Where I come from, we had a name for those people: Nosy neighbors. Picture this -- you're in the Castro, it's midnight on a Saturday night, and you're halfway to all-liquored up. Suddenly, right in front of you is Stop AIDS Man. Stop AIDS Man is usually a 15 year-old with a clipboard and a red jacket.
"Do you have time to take a survey?" he says.
Well, usually they're right cute.
"Sure, I've got time," I say.
I'd just moved to the city and thought he was going to ask me for my zip code to register me for a free trip to Vegas. What followed was not a contest registry, however. That child proceeded to ask me filthy, intimate questions about my sex life.
Well, I'm half-drunk, so I'm able to overlook this community servant's invasive nature. I veer WAY off topic. I have nary a shred of that fabled Southern restraint, which managed to elude my family altogether. So I'm telling him all about my fetish for men who give piggy back rides, cigar sex, and how I might really like to explore human dog training with the right person.
Meanwhile, men are stopping on the sidewalk, just sort of milling around. I'm a cheap date, so the few beers in my blood have raised the volume of my voice and have pinched what little Southern accent I possess into an obnoxious drawl.
This poor little volunteer is writing down every word I say and flips the paper over several times to accommodate my answers. He keeps trying to bring me back to his questionnaire with questions like "How many partners have you had in the past three months?"
To which I respond "Sugar booger, I just moved to San Francisco, it's after midnight, and I'm all tore up. I can't count that high."
Stop AIDS Man, undaunted, thanks me and gives me a handful of condoms in garish neon colors. Eroticizing latex is enough work without having to come to terms with someone's fluorescent green penis.
Stop AIDS Man gathered his satin cape and flew away into the night.
I guess I was really loud, because I got three phone numbers following the interview. Thank you, Stop AIDS Man.
Looks like I'm not the only one getting dates from street surveys. The results of a similar survey conducted by the Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC) in cooperation with the New York City Health Department were recently released to coincide with New York's LGBT Pride festivities. GMHC's strategy is celebratory, and their press release (www.gmhc.org) leads with the statement that members of the queer community volunteered thousands of hours to make this survey happen. While it's heartening to see so many people willingly beating the pavement for the cause, there could be a conflict of interests here. Volunteerism is advocacy, while science, even social science, is objective. The message is "if queers want to be studied, we must do it ourselves."
One of the summary's surprises is that only 13% of the men reported being HIV-positive, which is far less than the commonly held belief that half of all bi/gay men in San Francisco and New York are positive.
The survey took a more nuanced approach to anal sex without condoms; unprotected anal intercourse describes condomless anal sex with a person whose serostatus is the same, while unsafe anal intercourse describes the same act with a partner whose serostatus is either unknown or different. In other words, members of a monogamous gay couple from Iowa are not considered "barebackers."
Some of the harm reduction strategies reported by bi/gay men include having unprotected sex only with partners with the same serostatus, having fewer unprotected partners, and considering the differing risk factors for tops and bottoms.
The nuance proved too much for the mainstream media to handle. The press release was followed with two very different takes on the story from the New York Times and the Associated Press.
Beneath a color picture from the gay pride parade, the New York Times ran a story on its front page with the headline "Study Says Gay Men Reducing Levels of Risky Sexual Behavior." The story contained lines like "young gay men are heeding messages about the need for precautions." The overwhelming message of the article and its timing was "Bravo, gay men! You're responsible after all!"
The Associated Press, however, led with "More than a third of homosexual men in New York City don't use condoms when they have sex, but most of those who have unprotected sex are trying to reduce the risks of HIV infection in other ways." Where the Times explained the nature and history of the survey, the first third of the AP article was obsessed with unprotected anal sex and the percentages of men who have it in varying configurations. The moral of the stories? Buttsex is far too creepy for Middle America, kids. Either ignore it altogether (the media approach of the 80s) or lead with it in a sensational way (the media approach of the 90s).
One of the lessons of the barebacking debates last year was that boiling things down to black and white is dangerously simplistic. When San Francisco's Stop AIDS Project released its survey results to the Centers for Disease Control, the media, both mainstream and queer, had a field day. A 5% increase in the reporting of unprotected anal sex over several years was met with screams of "Gay men are suicidal!"
The stories of gay male sex are always told by media DJs who spin a slight hit record forward and backward. Pundits of all persuasions loop, sample and scratch this single as a back beat for whatever wall of sound they want to deliver. Yeah, boyeee, that shit is dope!
But the studies themselves have limits, which go unexamined by alarmists and advocates alike. The respondents are disproportionately white, and the studies don't have built in factors for adjustment. No one has bothered to ask whether gay men might be a little shy about fessing up to barebacking while talking to a trained sex educator on the street. And what about the staggering numbers of men who have disappeared into cyberspace? These man on the street surveys are not reaching the rapidly growing number of men who meet the majority of their sexual partners online.
While I applaud GMHC and Stop AIDS for undertaking these studies and for training and managing an army of volunteers, I am wary of these efforts being treated as legitimate social science. I am reminded of the Advocate sex surveys of the early 90s, which provided interesting and enlightening information about a particular group of people. The importance of both sets of studies is undeniable, but diminished by the people they didn't reach.
And Lord knows I can't bitch *too* much about Stop AIDS Man. After all, he got me several dates.
Kirk Read lives in San Francisco and can be reached at KirkRead@aol.com. His writing appears in over two dozen LGBT publications and at www.cruisingforsex.com.