Saying yes to safe sex

The first official meeting of what became the Education Program was held in January 1985. The aims of the group fell into three categories: preventative education for at risk groups, supportive education for those with HIV/AIDS, and education for the general public to reduce homophobia and AIDS hysteria.72 The program undertook projects such as the ‘You’ll Never Forget the Feeling’ safe sex campaign, and production of foreign language educational material. Throughout 1988 and 1989, the Education Program continued to focus on HIV prevention and promotion of safe sex. However, a conscious effort was made to move beyond simply providing information, to ‘motivating sexual behaviour change and addressing issues which affect people’s ability to sustain AIDS preventive behaviour’.73 While there were so many unknown factors about HIV and AIDS in the early days, creating ‘a thirst for information’, by the late 1980s the Education Program recognised that to influence people to make real and lasting changes in their sexual practices, overloading them with information was not the most effective strategy.74

Bruce Parnell recalls Delys Sargeant at the First National AIDS Conference in Melbourne in 1986 stating in reference to HIV/AIDS education, ‘If we bring people together, they will work it out for themselves’. Sargeant worked at the Social Biology Resources Centre at the University of Melbourne, which was involved in educating school teachers about how to provide sex education and help students deal with issues of gender and sexuality. For Parnell, Sargeant’s attitude aptly describes the approach that the VAC/GMHC adopted for its campaigns in the late 1980s: ‘do whatever we can to get gay men in groups talking about their lives, so that safe sex isn’t just this accident that happens when they go to a venue’, but a fundamental part of sexual behaviour.75

Richard Clayton was appointed Peer Education Officer in 1988 and shifted focus from mass media to more of an interactive approach to education through practical workshops and events.76 He designed a five-week course called ‘Gay Now!’ that covered issues to do with gay identity, relationships and sex. Volunteers were trained to facilitate their own ‘Gay Now!’ groups and many other, shorter, workshops were held on a range of issues, from erotic safe sex to self-esteem and skills development. The ‘Safe Summer’ campaigns of 1988 and 1989 included the production of a series of innovative videos promoting safe sex to be shown in gay men’s sex venues. The aim was to present educational material in a way that was eye-catching and fun, as well as informative. When a one-day workshop called ‘The Sex Event’ caused government representatives to question what exactly they were providing funding for, Bruce Parnell received a phone call from the Department of Health: ‘I had to carefully explain … “It’s health promotion, there’s nothing controversial, but we’ve got to make it enticing for people to come along”’.77 Printed materials were of course still produced and widely disseminated at community events such as the Midsumma Festival and at popular gay venues. The safe sex logo had a presence everywhere, from banners and posters to brochures and leaflets. Twenty thousand copies of the ‘Big Picture, Little Stories’ brochure were distributed in Melbourne, containing short anecdotes that came directly from discussions with gay men about their lives. The materials of the ‘Safe ‘89’ campaign proved so successful that they were adopted nationally and ‘snapped up’ by attendees of the International Conference on AIDS in Montreal.78 This focus on promoting a message of safe sex culminated in the release of the ‘When you say yes … say yes to safe sex’ campaign in 1990: one of the most controversial and successful campaigns in the VAC/GMHC’s 30 year history. It proved particularly effective at reaching young men, especially those who were struggling to come terms with their sexuality. Targeting people who were usually difficult to reach, such as ethnic minorities and people living regionally, soon became a major focus of the Education Program. Volunteers and staff had in fact realised much earlier that they were focusing heavily on the largest group at risk of HIV infection: the visible gay community. Forays had been made into targeting marginal groups, such as a working group to produce educational material for deaf gay men, and providing assistance to support groups that began forming in regional centres. However, due to limited resources, it had not been possible to further develop and extend these activities.79

Men who were not open about their homosexuality and were having sex with men furtively, often in public toilets known as ‘beats’, were another group that was difficult to target. The first safe sex sticker campaign for Melbourne’s beat locations was introduced in 1985, and in 1990 a beats outreach program was established. One major strategy that the Education Program adopted to reach these men was to travel around the well-known beat locations and hand out condoms and brochures giving information on safe sex and where to get further information and support.80

 

To When You Say Yes Vignette


References


Bill Hathaway, Steven King and Chris Gill

Bill Hathaway (left), the first HIV Education Officer, with Executive Assistant Steven King and Manager of PLWA Victoria Chris Gill in 1991.

Leigh Klooger

First peer education event

Demonstrating how to use a condom at the first peer education event in the late 1980s.

Safe summer sticker

The ‘Safe Summer’ campaigns of 1988 and 1989 included the production of a series of innovative videos promoting safe sex to be shown in gay men’s sex venues. The aim was to present educational material in a way that was eye-catching and fun, as well as informative.

Phil Carswell

International AIDS Conference Montreal

The materials of the ‘Safe ‘89’ campaign were ‘snapped up’ by attendees of the International Conference on AIDS in Montreal. At the conference in 1989: Community Welfare and Development Officer Bill O’Loughlin, John Cribbes from the Victorian Health Department and VAC founding President Phil Carswell.

Phil Carswell

PlaySafecampaign
Early beat campaign sticker

Innovative safe sex campaigns became a VAC/GMHC hallmark, such as the 1990 ‘Play Safe’ campaign and early beat stickers.

Phil Carswell