All Rights reserved
It's 11:05 on a Tuesday morning and after logging on to America Online I can see that there are 105 men participating in online chat rooms created for gay men in Michigan. I decide to enter into an M4M (men for men) chat room and to briefly observe the conversations between the chat room's 35 other participants. One guy types that he is looking for a 'hot top in the metro Detroit area.' Another is looking to be 'serviced.' It's clear that these men are looking for sex'and quite likely are succeeding in arranging it. A few minutes later I join the conversation, and I type, 'SexED4U is available to answer your questions regarding HIV and STDs. [Instant message] me.' SexED4U was both my AOL screen name that morning and the name of a new HIV and sexually transmitted disease prevention program conducted by Ferndale, Mich.'based Midwest AIDS Prevention Project. The program provides HIV and STD information and resources to a growing at-risk population: gay men who use the Internet to arrange anonymous sexual encounters. The task of finding anonymous sex partners has become quick and easy in the cyber age. It's no longer necessary to go to a bar, bathhouse, bookstore, or other cruising area to meet gay or bisexual men interested in a quick encounter. With just a few keystrokes from the comfort of your own home you can be online and in your favorite chat room searching for sex. But with easily arranged anonymous sex has come a set of serious health consequences. Health departments in major U.S. cities have traced clusters of STD outbreaks to meetings arranged between gay men on the Internet. With higher STD rates come worries that safer sex practices are being abandoned, opening the door for HIV transmissions and rising HIV infection rates. Given the large number of online gay chats available to U.S. Internet users alone, it's becoming more and more apparent that there is a need for Internet prevention outreach messages targeted toward these at-risk gay and bisexual men. MAPP's program hopes to accomplish just that. SexED4U allows trained MAPP HIV counselors to provide a variety of online services, including sharing local resources, articles of interest, the location of HIV and STD testing sites, and information about HIV and STD prevention, in the very settings where these men are arranging sexual encounters. After 15 minutes in the chat room, I received my first question: 'Can you get HIV through oral sex?' I quickly responded with basic risk-reduction information and provided the 'buffet' of sexual options that carry a lower transmission risk. 'Check out this Web site,' I wrote. 'It provides a great article on HIV and oral sex, and I think it would help with your question.' The person thanked me, and I finished our conversation by sending him a list of HIV antibody testing sites in his area. Since the December 2002 inception of our program, our strategy to conduct online interventions has been very successful. We always allow Internet users to make the first step by asking questions'we never force information on them. By keeping a personable attitude and sometimes just chatting about a variety of other subjects, not all necessarily pertaining to risk prevention, SexED4U has established a working rapport with many online visitors. That rapport has made us welcome in a realm many would have thought hostile for HIV prevention outreach. And being welcomed has allowed SexED4U to help reduce risky sexual encounters one online visitor at a time. Odom is the SexED4U project director at the Midwest AIDS Prevention Project located in Ferndale, Mich.