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Dr. Katherine Fordham

March 1998

Spring is coming and coming fast! Maybe now would be a good time to visit your doctor, if you haven't had a check-up for some time. I am sure he or she would like to see you, and make sure you're a healthy young man or woman. Why not surprise and concern your parents by saying "Mom, would you take me to see our family physician now!" Seriously, even healthy people should see their physician at least once a year and adolescents especially need to have regular visits to the doctor as they are going through a period of growth (the adolescents that is, not the doctors). While you're making appointments to see the physician, why not book one with the dentist as well. You should see your dentist about once a year, too (or with more frequency, if the dentist feels such is necessary). The old adage really is true: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so think about it, folks.

Last time in the column, I promised you (or at least hinted at the possibility; as the parent of two pre-teen boys I have learned not to use the word "promise" very liberally) that we would have some results from the infamous Oasis survey for you soon. Those results are being published in another section of Oasis, but I would like to talk about research making use of these results a little bit. Before I dive right into the details, let me explain how researchers use the type of information obtained by such surveys. Unlike the news media and commercial ventures where it may be enough to say "so many people took our survey and they report doing such-and-such", scientists must be extremely careful in how they analyze survey data and other quantitative information so that the data is truly representative of the portion of the population (demographic) that they are polling. This demographic is known to researchers as the "sample" because it is how many people out of a larger population who were sampled, or surveyed.

Often, a survey like the one Oasis co-sponsored last Fall cannot provide a great deal of useful information to a scientist who works on things like health and sex-related behavior, yet it can give them a good place to start, a place from where they can conduct more detailed research. Think of it like this: you need to explore the area around where you live, but you don't have a clue where to start so you climb up on top of a hill and look around, so you can get a better idea of the lay of the land. You don't know where everything is yet, but you have an overview and that is helpful when you start poking around for something more precise. That is much like what a survey can do for the researcher: it gives us a place to start in our investigations, a place where we can't see many details but we can see the overall situation.

One of the most interesting uses of a survey such as the kind Oasis conducted is that it can allow the researcher to determine the status of the overall population surveyed. This can be dangerous in some cases, because -- like I said in the paragraph above -- we can easily jump to conclusions that are not always one hundred percent accurate. Still, we can surmise a lot about the population we are interested in, which would be gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth in the case of the Oasis survey. What is more, survey information can be combined with more descriptive, more focused data to provide a detailed view of behavior associated with gay youth, or any other population demographic, for that matter.

From the Oasis survey, Michael Walker (Thorsvedtt) and I have started to work on several more directed studies regarding the behavior of gay youth in relation to certain risks, such as the risk of acquiring HIV via sexual contact and the risk of violence or demeaning comments from classmates and others in the school environment. I thought you guys might like to know a little more on these scientific studies so I am providing the abstracts for two of them right here. A scientific abstract is basically a synopsis of a scientific research project; a brief description of what the project is about and how it is performed. Abstracts are useful to researchers as they tell a little about a research project without having to review all known information about it, sort of the way a book review tells you something about a book that you might find interesting without reading the entire book. Abstracts can be either written before a project begins -- in the future tense -- to show what will be done, or they can be written following the completion of the project so that people can learn a little about what was done and how the results turned out. The following includes two abstracts for projects which we have just completed.

Sexual Behavior, Beliefs, and Attitudes as Expressed by Gay Adolescent Males on the Internet

Katherine A. Fordham and Michael C. Walker

Abstract:

Gay youth have historically been isolated within the larger society as American culture has long held homosexuality as a taboo. The emergence of the Internet and World-Wide-Web as platforms for recreational activities have facilitated a safe and haven-like environment for many gay-oriented youth as such individuals can communicate with peers of similar interests and experience on the Internet and can express their feelings and thoughts on matters related to their sexuality more freely than "real life" settings may allow.

In this paper, the perceptions of gay adolescent males on matters germane to sexual relations and sexual health were investigated via the Internet. 110 respondents were contacted by e-mail and were asked to complete a survey concerning sexual health perceptions. Out of those informants who completed and returned the survey, 58 agreed to participate in in-depth interviews designed to gather more qualitative information. The data collected from the survey and from the interviews was then meta-analyzed to examine the correlations between the overall perceptions of sexual behavior among the survey respondents and the more personal information reported via the interviews. The social and linguistic aspects of communications within a peer group via the Internet were also investigated in depth.

