The Gay/Bi/Trans HIV Prevention Working Group, a project of the DC Center, was formed last year in response to the alarming rise in new incidences of HIV and other STDs among men who have sex with men within the District and beyond.
The Working Group identifies gaps in the local HIV/STD prevention landscape, supports existing public health efforts, and initiates new prevention projects where there is a demonstrated absence and need.
Ultimately, the group aims to develop a coordinated strategy among the District's many and varied organizations doing prevention work for men who have sex with men (MSM). It also serves as a singular voice to the government agencies that determine which prevention programs are funded and how the public health needs of MSM will be met. More after the jump...
The safer sex kits come in two varieties: the TOOLK!T and the FUK!T (differing only in name). Each contains two latex condoms, a lube sachet, and provides an excellent opportunity for safer sex messaging and targeted health alerts for the local MSM community - such as what symptoms to look for in diagnosing a potential syphilis infection, where to access post-exposure prophylaxis in case the condom breaks, where to get an HIV test, or how one can volunteer to become involved in a local HIV/AIDS research study focusing on gay men.
Since the early 1980s, gay men have been encouraged to use condoms as one of the most effective ways to protect themselves from contracting HIV. Despite risk-reduction education campaigns directed at MSM in the wake of the HIV/AIDS crisis, the evidence indicates that there remains a deficit in condom-use skills among this high-risk population. Because most condom failures are attributed to errors in use, increasing knowledge and skills of their use presents an important opportunity to reinvigorate the practice of this prevention tactic and once again improve condom efficacy among a new generation of gay men.
On May 29 and 30th, the FUK!T/TOOLK!T campaign officially launched in the District, at Town Danceboutique, a gay club that is visted by thousands of patrons each weekend. Since the campaign is finally making condoms and lube more readily available, we felt the time was ripe to start educating the community again about the "do's" and "dont's" of condom use - especially when it comes to gay sex.
The event happened just in time, as the HIV Working Group is now planning a massive, blitz distribution of more than 20,000 FUK!Ts and TOOLK!Ts during DC's Capital PRIDE week (June 6-14th) to raise awareness for the campaign. Numerous organizations will be distributing the kits along the parade route and at booths during the street festival.
We decided that a two-pronged approach was necessary to effectively market the safer-sex kits to vastly different audiences. Understanding that in order to catch people's attention, a more edgy and sexy tactic was needed than the traditional, government-funded campaigns, the "FUK!T" moniker and concept was developed for adult venues after a series of informal focus groups considered variations on this theme.
However, considering that this explicit logo wouldn't work in restaurants and other establishments frequented by the general public, the group also devised the "TOOLK!T" logo as a more palatable alternative.
The two logos are branded in a parallel (Coke/Diet Coke-type) fashion so that the public views them as synonymous campaigns, while still remaining venue-appropriate. Sister websites accompany each version of the kits, providing sexy and, at times, explicit imagery, that is complemented with extensive, evidence-based information on sexual health and sexually transmitted diseases. The explicit nature of the websites is meant to eroticize safer sex and condom use again through a frank, no-holds-barred fashion; an approach that we hope resonates better with our target audience than more traditional campaigns.
The FUK!T/TOOLK!T campaign is an improvement over the one-off condom distribution efforts of the past for several reasons:
The kits facilitate co-distribution of condoms and water-based lubricant; rather than just distributing condoms alone. Studies show that rates of condom failure - slippage and breakage during anal sex - are due to using them with oil-based lube (which chemically weakens the integrity of latex) or even worse, using no lubrication at all.
The kits are located in wall-mounted dispensers by exits and in discrete locations in social establishments where gay men meet, often with the intention of eventually hooking up. Thus, the condoms and lube are strategically placed at the final point of potential public health intervention before men engage in sexual activity, significantly reducing the likelihood that they will find themselves without access to protection in their moment of need.
Rather than forcing patrons to engage in an often awkward conversation about safer sex in front of their peers (a practice that also annoys business owners) and shoving fistfuls of condoms into their hands, this approach empowers individuals to make the decision to use the condoms themselves, at their convenience - a far more effective way to elicit real behavior change.
Most importantly, through a network of regularly stocked dispensers, an infrastructure is developed in which gay men know at all times where they can count on finding condoms and lube freely accessible. They can even locate the nearest FUK!T/TOOLK!T dispenser through the website: http://www.fc-kits.org/findfuktcondomkits.html
Although the DC Department of Health provides up to 3 million condoms and packets of lube for free each year (all you have to do is ask and they'll ship 'em to you) and actively seeks out venues through which to spread them to the masses, there is still no real mechanism in place for establishments to easily distribute the dump-truck loads of condoms offered to them.
