Let’s s change the perspective on talking about sex!

Since 2000 the total number of people getting infected with HIV each year is going down. Which is great. However, sadly, the number of youth getting infected each year didn’t decline. Information and messages on HIV and safe sex are not reaching young people or don’t have the expected result. My question is, are we actually communicating the right message?

Last Monday I was part of a panel discussion at the International AIDS Conference 2018: “Making Safe Sex Sexy in 2018”. We reflected on the topic and discussed upon how young people are interested to talk about sex, but not about safe sex, resulting in safe sex campaigns not reaching young people. Then it dawned on me that with safe sex messages we might be working on the wrong level.

For programmes and campaigns to be effective, they need to resonate with what is going on in the daily life and reality of the person that you want to engage. This could be safe sex, but a bigger chance is that it might have something to do with “How to do it for the first time” or “What will he/she like when it comes to sex” or “What if the person I am in love with wants me to undress in front of a camera…”. These are far more basic questions, which have to do with feelings, require social emotional capacities and which are far more urgent and top of mind of that person than concrete knowledge about safe sex. Once thoughts and feelings about these basic, essential issues and feelings are sorted out, thinking about using a condom might become relevant.

This means that with programmes and campaigning around sexuality, tapping into this basic, essential layer is of key importance. It means that we need to start our communication at the level of the persons that we want to engage and to listen to their stories. We have to spend time with them to really getting to know the questions, ideas and maybe insecurities they have around (starting) relationships, (how to deal with) intimacy, (unequal) gender images and so on.

To conclude, I think that for safe sex campaigns to be successful, the perspective of the young person on his/her own sexual reality, questions and cultural context should be leading. It means that we as campaign designers shouldn’t have a fixed idea of what the message and content of the campaign should be, but that we dare to let go, and co-create together with the target group. Taking their reality, questions and personal stories as a starting point and the driver for the final content and message.

Susan van Esch