This post responds to Kane Race’s invitation to comment on PrEP as a provocative object. As this is a blog about prevention strategy, I want to look at the discursive context in which this object is being offered to gay men. PrEP has been posed as part of a biomedical revolution in HIV governance.
The revolution is offered as the solution to three failures:
- Of condoms to completely prevent HIV transmission;
- Of gay men to use condoms all the time as required by (1);
- Of social marketing and community education to achieve (2).
The revolution is being sold to political purchasers (who provide needed funding, policy support, regulatory sign-off) as the way to achieve ‘bold targets’ — in the United States, an ‘AIDS free generation’, in Australia, ‘Ending HIV by 2020’.
The logic is that policy countenancing anything less than 100% condom use is politically unpalatable, but desperate measures are needed: crisis framing and battleground metaphors, you know the drill.
But premising the revolution on the failure of education leaves it in an odd position when it comes time to sell it to the population, i.e. the assemblage of social networks and identities formerly known as the Gay Community.
I’m reminded of two earlier revolutions:
- Negotiated safety, or the ‘Talk Test Test Trust’ campaign, led by ACON in 1996. The first time the HIV sector admitted to the gay public that non-condom strategies could be effective as HIV prevention. It followed intense debate in the HIV community sector over whether this was a step that should be taken and how to codify the strategy in a clear and simple message to reduce the risk of failure (McNab, 2009). Unlike in America, where some HIV doctors to this day recommend monogamy in and of itself as a prevention strategy, the Australian pedagogy on negotiated safety acknowledges and responds to the diversity of relationship types, different extents of being ‘open’, uncertainty (‘are we going steady?’), and ‘infidelity’, by emphasising both relationship agreements and ongoing communication.
- PEP roll-out, when the availability of Post-Exposure Prophylaxis was first publicised to the gay community in Victoria in 2005. The State Government funded the Alfred Hospital to develop a service, which initially saw gay men going to the Infectious Diseases clinic during business hours or the Emergency Department after hours. The Alfred then contracted the Victorian AIDS Council to develop a social marketing campaign after the fact. This treats social marketing as a fancy name for ‘advertising’, rather than a consumer-centred analytical approach that can contribute insights at every stage from designing an accessible service to motivating people to use it (see Lefebvre, 2013).
Social research has subsequently shown much higher awareness and uptake of PEP in Sydney compared to Melbourne, with Sydney providers welcoming ‘frequent flyers’ (as one clinic director put it, ‘better for someone who struggles with condoms to remain HIV-negative’), while Melbourne providers were more likely to be judgmental (‘it’s not a morning-after pill’). In Melbourne, doctors at gay community clinics now provide access to PEP in partnership with the hospital-based service, saving a trip to the E.D. and providing far greater ‘cultural safety’ to people accessing it.
The takehome message? Engage with community educators and stakeholders from the very start.
That’s not happening with the ‘biomedical revolution’. Why would it? See failure (2): ‘education has failed’.
The biomedical revolution in Australia has more or less ignored PrEP — it’s still subject matter for policy analysts, the position you have when you’re not planning to do anything. It has focused instead on early detection and early treatment.
Analytically speaking I’m a functionalist: I don’t look at what organisations say, I look at what they do. That’s essential in this era of strategic communications. Take focus groups, the mandatory starting point for any new project or campaign. It says ‘community consultation’ on the tin, but open it up: you’ll find market research, undertaken in private, intended to extract information, not have two-way dialogue.
Or take campaign websites, like the one for Ending HIV: the label says ‘interactive’, but the functionality is restricted: click here, add your name to a pre-written message, sign up to receive messages. Visitors are offered a subject position that is wholly passive: trust us, we’re the experts. Sign here to indicate your consent.
I think gay men are smarter than that, and I’d expect them to remain more or less disengaged from ‘revolutions’ that started without them. On a hunch, I did a quick free-text search on Recon.com, one of the largest sites for men into kink and fetish.
As any user of personals sites knows, meeting other men is only part of their purpose; they are equally important as a safe space for fantasy and identity play. I searched for the term “prep”, as the search functionality isn’t case sensitive. I was curious to see whether HIV-negative men are responding to PrEP as a provocative object by taking it up in this form of play, or as part of their ‘bid’ to other men to meet for different kinds of play.
- Eighty-eight profiles had ‘prep’ across two separate searches on username or profile text (I didn’t de-dupe, as I’m not doing research and didn’t want to make a table cross-referencing usernames–too creepy).
- Six profiles were clearly talking about PrEP i.e. pre-exposure prophylaxis, some inviting people to ask them about it, one describing his reference as (paraphrase) an obligatory community service announcement.
- Seventeen used it to mean preparing or preparation, sometimes as part of the sexual fantasy encounter.
- Fifty-one profiles referred to prep as a look: a conservative, buttoned-down aesthetic derived from ‘prep school’ and sometimes contrasted with other aspects of identity such as kink or punk or ‘jock’ (athletic).
In this Not-Research exercise I’m more interested in the diversity of usages, but the numbers tell a story as well — we’ve a long way to go before there’s anything like ‘revolutionary’ visibility of PrEP in relevant spaces like this one.
The danger is not that lots of people hear about PrEP and want to give it a go; the danger is that they don’t — that we miss this opportunity to discuss as a community what it will mean to live with endemic HIV.
Instead, we have a revolution from the top down — from the privileged speaking positions of biomedical science and population health — rather than one in which community is involved from the very beginning.
It is framed as an epic battle — ‘bold targets’ and fuck yeah science! — instead of as a mundane and everyday matter of epidemic governance and community health.
And instead of accepting that all prevention strategies are partially effective — including condom use — those who become positive are seen as signs of failure.
This isn’t revolution. It’s the unsustainable same old.