This morning, a popular radio DJ discussed a British HIV awareness campaign, which he felt was one of the hardest hitting campaigns he had ever seen. In the TV ad the television viewer gets a visual of a sex scene, where the camera is placed so that the viewer should feel that s/he is in this scene. The camera looks up to show the face of Hitler, grimacing and sweaty, as though he’s just done the deed with you. The slogan is: Aids is a mass murderer. The DJ said that there had already been complaints about the ad, and that these had been because it showed what was very obviously a sex scene. He remarked that it was part of the problem that they felt uncomfortable viewing sex. And he’s right, but there is more of a problem with this ad than he picked up on.

One of the biggest problems in talking about HIV is the stigma around talking about sex. HIV is primarily sexually transmitted, and for the majority of the South African prudish patriarchy, this is a no-go zone. What this means then is that people have become fearful of talking about sex with their sexual partners, if we can’t talk about sex, we’re most certainly not going to talk about HIV or condom use. This goes for men and women. The 2009 Female Nation Survey revealed that 47% of the more than 8 000 women who responded NEVER use condoms when having sex. The majority of respondents to this survey were in the 25 to 34 years age group. South Africa’s current statistics show that the HIV prevalence in that age group is between 23% and 39% for women, and between 12% and 23% for men. But enough of the statistics, we all know there’s a problem — right?

What do our campaigns say? Pretty much nothing. If anyone’s listened to the LoveLife campaigns on the radio or heard the slogan “be around in 2010”, they could quite rightfully argue that they are not being informed. One advert asks “who are you”, and in the other a young girl worries that a boy won’t like her if she’s not dressed “right”. WTF! What are these adverts trying to tell young people? The word sex doesn’t even appear in the ads. It appears that the majority of people are being misinformed by these campaigns or are choosing not to listen that HIV is affecting all of them, if they are not infected it is likely they know someone who is. If they are not infected, they are affected by the growing number of people without access to treatment, which affects communities, families and business in very different but important ways. So we need a better campaign. So what do we say in it?

Can we say that HIV is a mass murderer? Unlike Obama fans, I say no we can’t. Can Aids result in death? Yes. But the idea of a mass murderer invokes some sinister purpose as though this disease was sent here to kill the infected. It was not. Many of these people, particularly women, are bearing the burden of a disease that can be treated if they had access to healthcare and antiretrovirals. Many of these people are already afraid of their virus, afraid of the way that their bodies will be taken over and consumed by it. A campaign that says that HIV is going to murder them and others does little to quell this stigma any more than the LoveLife campaigns do. Just because you may have HIV does not mean that you are “dirty” or a sinner, or sexually deviant. Just because you have HIV you have not been murdered, nor are you part of a mass-murdering squad out to get the innocent. It can be transmitted to anyone and anyone you have sex with could be infected with HIV. I can’t believe that this far down the line we are still in denial about that. Is this ad hard-hitting? Yes. Does it hit the right spot. NO.

It has been proven time and time again that scare tactics do not work in the fight against STD and HIV infection. All they do is scare people away from talking about it. They scare people away from clinics, away from medicine, and away from the support that can be provided for them. It steers people away from discussing their status with their partners, and revealing their status to their loved ones. This is not the way.

What we should say in a campaign about Aids and HIV should be clear and factually based.

1. You can contract HIV through unprotected sex.
2. You and your partner should get tested before having sex and this should be very early on in your relationship. HIV has a window period and this means it may not show up on the first test.
3. You must talk with your partner about sex, condom use and STDs.
4. If you are HIV positive there is support for you. Do not feel alone, seek help and medical treatment.

I hope our government gets a clue about the messages they are putting out there and that the British government recognises that their type of campaign is as dangerous. If not, the millions of people out there having unprotected sex with multiple concurrent partners will never know about the dangers in their behaviour, nor can they be expected to know that there is support for them if something goes wrong.


Jen Thorpe

Jen Thorpe

Jennifer is a feminist, activist and advocate for women's rights. She has a Masters in Politics from Rhodes University, and a Masters in Creative Writing from UCT. In 2010 she started a women's writing...

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