I’ve been banging on for a while about the way hackneyed story angles and news ‘hooks’ lead to lousy media coverage of emerging issues in HIV prevention. In this post I want to acknowledge some of the really good writing that has happened in the past few months, all of it in the gay community press.
Three recent pieces
The taboo of barebacking by Rachel Cook
HIV/AIDS has catapulted gay male culture through so many extremes in just a few decades that it is understandable there are those who find the idea that condomless sex could now be permissible confronting. Especially, for some men who for the majority of their sexual lives have been told the only way to protect against HIV transmission is via the use of condoms. Remembering also it was not that long ago that this community was not just decimated by the virus but brutally punished by broader society as well. For a significant proportion of our community, that’s a lot to wade through. So are gay men ready to accept that condomless sex is a relatively safe option in the right context?
This piece raises issues that get excluded by overly emotional, sentimental, or moralistic responses to barebacking, and in so doing it enlarges the debate without taking a position on it. The author, MCV editor Rachel Cook, interviewed exactly the right people for the piece — Kane Race, Nic Holas and Brent Allan — to give a grounded and nuanced picture of the issue.
The new gay sex by Benjamin Riley
In a challenging and controversial essay on PrEP for New York magazine, writer Tim Murphy documented a community divided. On one hand, men who see this as a chance to, for the first time in their lives, have “sex without fear”. On the other, men for whom PrEP connotes new fears — a rise in condomless sex leading to a rise in other STIs, negative perceptions from the straight community, slavery to the pharmaceutical industry, even disrespect for a generation of the dead. While the reality is of course more complex, the extreme views of those living on the poles of the debate have shaped the conversation.
This article is SO GREAT. I think it highlights the positives in the Star Observer’s shift to a monthly format — it loosens the expectation that a weekly rag will feature short articles with a news hook, which is all too often ‘experts and community members disagree over x’. The feature length format allows Riley to acknowledge the different views on either side of the pro/anti PrEP debate, while walking readers up to the idea that the reality of PrEP is less black and white. Riley won the 2014 Media Award at the Victorian AIDS Council AGM and it was really well deserved.
Twenty-five / sixty by Benjamin Riley
Dennis [Altman, interviewed for the piece] argues young gay men today are engaging with the past because they represent a “third generation” — the first gay men with the space to look back. After the activists of the 70s, an entire generation came out during the worst of the AIDS crisis in the 80s and early 90s, defining the way they see themselves.
He adds that for the first time we are seeing a cohort of young gay men who escaped much of the damage of those previous generations, and it could serve as a painful reminder of that damage.
“If we keep saying that social stigma and discrimination causes people to be damaged… then at some point we have to accept that the people who are telling everybody else that they’re damaged may also be damaged themselves,” he says.
“We have to be willing to think, well okay, how’s this affected me, and how much of this am I carrying around?”
This piece could have been such a train wreck, simply repeating tired old generational stereotypes, but as this quote illustrates, Riley got his interviewees to reflect on their own perspectives on the AIDS crisis and our contemporary post-AIDS reality. To find Dennis Altman being critical is no great surprise, but here he is speaking with compassionate insight about his peers, and instead of calling younger gay men ignorant, he acknowledges they have a historical opportunity to look back… just brilliant.
All three of these pieces come from the gay community media. It is harder to find articles worth celebrating in the mainstream media. You might think ‘well we’d hope the gay press would do better’, but, to be honest, the past decade of gay community press coverage of HIV prevention didn’t give much cause for that hope.
In my time working in community prevention, we’d get six hundred words for a launch article we wrote ourselves in exchange for placing an ad buy with a gay rag, and if we were lucky, the editor — invariably a gay man — wouldn’t come out with an editorial excoriating our campaign for acknowledging that unprotected sex happens.
So what’s changed? Well, Rachel Cook is now the editor of MCV. In that last decade, it felt to me like lesbian journalists consistently did a better job than gay men at covering what was new in HIV prevention, perhaps because they weren’t personally bound by a culture of cognitive dissonance around sex without condoms.
Second, I’m terrible at guessing ages but I suspect Benjamin Riley is a member of what Altman calls that ‘third generation’ with the space to look back on HIV without the traumatic intrusion of experiences of friends and loved ones dying — the source of the emotional investment that made the bareback backlash so powerful and dangerous.
In my next post I want to reflect on a story I participated in, albeit peripherally, as guest tweeter for a Background Briefing episode on, wait for it, ‘the controversy between medical experts and the gay community around PrEP’. In the meantime, please feel free to share your thoughts and responses in the comments below, I’d love to hear from you.