Stop AIDS Project Starts Safe-Sex Outreach Online
The San Francisco-based Stop AIDS Project has received a $130,000 grant from the San Francisco Department of Public Health to expand its presence in Internet chat rooms, "increasingly popular places" for men to arrange "sexual encounters" with other men, the
New York Times reports. The organization will use the funds to train four disease-prevention counselors to "roam through chat rooms popular with gay and bisexual men," answering questions and providing information about safe sex. In addition, the grant will fund 10 "cyberforums," or chat sessions moderated by Stop AIDS, as well as two "real-life parties for chatters." The Times reports that according to recent studies, gay men are more likely to seek sexual partners over the Internet than are lesbians or heterosexuals. An
as-yet-unpublished study in San Francisco, where city health officials estimate that 15%-20% of the adult male population is gay, found that one-third of gay men surveyed reported having met sexual partners online in the last year, compared to 13% of heterosexual men and 6% of women. Further, studies have shown that those who arrange such encounters online are at higher risk for STDs, the Times reports. Health officials add that "gay men online and in general" are not disclosing their HIV status as readily as they once did -- and health officials are concerned that the "efficiency" of online sexual arrangements will facilitate the spread of disease. For example, San Francisco officials traced an August 1999
cluster of six syphilis cases back to an America Online chat room for gay men. "Disease-prevention agencies are chronically understaffed and underfunded, so this new venue which facilitates disease transmission places new demands on an already overstretched prevention system," Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, director of the Department of Public Health's STD unit, said. Stop AIDS officials said they plan to be a "passive presence" in chat rooms, answering questions and providing information as needed, though some gay advocates expressed concern that such a method could allow chat room users to fall prey to fake counselors "masquerading" as Stop AIDS representatives. "We'd want to put in systems where users can be assured that people are who they say they are," Elizabeth Kennedy, director of community for the gay/lesbian web site PlanetOut, said. Still, chat room participants, interviewed "on a recent evening" by the Times, said that Stop AIDS, "if it conducted itself properly," would be welcomed. "As long as they aren't pushing themselves on people, I think it's a good thing," one participant wrote (Gaither, New York Times, 11/9).