As a result, businesses are burdened with having to find creative ways to 'get rid of' these condoms and lube, often at their own expense. This scenario usually means that the best venues to distribute the condoms will likely refuse to participate or will stockpile them away to collect dust and eventually expire. And if they do decide to actively participate, it will likely be for a limited period of time or for a one-off promotional event.
The FUK!T/TOOLK!T campaign addresses this problem by facilitating the distribution process from start to finish on behalf of the businesses. We freely provide customized dispensers to fit the aesthetic of the establishment (color, size, quantity, location, and design), procure the condoms and lube from the Department of Health, assemble the safer sex kits, and stock and maintain the dispensers at the venues on a continual basis.
Based on a safer sex kit distribution scheme from Manchester, England that has been touted as one of the most successful British prevention projects to date; the Working Group is hoping to do something similar with the FUK!T/TOOLK!T campaign, but in a way that is specific to DC's modern HIV/STD epidemic.
Condom dispensers are pretty ubiquitous in bars throughout Europe and the UK, but sadly not in the US, which may help to explain why we have higher STD rates than these similar cultures.
While living in Manchester in 2005, I was amazed how in the same moment gay men would ask bartenders for both a drink and a safer sex kit, which were often mounted on displays behind the bar-tops. If only, I thought, DC's gay culture could somehow do the same to reduce stigma around condom use by making them as equally easy to access, perhaps we could make some headway against our skyrocketing rates of HIV and other STDs.
Realizing that in order for such a campaign to be a success in our community we would first need to secure buy-in from local establishments. Dr. Terry Gerace (a medical doctor, who developed the FUK!T/TOOLK!T websites and has funded and directed much of the campaign so far) and I began to set up meetings with local business owners, armed with the most recent HIV/AIDS surveillance reports from the CDC and DC Department of Health, as well as a tape measure to determine the exact dimensions of the dispensers business owners might want... if we were lucky.
Although we impressed upon them both the severity of the local HIV epidemic among MSM and the important role they could play in stemming its further spread, surprisingly we received push-back from several prominent gay establishments saying that condoms or safer sex kits in their businesses "weren't a good fit" or were "too political."
Personally, I feel it's a matter of social responsibility that business owners help those young gay patrons who may leave their establishments even slightly intoxicated and more prone to engage in risky sexual activity, especially in the context of DC's severe, modern HIV epidemic.
Since it's a community-wide problem, the TOOLK!T/FUK!T campaign seeks a community-wide solution that will require sustained engagement from our network of partners to effect real, lasting behavior change that will ultimately improve the health of our community. Unfortunately, not everyone appears convinced of the campaign's value.
Sadly, this puritanical view of condom use, buttressed by the misinformed notion (a la Pope Pope Benedict XVI) that condom distribution will only worsen the HIV/AIDS crisis by encouraging people to have more sex, remains a prevailing theme in cultures throughout the world, to the consternation of many public health officials.
Despite overwhelming evidence that abstinence-only and ABC-programs actually put people at greater risk for transmission of HIV and other STDs and unwanted pregnancy, both the Catholic Church and the American Religious Right refuse to listen to the science. But this should be of no surprise, as both groups have a long history of total and utter disregard for scientific evidence when taking a stance on some of the most contentious issues of our time - from evolutionary theory to embryonic stem cell research.
Yet despite these early challenges from within our own community and anticipated opposition to the campaign in the future from outside groups, the FUK!Ts and TOOLK!Ts have already been very well received by local gay men and many local businesses that have agreed to mount dispensers in their establishments in time for Capital PRIDE - and the requests for dispensers keep rolling in!
More than anything, the campaign seems to resonate with gay men, who really seem to respond to this innovative, refreshing message of making condom use fun and sexy again.
Paradoxically, provocative and innovative campaigns, that break the traditional tired models of the past, often fizzle and die before they are able to have sustained traction or demonstrate their effectiveness because government funding won't step in to keep such controversial efforts afloat. The FUK!T/TOOLK!T campaign will soon meet a similar fate unless our community recognizes its importance and is willing to help keep it afloat until alternative, long-term funding sources are secured. As such, I'd encourage you to please consider donating to this important campaign.
The FUK!T/TOOLK!T campaign is funded in part by support from The DC Center, a tax deductible non-profit. As such, donations to the DC Center are fully tax deductible. To donate to the FUK!T/TOOLK!T Campaign through the DC Center, access the link below to be taken to the DC Center's Secure PayPal Page. In the "Purpose" field, please type "FUK!T" or "TOOLK!T," so the funds will go to support this campaign.
If you are interested in participating in the ongoing efforts of this exciting new campaign, the HIV Prevention Working Group is always seeking new members and perspectives to advance progress in the fight against HIV. Additionally, volunteers meet every one-to-two months to assemble the FUK!Ts and TOOLK!Ts by hand. Until we can contract this labor-intensive step to an outside organization, we need all the help we can get. You are welcome join us!