Ignorance: lack of knowledge, information, or education.

‘Angry’ would describe my afternoon and evening yesterday. Read an article online stating that the THT boss believes there is not enough money to fund a high-profile HIV TV awareness campaign: I made the mistake of reading the comments. What got my back up more than anything is that the person could have made a valid point if they had taken time to actually evaluate what they were typing. They are right; there is an issue with regards to the spread of HIV that goes beyond awareness, but for them to suggest that awareness is no longer an issue proves how ignorant they really are.

To suggest that because HIV has been around in the public eye for thirty years means that everyone should know all and everything about it is pure stupidity. The nationwide campaigns stopped long ago in the early nineties and since then awareness programmes have been confined to ‘high-risk’ groups but it is wrong to suggest that just because you are gay, or black, or an intravenous drug user that you will automatically have been made aware of all the facts surrounding HIV transmission and how to stay safe. Not everyone in the UK, and even more-so in developing nations has access to education or understands how to protect themselves.

I’m lucky enough to have a reasonable level of intelligence that in spite of no sex and relationship education during my school years aimed at gay men and nothing about HIV at all with regards to its association with sex, I did have knowledge of how to stay safe and I admit I should have known better to have risked playing unsafe with someone I barely knew. Unfortunately we are only human, we’re animals that have instincts that take over and in the moment and make us behave irrationally. I also believe a large reason for HIV being common amongst gay men is the fact that self-esteem in gay men appears to fall short of what our straight counterparts carry around. Young, and even older, gay men often lack confidence to negotiate safe sex with their sexual partners, a lot of people deny that sleeping with many different partners is a sign of mental health issue but I believe there is a link and more research into this area needs to be done by psychologists.

So yes, awareness is not enough. I was aware and now for three years I have been living with HIV. So according to the woman who commented on the news story we should now stop raising awareness, and as she put it, stop giving money to charities to fund such projects. Did she stop and think that people have been born into the world since the 1980s? People, as I told her, lived through schooling whilst Section 28 was in force, where young gay men weren’t educated, weren’t protected about dangers of HIV and gay sex, nor are any pupils given education about the fun side of sex, it’s deemed inappropriate to discuss sex as anything other than procreation. Is it a wonder that some of these people grow up and don’t know where they fit into the larger society and start to experiment on their own and end up in trouble.

Without a large, nationwide full scale HIV campaign the problem is not going to get any better. Targeting the smaller high-risk groups does more harm than good in my opinion. People rebel against the notion they’re being ghettoised: grouping ‘gay’, ‘blacks’ or ‘junkies’ together and aiming campaigns at them builds stigma, it doesn’t get rid of it. I rarely feel marginalised by society; I feel it from the gay male community. Men who want to distance themselves from HIV and from AIDS because they don’t want to be associated with it, but they are because these campaigns focus on the group in such a narrow way. Instead of men listening they start to ignore the messages and then we have an even bigger problem. An idea starts to build, ‘just because I’m gay doesn’t mean I will become infected with HIV’. Maybe this is why unsafe, bareback, raw sex is now on the increase, there’s a rebellion against the message gay men see in safe sex campaigns and it even exists with men who already have a positive diagnosis. It’s a ‘don’t tell me what I can do’ scenario.

A campaign that targets everyone reduces the focus on a specific section of society and in turn should stop associated blame on that one group and hopefully encourage everyone to listen, rather than shun the message and promote the belief that ‘HIV isn’t something that will happen to someone like me’.

Millions of people are involved in sexual relationships, and millions of them are taking risks. Those who contract HIV are the unlucky ones. The same goes for those who are injecting drugs and sharing needles; some are unlucky and contract the virus. What is needed is more honesty in the HIV community. I speak to other HIV positive people and there is often agreement that its taboo to ask someone how they caught HIV and that it’s no one business. This is true but it is also fuelling ignorance. People with HIV need to speak out and tell their stories unashamedly and in my opinion this is how we need to raise awareness in future, not from a shock and awe TV advert.

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