Moving beyond safe sex

In addition to developing workshops and group programs, the Health Promotion Program began exploring other novel ways of communicating the safe sex message and creating dialogue. In addition to using print-based materials, the program continued to build on initiatives using radio and television, as well as utilising new technologies. It was seen as particularly important to develop the VAC/GMHC’s online presence, with the rise of the internet and the gay community’s increasing use of online chat rooms and dating websites to meet people. The organisation’s use of new technology and social media has progressed rapidly over the last decade, from using Facebook and Twitter to connect with the gay and wider communities and participate directly in dialogue with them, to the production of the online drama ‘Being Brendo’.20

The Staying Negative campaign was launched as a website in 2004 and began as a way to bring gay men together to share their stories of how they stayed HIV negative, including strategies for managing relationships and the challenges involved. The campaign began with six gay men sharing their personal stories and sexual histories, with advertisements in the media and on gay community websites directing people to the Staying Negative website where the full profiles could be read. Although Manager of Health Promotion Colin Batrouney recalls that the campaign did originally cause some controversy among HIV positive men who felt that it was ‘smug’ and demeaning to those who had not remained negative, over the years positive men began sharing their own stories of how they became positive. The campaign has since expanded well beyond stories about safe sex to address a wide range of topics, from the contributors’ family backgrounds, relationships and how they first came out, to drug and alcohol abuse and depression. This has transformed the campaign ‘into this incredible kind of fabric of the lives of gay men’. For Batrouney, Staying Negative has been particularly successful because rather than being ‘disease focused’, sharing a broad variety of stories and experiences is an interesting and positive way of engaging people in issues facing the gay and HIV positive communities.21 This reflects the general approach of the Health Promotion Program, concentrating not only on HIV and how to prevent its transmission, but on

… the social prism of how lives are lived, paying particular attention to where sex and sexual practices sit in relation to those lives, taking into account the broader shifts and changes in both gay communities and the broader community at large.22

By focusing on the bigger picture in this way, the program ensures that its work is reflective of the lived experiences of the members of the communities that it works with, keeping its campaigns relevant and effective.

After featuring in the Staying Negative campaign, peer education facilitator Frank Bonnici, who first came into contact with the VAC/GMHC through the Young & Gay program, became the face of a new campaign called Drama Downunder in 2006. Building on the Check It Out campaign released during the 2004 Midsumma Festival, Drama Downunder encouraged homosexually active men to take control of their own health and to be more aware of sexually transmissible infections (STIs) and have regular sexual health checks.23 Batrouney recalls that in developing Drama Downunder, the health promotion team was looking for a new angle and had been feeling that ‘for too long … the whole issue of sexual health for gay men had been too earnest’.24 The safe sex message had also been pushed for so long that President Kevin Guiney questioned in 2006, ‘How do we re-engage with gay men who are suffering from ‘safe sex fatigue’?’25 The more light-hearted and humorous approach of Drama Downunder was a huge success. With improved funding for prevention activities, this campaign was for the first time displayed in mainstream public spaces, including billboards at train stations and tram and bus stops.26 It was implemented nationally in response to requests from other state and territory AIDS councils, and is now the VAC/GMHC’s longest running and most successful social marketing campaign on sexual health.

In contrast to the wide reach of Drama Downunder, another campaign launched in 2008 was highly targeted. Protection encouraged condom use by men engaging in casual sex with other men. ‘To achieve this aim,’ Colin Batrouney reported, ‘we decided to work within the realm of fantasy and desire’. The involvement of an American producer of safe sex gay pornography, complete with gay pornography star Francesco D’Macho to launch the campaign in Australia, made for a radically different campaign. Although the use of graphic sexual imagery did cause some controversy, Protection achieved international recognition and was cited by many at the 2008 International AIDS Conference in Mexico as ‘one of the most daring and innovative prevention campaigns produced anywhere in the world’.27

Protection poster 1.pdfProtection poster 2.pdf

The Protection campaign used explicit images to encourage safe sex. It caused some controversy but achieved international recognition as one of the most daring and innovative prevention campaigns produced anywhere in the world.


Being Brendo

‘Being Brendo’ is a Melbourne-based online soap opera that follows the lives of gay men living in a share house and navigating dating, relationships and homophobia.


Staying Negative_seth.pdfStaying Negative_lawrence.pdf

The website Staying Negative uses stories told by real people to promote sexual and broader health issues, and encourage gay men to share their experiences of coming out, relationships, safe sex issues and more.

Drama_Downunder_budgies.Drama Downunder_Crystal Ball

Drama Downunder_trapeeze

Drama Downunder_post it note

Drama Downunder, produced by the VAC/GMHC for the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations (AFAO), uses humour to send a message about sexual health testing. Displayed in mainstream public spaces, it is now the organisation’s longest running and most successful social marketing campaign on sexual health.

Protection launch 2.pdf

Italian gay pornography star Francesco D’Macho was enlisted to launch the Protection campaign in 2008.

Protection launch 1

Francesco D’Macho with Frank Bonnici, the face of Drama Downunder, at the launch of the Protection campaign.