TL;DR: This is a long article, but HIV prevention is important, so we've highlighted the important bits for you to look at during your coffee break.
The internet went into a conniption a few days ago when a photo of a booth promoting HIV testing made the rounds:
The booth was set up by testmnl.org, a gay organization that promotes HIV awareness and prevention. The photo was posted by Youth for Life (Y4L), whose Facebook page says they are "young leaders fearlessly defending the sanctity of life, marriage, and the family, all for God's glory." The photo sparked outrage, not just from the Christian group, but from reproductive health advocates as well because of its tagline: Suck, F*#k, Test, Repeat. Y4L maintained that the group promoted promiscuity (Just keep on engaging in risky sexual behavior until your HIV test reads positive?), saying that "abstinence and fidelity are the only sure-fire ways to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS."
Suck, F*#k, Test, Repeat
While "Suck, F*#k, Test, Repeat" does sound like risky sexual behavior, in today's sexual atmosphere, telling people to abstain from sexual activity and leaving it at that isn't the best way to prevent the spread of HIV, either. "HIV prevention is important because it's a health issue. It can be debilitating for a person and costly if they don't take care of themselves and their health and manage the virus. But what's more important to take note of is that HIV spreads through unprotected sex or sharing of needles.
The rise of HIV cases in the country is a symptom of an uninformed society that engages in behavior that can hurt them. And I'm talking about unprotected sex, not having an active sex life. I want to make that clear: A society or population with an active sex life is not a bad thing.
"A society or population where the majority of the people would not protect themselves and practice responsible sex is problematic. It shows the majority of the people are not informed or do not value safety and protection," says writer, filmmaker, and poet Wanggo Gallaga, an HIV awareness and prevention advocate. Gallaga contracted the virus in 2008 and went public about it in an effort to educate and inform people about the particulars of HIV. "HIV prevention is not just about telling people to abstain, be faithful or monogamous (if you can), and if you can't do either, then to use condoms. It's not just that. I think, on a deeper level, HIV prevention includes increasing the population's perception on the value of safety; how one can take care of himself and of the people around them."
The post actually delves into several issues: How can we prevent HIV, is HIV testing important, how can we better educate ourselves and our loved ones on the virus, and lastly, what about that blasted tarp? Let's break it down.
But first, some facts
According to the January 2017 report from the Department of Health's Epidemiology Bureau, there are 27 cases of HIV diagnosed in the Philippines PER DAY. This is up from the 26 per day in 2016, and way, way up from the one per day in 2008.
This can either mean more people are getting infected because of unsafe sex or other ways like infected needles or even infected blood donations, or it can also mean that more people are getting tested and reporting themselves.
Whatever the reasons, as of early this year, there were 844 newly reported individuals with HIV, which brings the total of persons diagnosed with the virus from 2012-2017 to 32,102 individuals nationwide.
Fortunately, it is possible to keep this number from spreading while still being able to get some.
How do I prevent HIV?
"A full spectrum approach to HIV prevention is not just telling people how not to get it, but it tries to identify the reasons why people would choose to be reckless with their own health and with other people's health. It also tries to identify the degree to which we people value information, responsibility, safety, and how well they practice it and what are the reasons why they don't," Gallaga says.
This means that to effectively prevent the spread of the virus, it is important to take lifestyle into consideration. Condemning people for the way they live isn’t going to stop the virus from spreading. Educating them, supporting them, and listening to them without prejudice might.
"HIV prevention is actually very easy. Again, it's abstinence, and if you can't, then be monogamous/faithful to one partner, and if you can't, then use a condom," Gallaga says. "That's it. That's the entirety of it."
Yes, it's that easy. Still, Gallaga says that not spreading the word about safe sex has seen HIV contractions rise, especially in the past 10 years.
Why is HIV testing important?
If you are sexually active, getting tested for HIV is important because it is the only way you can find out if you have HIV. "There are no identifiable symptoms for HIV. You can have HIV but be completely asymptomatic (having no symptoms) and you will never know you have it until your immune system decreases so much that you start getting sick. And when that happens, you usually get treated just for the sickness, but not for HIV. You won't know that this is a symptom already of a damaged immune system due to HIV. So having yourself tested regularly is important," Gallaga explains.
"If you are infected with HIV, it takes weeks before it multiplies in your body to a degree that it can be detected. So you have to take the test three to six weeks after possible infection. You can't just take a test the next day after you feel like you got infected because it won't register. You have to wait for three to six weeks. So it's advisable to have yourself tested twice or thrice a year. Just to be sure. Just to be safe."
So about that tarp...
Gallaga's opinion on the "Suck, F*#k, Test, Repeat" tarp is tricky. He's talked with the members of TestMNL on Twitter and has worked with the Love Yourself organization several times, and speaks very highly of both as organizations that have made HIV testing accessible and easily understood,.
"I think the problem was that their slogan could have used a few more brainstorming sessions because if this is a program that they plan to bring to a school or university setting, then the approach and the wording is wrong. 'Suck, Fuck, Test, Repeat' is catchy and it really targets the demographic most-at-risk, but it invites so much criticism because as it stands, it can sound like a call to action," he says.
"Again, there is nothing wrong with having an active sex life. But when you consider the current landscape of HIV and sexual activity amongst the youth, bringing that slogan into a school setting (no matter how good the intentions or how effective the approach), it should have been thought out better. Without proper context, without a proper preamble, the slogan in itself does sound like it is promoting (or giving permission) to young people to have sex. And since the landscape shows how little students know about reproductive health, it sort of enters dangerous territory."
