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Putting the sexy into safe sex is key to tackling HIV

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 27 Jul 2012 16:49 GMT
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By Lisa Anderson

WASHINGTON (TrustLaw) - If practising safe sex could be made sexier, would more people do it? 

Would public health campaigns be more effective if they put less emphasis on risk and disease-avoidance and more on a pleasure-focused approach to safer sex and HIV prevention?

Absolutely, according to Anne Philpott, a public health specialist and founder of The Pleasure Project, a UK-based educational, advocacy and research initiative into making safer sex more pleasurable.

“Nineteen studies show that eroticising safer sex increases safer sex behavior,” said Philpott.

She spoke at a lively session called “Everything you have ever wanted to know about pleasurable safer sex, but were too afraid to ask,” at the 19th International AIDS Conference, which wrapped up here on Friday.

“At this conference, like many AIDS conferences, there are very few mentions of sex,” Philpott said, noting sex is the main means of transmission of HIV. “This is rarely spoken about, almost as if it’s an air-borne disease.”

Philpott’s frustration with this led her to establish The Pleasure Project in 2004.

Although research into the impact of more pleasurable safer sex on public health is still relatively limited, there is growing recognition among experts that it is an overlooked weapon in the battle against HIV.

“Pleasure is arguably, if not definitively, the single most powerful motivating factor for sexual behavior,” according to a 2008 report by the World Association for Sexual Health.  “Since HIV is spread mainly through sexual transmission, efforts to prevent HIV need to consider the role that sexual pleasure and desire play in sexual behaviour,” it said.

The Pleasure Project puts one emphasis on making use of condoms - both male and female - as sex toys and incorporating them into foreplay to enhance sexual pleasure.

This approach could be particularly useful for women, who are at high risk of HIV infection but may have trouble negotiating for safer sex or convincing male partners to use a condom.

According to statistics in the latest report by the United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), women have a lot at stake. Of the 2.5 million new HIV infections in 2011, 1.2 million were among women and girls. Women between the ages of 15 and 24 are twice as likely to be infected with HIV as men in the same age group. HIV is the leading killer among women of reproductive age.

Depending on the cultural setting, men may resist condom use for a number of reasons; often chief among them is fear of a reduction in pleasure. However, research cited by The Pleasure Project shows that “behind the explanation that ‘condoms reduce pleasure,’ is fear of incompetence and lack of skill when using condoms.”

Comprehensive sex education, where it exists, does not typically address issues like these, Philpott said.

Marketing campaigns to make condoms more attractive and sexy are also a challenge, according to Chris Purdy, vice president of DKT International, a social marketing non-profit devoted to family planning and HIV prevention.

“We seem to forget romance. If we don’t include matters of the body, the heart and the soul, I think we’re really missing the picture,” said Purdy, whose firm last year sold 650 million of its Prudence-brand condoms globally.

DKT’s advertising approach, he said, is to transform condom use from something viewed simply as a safety measure to something fun.

For example, one DKT TV advertisement for a Prudence condom covered with raised dots showed an animated couple on a motorbike traveling on a road so bumpy that the constant motion begins to arouse them.

Another shows a woman clearly getting dressed for an evening out. Just as she’s about to leave the house, she turns back, opens a drawer full of brightly colored condom packages, selects one and tosses it into her handbag.

Speaking about the scarcity of ads that put women in control of condom choice, DKT’s Brazil country director Daniel Marun said: “I think it was the first one to put the decision into the hands of a woman.”

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