The AIDS Council of NSW has withdrawn a controversial series of advertisements and posters which were to have formed a part of their summer safe-sex campaign.

According to ACON president Adrian Lovney, the material has been withdrawn after ACON received feedback that the message was potentially unclear following the publication of the first advertisement in last week’s Star.

This is really difficult work, Lovney told the Star, it’s groundbreaking work, no one else is doing it, and sometimes that means you have to put a stake in the ground and make a best guess, on the basis of evidence and focus testing, about how you think this needs to work. If people then tell us we could do better, then there is an obligation on us to think, well, maybe we can do that better.

Headed Top or bottom? Bottom or top?, the withdrawn advertisement included two statements. The first statement read: 1 in 5 gay men who recently got HIV were tops when they fucked without condoms. A second statement read: When fucking without condoms, some HIV positive gay men reduce their partner’s risk by only bottoming. The ad ended with the question, What choices do you make to reduce the risk?

This campaign is actually about speaking to gay men who are not using condoms for whatever reasons. One of the things [the ad] was trying to do, Lovney explained, is to invite people to think through the discrepancy between their position and the decisions they make about condom use and [the decisions made by] somebody on the other side of the sero-chasm.

It’s inviting people to think about both statements and think about the conflict between them. It’s possible and people have told us and we accept -¦ that running those two [statements] side by side is possibly a bit complex for that medium and we need to find out a better way of doing that or make the wording a bit clearer.

Lovney said a new series of modified ads and posters to replace the withdrawn material would be developed and released within a month.

In spite of the controversy, the campaign has been commended as a brave and innovative attempt to communicate a very difficult message by a senior HIV researcher. Michael Hurley from the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society told the Star that he hoped the controversy over the ads would open up an important debate in the Sydney gay community.

ACON is to be congratulated for its courage in facing head-on the challenge of increasingly diverse safe-sex practices amongst gay men, Hurley told the Star. No amount of finger-pointing moralism helps.

The fact is that many gay men sometimes practise un-protected anal sex with casual partners. We know about condoms but we don’t always know about degrees of risk when we don’t use them -¦ ACON is facing this challenge with an honest respect for gay men’s choices and needs to be supported in exploring real sex education.

Lovney emphasised that the pulled ad and poster were only one aspect of a complex campaign.

Other colourful posters and ads, with a clever safe-sex take on a summer beach scene, promote the core campaign message of condom use with the simple slogan Get it on. The circular condom/sun graphic which forms the key image of the campaign will be further emphasised with the introduction of special campaign frisbees at Mardi Gras Fair Day.

We hope the frisbees handed out by Safe Sex Sluts on Fair Day will help get the message across in a more engaging and fun way, Lovney said.

Other traditional campaign materials, all sporting the colourful campaign graphics, include cruise cards and safe-sex packs of condoms and lube and will be distributed at key party events throughout the Mardi Gras season.

The campaign is based on research from the National Centre in HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research which analysed the beliefs and behaviours of a group of gay men who had recently tested positive to HIV. Some surprising statistics emerged from the study, which clearly showed the need for an education campaign about gay men’s risk choices.

The study reported on the sexual behaviours of participants and on the beliefs they had formed about the sexual partner from whom they believed they had contracted HIV. Almost half the people interviewed simply believed they would not get HIV. The largest portion of this group got HIV from insertive anal sex and didn’t think this was unsafe, or risked it in the belief that they would get away with it. Some, however, harboured a personal belief that they would never get HIV.

One quarter of the people interviewed thought that their partner looked too healthy to have HIV. Nearly one in five believed that their sexual partner was HIV-negative and a startling 70 percent of the people interviewed had had sex without a condom with the same partner before. Most disturbingly a third of the interviewees had been told by their partner that he believed himself to be HIV-negative. Whilst a small proportion of these partners were deliberately lying, most were merely acting on a mistaken assumption about their own serostatus.

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