Prevention campaigns missing the mark with young gay men

Last week the NCHSR e-Newsletter landed in my inbox with a lead story on the sexual health needs of young gay men in Australia.

Results revealed that while younger gay men reported similar rates of unprotected anal intercourse as older gay men, their HIV/STI knowledge was lower and almost three out of ten had never been tested for HIV/STIs. Poor knowledge and low testing rates among younger gay men seem to be related to lack of exposure to HIV campaigns reported by almost a quarter. (emphasis in original)

This issue may sound familiar to long-time readers.  I have argued that Victorian prevention strategy between 1999-2009 has focused on men aged 30-49 and neglected young gay men, whose life interests and experiences differ in important ways.

The NCHSR study looked at survey responses from 920 HIV-negative men, nearly all (95%) from New South Wales (where there has been significantly more campaign work targeting young men).  From their newsletter article:

Dr Philippe Adam, sociologist and prevention scientist at NCHSR, was asked for his thoughts on the implications of these finding for the development and range of sexual health programs in the future. “Recent sexual health promotion campaigns have certainly not deliberately excluded young gay men, but often they have not directly targeted them either. This may explain why a significant number of young men in the survey reported no exposure to sexual health campaigns.

Additionally, the style, iconography and topics in most recent campaigns were perhaps more in line with the sexual health needs of more mature, highly sexually active gay men who are often referred to as ‘sexually adventurous gay men’. The survey results indicate that focussing sexual health promotion efforts on these men alone is not sufficient.

Clearly a new generation of campaigns needs to be created to meet the sexual health needs of young gay men and to capture their attention in novel and imaginative ways. It is important that young gay men see themselves reflected in these campaigns if these campaigns are to have the desired impact on the knowledge, attitudes and behaviours of younger gay men”. (emphasis added)

For a prevention strategist it’s a tremendously useful piece of research.  For starters, it busts the reckless young gay barebacker myth, showing that young (16-26) and older (27+) gay men did not differ significantly on unprotected anal sex in relationships or casual encounters.

The results show that younger men had less testing and lower HIV/STI knowledge, and that lower knowledge was related to less exposure to campaigns promoting condom use or testing.  Almost a quarter (23.5%) of young men had not been exposed to HIV testing campaigns, compared to 15.1% of older gay men, and 28.3% of young gay men had never been tested for HIV/STI.

I agree with Philippe Adam’s remark that young people need to see themselves reflected in campaigns.  Societal attitudes towards homosexuality are changing incredibly fast, and research is required to identify what gay men coming out in their teens need from HIV prevention.  I’d sound a note of caution about ‘innovative methods’, though — using Twitter and Youtube won’t help if the message lacks relevance and cultural consonance.

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