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Playing it (un)safe

Submitted by unaidsadmin on Fri, 2012-02-17 16:58 - 0 Comments

It's just days before Carnival and would-be mas players were cradling neat boxes and towering headpieces while tottering to their cars or the curbs. They represent a cross-section of ages, sizes, races and decision-making when it comes to sex and the season.

That variety probably isn't contemplated by all the pat celebrity advice to have a safe Carnival, the public service announcements (PSAs) hammering the ABC options (abstain, be faithful, condomise) and the thousands of free condoms that wind up in everything from bars to the mas players' goodie bags.

The most reliable evidence of the season's increased sexuality is the population spike it prompts nine months down the road. The "Carnival Baby" isn't just a decades-long running joke. Without fail there is around a 15 percent increase in the number of live births every November and December according to Trinidad and Tobago Central Statistical Office numbers. More pregnancies mean more unprotected sex and imply an increased risk of the range of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.

Salorne Mc Donald, the Regional Behaviour Change Communications Consultant for Population Services International (PSI), confirms that there is a predictable, historic increase in sexual activity in the weeks leading up to Lent. Thre's also the fallout of unprotected sex in its aftermath.

"From April to December you would not contemplate walking the street in a string bikini and feathers. Ever. But because at Carnival you have a couple thousand people doing it with you, then by all means we are going to do it," he said. "We have a sexy culture that is very focused on losing yourself in the moment. Invariably that intensifies during Carnival."

But why hasn't the barrage of PSAs hit home? Mc Donald says it's because the national approach to disseminating messages on sex has been arbitrary.

"It is not part of a well organised plan that is based on an understanding of target populations or segmentation in any real way. Many of these messages are targeted to reach the general population and that which is aimed at everybody sometimes misses everybody," he said. He explained that many health messages deal with ABC absolutes rather than cluing in to the nuances that impact sexual decision-making and behaviour.

"Behaviour change communication strategy seeks to understand various age groups, socio economic groups and behavioural patterns—who does what in union with others, what happens when people are drunk or when they are sober… that sort of thing. You can't scare people into doing anything. People always test the boundaries of whatever they're afraid of," he said.

Messages should be entertaining, sexy, funny, real. One liners and vague directives won't cut it.

So what has PSI learned about the context that is T&T?

"The all-inclusive party used to be the domain of those with pocket change to comfortably buy a ticket. Now it is the place to be seen with the look. And your look must be attractive and expensive. Before, you could predict that someone who attended a certain event was from a certain demographic. Now, you blend into a group on the basis of where you are and how you look. Which partner you hook up with depends on that context as well," he explained.

Awareness about HIV and correct condom use have steadily risen over the years. Why isn't this fundamental knowledge enough to deter people who know better from taking risks at a heady time of year? Mc Donald asserted that "logic and information have very little to do with our sexual behavior".

"We need a real commitment to getting the population savvy—not just informed," Mc Donald submitted. "We have to get rid of the ideological wars of either abstinence or condoms. What works is a strategy that faces the reality and the strategy has to go from having our younger people understand the value of delaying the onset of sexual activity until they are ready financially and have the requisite maturity. If you have to hide and do it, you really shouldn't be doing it. Partner reduction, consistent and correct condom use, knowing your partner's sexual history, getting tested and knowing your status and maintaining a regular pattern of testing are part of that progressive movement into full education. Behaviour change mechanisms need to be part of the state sponsored apparatus."

So much for the Carnival safe sex PSA.

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The UNAIDS team offers the Caribbean the broad expertise of cosponsors and other UN organisations in areas such as program development and management, women and child health, education, legal networking, community care initiatives and resource mobilisation. The goal is an expanded response to HIV in the region with the world’s second highest HIV prevalence.