrollable.

If we take the criterion of conservative offense, then we wouldn't be able to do anything - everyone is offended by something.

Lots of Singaporeans are offended by other races, but this doesn't stop active promotion of racial unity.

Anonymous said...

On a related note, see this other (pre latest AIDS scare) Yawning Bread article 'The banished booth':