Talking about sexual health
This morning, CBC's Nova Scotia website reported about a recent upswing in cases of syphilis.
The article states that 47 men in the HRM have tested positive this year, up from 35 last year. The story also discusses how many of the men who tested positive often met other men online. Holly D'Angelo-Scott, a senior epidemiologist at Capital Health told the CBC that "when we look to see the connections between cases, a lot of our cases are meeting their sexual partners through the internet. That's probably a common link between some of the cases."
It's a tricky business to talk about sexual health to the masses, especially when you're hoping to reach certain demographics -- in this case, men who have sex with men. It can be tricky with men who have sex with men (MSM) because you're dealing with a population that doesn't always want to be identified, or even identifies with that moniker.
Let's say you're a straight-identified, married man named X. To X, sex is what he does with his wife/girlfriend/et cetera. He loves her and enjoys having sex with her. Sex involves very specific forms of physical intimacy with that one person. But X also happens to occasionally meet certain men to do certain things. It could be in public places, it could be online, it could be in a bathhouse. For X, what happens in those locations and in those times may not be viewed as sex, because it isn't the same forms of physical intimacy that he engages with his wife/girlfriend/et cetera. So when a local news source posts a story about a recent upswing in STI rates amongst MSM, it doesn't faze him, because it doesn't affect him. He doesn't think what he's doing is having sex with men.
So how do you reach X? How do you reach a population that doesn't want to be identified or outed?
At this stage in the game, the best way to do this is to use broad strokes when talking to the public.
The CBC story never uses any terminology that denotes sexual orientation in its description of the men. It does, however, indicate that "all the 115 confirmed syphilis cases since that time have been men" and includes a quote from a Capital Health staffer: "It is possible that there will be a progression from this population of men who have sex with men to women." Here, they are talking about X. They are talking to X. And hopefully X will get the message.
This is not to say that X is emblematic of every MSM who doesn't want to be identified. X may be closeted. X may have myriad reasons for not wanting to be counted amongst MSM. Those reasons are X's alone. But X is amongst the population of MSM.
I am amongst that population. And I have many friends, as well as current and former lovers, who are as well.
It doesn't matter what the STI is or how and when a person may or may not contract it. What matters is getting the information out there without a heavy-handed message or propagandist polemic. And I take it as my personal responsibility to share that information with as many people as possible. With friends, colleagues, internet followers and more. Because it's an important story. It's a story about your -- and everyone's -- health.