From this data, we were able to discern that certain beliefs about sexual behavior, AIDS, and sexual health were common to gay male adolescents who were Internet users. Furthermore, it became apparent that the Internet functions as a type of community for these youth and that information is rapidly dissimulated from one person to another, often giving rise to widely held beliefs and perceptions, many of which are not grounded in substantial fact. The information gathered through this study may be used to design better AIDS education efforts targeted towards young gay males.

Using the Internet as a platform for educating gay-oriented adolescents about HIV/AIDS and other sexual health concerns

Michael C. Walker and Katherine A. Fordham

Abstract:

The Internet has become a well-developed platform for various kinds of educational activities and proffers several advantages to traditional means of education. This paper examines the use of the Internet environment for the dissimulation of educational material specifically geared towards gay-oriented adolescents on sexual health and HIV/AIDS-related topics. Designed as a tutorial and based on the authors' experiences in using the Internet for such educational objectives, this paper explains the practical aspects of sexual health education and covers issues germane to pedagogy, content, Internet technology, Internet site design, and unique concerns specific to gay youth and their needs in sexual health education.

NOTE: The completed manuscript of the above abstract -- which has as of yet not been formally published in the scientific literature -- is available on the Internet at the following URL address:

http://www.geocities.com/Athens/1277/AIDS_and_GayYouth.html

I received two interesting questions this past month from readers, as well as a fair amount of commentary on my previous month's column. Thanks to all who wrote in; as you know if you have written to me, I always return e-mail and enjoy hearing from my readers. You need not include your full name when writing if you do not wish to do so, but please do include your age if writing with a sexual health question as it helps me to know how old you are in relation to some of the questions that I am asked.

Dear Mike and Dr. Kate:

I want to have a boyfriend but don't want to have sex with him yet because I think I am too young and I don't think I can find a boy who is my own age but can [find] one older I think but I don't know what I should do.

Isaac, age 14

Dear Isaac:

I admire your stance on sex; in most cases I certainly agree that having sex at fourteen is too young and it certainly is far too young if you don't want to be engaging in sexual activity at this stage in your life. Desiring someone with whom you may have a romantic relationship is another matter; you are at a point in your life when most adolescents whether gay or straight become interested in dating.

Finding someone to date around your own age may indeed be a little difficult; you didn't state where you live or any other information about your situation but there are obviously not that many openly gay adolescents your age in most communities and most schools. However, when you say that you might be able to find someone older to date, I wonder how much older you mean by that statement. If you mean sixteen instead of fourteen, that might be one thing, while if you're speaking of someone who is an adult please remember that is against the law to "date" someone who is over eighteen if you are yourself under that age (thus you are a minor). When I say "date", the law actually applies to sexual relations between and adult and a child, which defines a child or "minor" as a person under eighteen years of age and an "adult" as a person over that age. However, if you were to have a non-sexual relationship with someone over eighteen you would still be treading on thin ice, as would the person with whom you were having that relationship. For your own safety and any legal repercussions, I feel that it's best for you to date persons close to your own age, say probably between thirteen and sixteen.

Aside from the those general considerations, the person you decide to enter a relationship with should be someone you feel you can trust totally, someone you already know something about and have had ample time to develop a friendship with before moving on to a romantic relationship of some sort. Don't jump for the first person to whom you are attracted who is gay; be very selective about that person you pick as you boyfriend because at your age this decision can be a very serious one, especially when dealing with someone even a couple years older than yourself. You may not want a sexual relationship yet the person you are dating may have other ideas and may be able to be very persuasive if he is older than you; don't compromise your principles for someone's desires. Please feel free to write to me if you do become involved in a relationship and have any questions about how things are going for you.

Dear Kate and Mike:

Can eating something make cum taste a certain way? I've heard it can; is it true?

Jon

Dear Jon:

Yes, what a male eats can have an effect on the flavor of his semen. Strong-tasting foods such as onions and garlic are most likely to flavor semen, at least to the extent that the flavor is noticeable. I don't recommend ingesting or tasting another person's semen, however, despite the relatively low possibility for the transmission of HIV via an oral route; why take that chance?

Be sure to check out the survey data that Jeff Walsh has provided in this issue; I think you will find it interesting! See you next time!

Katherine (Kate) Fordham (M.D., M.P.H.) is a pediatrician based in San Jose, California, who specializes in the management of HIV and AIDS in children and adolescents. For the last four years --in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and later in San Jose-- her efforts have centered around AIDS education and prevention in gay adolescents. Her work in AIDS education won her the deWitt Award for Excellence in Medical Practice and Education in 1995. She has also received an honorary Doctorate of Arts and Sciences from Tokyo University (1994) for her work on AIDS as a global health problem.

She may be reached at: KFordham@hotmail.com


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