SAN FRANCISCO - Gay men have adopted a "don't ask, don't tell" policy when it comes to talking about HIV, which might be contributing to a rise in infection rates, a new study by the University of California at San Francisco has shown.
The just-released study also showed what experts already knew: Gay men don't find HIV as threatening as they once did, ads for AIDS drugs are seen as glamorizing life after infection, and there is increased acceptance of unprotected sex.
The study was conducted last summer with 55 gay and bisexual men from San Francisco, divided into six focus groups. Author Stephen Morin, director of UCSF AIDS Policy Research Center, said the study's purpose was twofold: to get gay men to explain the rise in infection rates and define prevention messages that might reduce risk among gay and bisexual men.
Recent Department of Health projections indicate a rising rate of new HIV infections, translating into about 750 new infections this year.
"The community norm has changed," Morin said. "Guys in the survey told us a friend may go on a date, or to a bathhouse, but the question 'Were you safe?' doesn't come up. That 'Friends don't let friends drive drunk' kind of social support that came out loud and clear - there's been a real deterioration in that. And it seems to be a major way people felt supported for staying negative."
Men in the focus groups recommended a new social marketing campaign with ads encouraging gay men to talk with their friends about HIV and dispel some of the myths.
Men in the survey also expressed concern that ads for AIDS medications glamorize life after infection and need to be counterbalanced with images of men suffering from drug side effects.
"We need to re-invigorate a community norm of taking care of oneself and making safer decisions," said Steven Tierney, director of HIV prevention for the San Francisco Department of Health. "The messages don't need to scare people as much as alert them to the reality that there are serious consequences to getting AIDS."