Stigma, particularly when attached to HIV, can be one hell of a bitch to bear. But in the past decade, many dynamic organizations, sexual health campaigns, and HIV activists have set their sights on eradicating the shame and fear and ignorance that surrounds HIV in order to create a healthier and more conducive environment for people living with disease.
The contemporary viewpoint from most experts is that in order to reduce stigma, fear-based messages must be removed to make way for more cathartic conversations about the importance of testing and the benefits of condoms, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), and treatment as prevention (TasP). But just when it seems that we are getting somewhere, some tone-deaf message is blasted throughout the social media universe, causing folks to light their virtual pitchforks ablaze, while the slow and steady progress that so many have worked for goes right up in flames.
Enter Impulse Group South Florida, a chapter of the non-profit organization that is "made possible through the support and funding of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation." The group recently released a new graphic with the singular message “Precum of an HIV infected person can cause HIV transmission” along with the clever hash tag #exposethetruth.
This graphic sends two clear messages.
To an HIV-positive person, it says, “You are infected, and you are going to infect someone else.”
To an HIV-negative person, it says, “You should be afraid of sleeping with someone with HIV. They will try to infect you.”
And as for the hash tag #exposethetruth, what truth are you alluding to? Language matters, and to my knowledge, no one has ever tried to claim that HIV infection cannot occur from pre-ejaculatory fluids. There was an opportunity to emphasize the importance of how HIV transmission can occur, but it failed miserably. However, this sexy man on the cover with the deviant stare… He looks like he is hiding something dangerous. I wonder what it could be?
By the way, using the term “HIV-infected” is right up there with “full-blown AIDS.” [Editor's note: Read why here.]
It doesn’t matter how much the purpose behind the graphic is clarified or how hard Impulse Group tries to spin this in a positive way. The message relies on nothing but fear — and it is powerful and successful in doing so.
Few people who aren't heavily involved in HIV prevention will take the time to read this op-ed. No one who needs positive preventative messaging will take the time to read through the back-and-forth on Facebook about why this social media campaign is a failure . A young, at-risk gay or bi man or trans woman will see this image, and they will receive the message loud and clear. Damage done.
I, myself, am a fan of using sensational imagery to attract an audience. However, this can only be effective if there is proper information behind the salacious marketing of your message. It is fine to use sex to sell HIV-prevention, so long as what you are selling is factual, meaningful, and worth it. So my question to Impulse is this:
Where was the information about how 91 percent of new infections come from people who are either unaware of their HIV-positive status or have yet to start treatment? Where was the information about the science behind TasP and how an HIV-positive person with an undetectable viral load virtually eliminates their risk of transmission? I guess I am asking this: Where was anything that could be helpful to a person trying to stay negative without leading them to avoid a person “infected” with HIV at all costs?
This is not a tirade about how awful Impulse Group South Florida is. As someone who has been working in the field of HIV for several years, I am no stranger to sometimes getting my messaging wrong, even though my intention was right. But to the people behind this group please listen to your detractors, even if it stings. There is a reason why they are reacting negatively to your work, and it isn’t because they are all just “haters.” I have been a fan of Impulse’s work in the past, but this was not good.
And for goodness sake, hire a decent marketing writer.