Whose Penis Is This, Anyway?

No lube for you: Many believe that new federal guidelines will hinder HIV-prevention campaigns

Last October, Minnesota AIDS Project submitted a brochure for approval to the Minnesota Department of Health aimed at preventing the spread of HIV. The pamphlet featured four photographs of a man demonstrating how to don a condom. Minnesota AIDS Project (MAP) intended to distribute the provocative literature at gay bars and other locales as part of its "safer sex kit."

But shortly after the brochure was delivered to the health department, MAP received a strange request. The state agency asked the organization to provide a "model release"--basically a signed waiver--from the man whose penis was featured rather graphically in the brochure. One problem: the organization had no idea whose penis was featured on the literature. The image had been pulled from a website.

Since there was no way to obtain a release form, the AIDS organization was forced to hire a model and recreate the images to use on the pamphlet. "What should've been a no-brainer became a three-month process," recalls Bob Tracy, MAP's director of development. "That is the way bureaucracies are able to shut you down without coming right out and saying, You can't do this."

MAP and other AIDS organizations fear that they will soon run into more such hurdles in attempting to do effective prevention work, especially among gay men. In June, the Centers for Disease Control issued new proposed guidelines for prevention materials that have raised serious concerns among AIDS service organizations. If implemented, all federally funded prevention materials, including web content, would have to be green-lighted by a local or state health agency. The purpose of the new requirement is supposedly to ensure that the materials are scientifically accurate and not obscene. In the past, nonprofit groups have had the option of creating their own panel to review literature. Many AIDS officials fear that the change will lead to censorship, bureaucratic meddling, and, ultimately, less effective efforts to prevent the spread of HIV.

This is not the only troubling provision in the proposed regulations. In addition, all federally funded prevention materials would be required to include information warning people that condoms are not 100 percent fail-safe. AIDS organizations fear that this will have the practical impact of discouraging people from using condoms. "Condoms are an effective way to stop transmission of HIV," says Tracy. "To say otherwise is inaccurate."

A 60-day public comment period on the proposed changes ended in August. The CDC is expected to announce the final regulations by mid-December.

The changes are part of a larger, nationwide trend of attacks on organizations that run prevention efforts aimed at gay men. The most notorious recent example is that of the STOP AIDS Project, a San Francisco nonprofit group that has long been a pioneer in developing effective, often provocative, safe-sex programs. Starting in 2001, the organization was beset by a string of federal audits questioning its financial integrity and programmatic effectiveness. More tellingly, the group was criticized for supposedly promoting sexual activity. Even though the feds found no significant shortcomings, in July STOP AIDS Project was denied federal prevention funding.

Jason Riggs, communications director for STOP AIDS Project, believes that the elimination of funding was simply a backhanded way to punish the organization even though the government couldn't find any wrongdoing by the group. "You can't prove it, but it feels like it," he says.

The government harassment of STOP AIDS Project has had a ripple effect across the country, causing AIDS organizations to think twice before utilizing sexually explicit prevention materials. Tracy fears that the end result will be a gutting of effective safe-sex programs for gay men.

"If we keep going down this road I can guarantee that in the next four years HIV intervention is going to be about reversion therapy," he says, referring to programs that attempt to convert gay people to heterosexuality. "We're going to be funding those programs as HIV prevention."

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