"I think the effort and the program is great—bringing HIV tests and education to the students—but I think they were wrong when it comes to that slogan. They should have thought about it more," he concludes.
Gallaga does think that Y4L could have responded with a bit more awareness. "I am very disappointed at the Youth For Life group and their inability to see the current landscape and problem. It's myopic," he says. "They do not see that we already have a culture of high sexual activity. The average age now of the first time kids have sex have gone lower and lower. Kids are having sex earlier than they used to now. They are hyper-sexualized by everything they see on the media and the internet and instead of addressing this, they continue their age-old method of just advocating for abstinence and fidelity."
And while there is absolutely nothing wrong with advocating for abstinence and fidelity (see above, where they're both listed as ways to NOT get HIV), these are the same methods that have been advocated for the past 20 to 30 years. "No one is listening. The youth are having sex anyway," he says. "The value systems of the new generation have changed. Whether it's a good thing or a bad thing, I don't know. I'm not going to judge. But we have a problem and we can address that problem. You can't force someone to adopt a value system."
He adds: "So if (the youth) are going to (have sex anyway), give them the proper tools to do this effectively. Education, information, condoms, accessible testing facilities—these have to be available. You have to inform them, show them, teach them, and hopefully they make the right decision."
Gallaga points out that some well-meaning groups sometimes skew numbers to match their agenda. Gallaga uses Y4L as an example: "I find that the rhetoric of the Youth for Life as incendiary and their use of data a little disturbing. In the comments section, they are quick to point out that Thailand has a larger population of people with HIV and they attribute this to their programs on sex education and handing out condoms.
"Then they attribute our low prevalence due to the fact that, as a country, we only promote abstinence and fidelity. But they do not look at the other data that shows that Thailand has greatly reduced their infection rates. Yes, they have a large population, but it has stopped growing.
"And there's a higher number of people taking tests in Thailand because they are better informed.
There are close to 40,000 people who have been diagnosed with HIV in the Philippines, and that number is growing everyday to the rate of 1 person per hour everyday. Every day, every hour, a person is diagnosed with HIV. Why? Because they do not have access to proper information, proper reproductive health education, to condoms, and to testing centers."
"The (DOH's) Epidemiology Center approximates an equal amount of people with HIV who are yet diagnosed and probably do not know they have the virus.
"Imagine another 40,000 people who have HIV who are sexually active and do not use condoms and won't get tested or doesn't have access to testing. How much faster do you think that number is going to double or multiply?"
He adds, "The Youth for Life focus on the fact that the WHO says that there is still a 20% chance of getting infected if you use condoms but they don't say that the WHO still advises to use condoms because they are addressing the fact that people are still having sex regardless of you telling them to abstain or to be faithful.
There is a problem and it needs to be addressed by scientific and practical solutions, because telling people to abstain is not a practical solution."
How to be woke
Whatever your thoughts are on sex, it's pretty obvious that a lot of Filipinos are having it. This means that, as much as your mom, your, dad, your lolo, your lola, and your parish priest hope that you'll save it for marriage, there's a big chance that you won't, and that's okay. But that means you need to take extra care of yourself, especially if you have multiple partners. It isn’t enough to get tested. It isn't enough to practice safe sex youself. You need to spread the word—to your friends as well as your partners—on how HIV can be prevented. Aside from practicing safe sex, an easy way to help halt the spread of HIV is through education. This means being open and honest, no using cutesy names for body parts or ignoring topics because they're "embarrassing." As Gallaga notes, when given a safe space, people are willing to ask questions:
"I was asked to give an HIV talk recently in the University of St. La Salle in Bacolod. I allowed the students to ask any question that they wanted and that I would answer them honestly. The room full of 18-year-olds asked me questions about anal sex, pre-cum, lubricants, and detailed things like that. I answered each question as honestly as possible with as much medical facts as possible," he says. "At the end of the talk, they all came up to me and thanked me because it was the first time an adult talked to them openly about sex and didn't make them feel judged. They didn't feel ashamed asking these questions to me because I treated it like it was a medical or biological thing."
He further notes that he wasn't promoting promiscuity. The questions that were asked weren't in any part of his talk beforehand; those were questions the participants had that they were curious about but had been afraid to ask an adult.
"That's the disconnect between conservatives, church, and moralistic groups who are against proper reproductive health education and proper HIV prevention techniques. They refuse to address the real problem and issue, which is that the youth are curious and are probably experimenting with sex already. No one is talking to them about it without judgment or with the threat of shame," he says.
"I think if we want a serious and effective approach to HIV awareness and prevention—and even reproductive health education—then we have to accept the fact that we have to make the people decide for themselves whether they want to do it or not.
"So to answer the question 'How can we proceed with HIV awareness and prevention in this country,' all I have to say is that we have to accept the fact that the old ways we've been using don’t work and deal with the problem before us—that we have a society who are sexually active and they do not have the proper education and information about reproductive health and they do not have access to the tools that they need to protect themselves."
So guys, whatever you choose, whether it's abstinence, monogamy, or none of the above, it's important to practice safe sex (sex with yourself should be safe enough), get tested for HIV, and discuss your sex questions and concerns in a scientific way with someone knowledgeable, non-judgmental, and who won't use alternative facts to make you feel bad about yourself. Gallaga suggests contacting Love Yourself—they'll be more than happy to answer your questions.
On the bright side, judging from Y4L's photo, a lot of the people interested in getting tested were women, so it looks like we're on the way to doing a good job already! That's something to smile about!
Editor's Note: The writer reached out to both Y4L and testmnl, but neither one has responded as of the publication date of this article.