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Today the world commemorates World AIDS Day, as we remember the people we have lost to this epidemic, and reflect and take in lessons learnt to figure out where we go to from here to get to zero – zero new infections, zero deaths as a result of AIDS.

The biggest prevention message is ‘use a condom’, and it has been since the beginning of the epidemic – bar a few years when the US pushed the abstinence message big time. But 30 years later, that message still isn’t really being picked up on, many people are still not wearing condoms.

I was having a conversation with my significant other, and one of my girlfriends (not at the same time), when I was analyzing why people don’t like to use condoms despite knowing the dangers of unprotected sex. There are probably many reasons why people don’t use condoms, but what I was interested in was the emotional side of it. When you’re in a relationship you don’t want to use condoms because one of the condom messages that does stick in our minds is that condoms can prevent diseases.

So when you’re in a relationship, you wonder if you’re using condoms does that mean that you’re not special? Does the person not trust you? Or what is he/she hiding that they insist on condom use?

This is obviously the emotional side of your brain asking these questions because the rational one knows that actually, it’s a really responsible thing to do. Yeah you can get tested, but as I’ve seen in my last few months in Zambia, it’s easy to have other relationships outside of your main relationship and that’s acceptable. So you may be chilling thinking you’re all good and your man or woman only ‘eats’ at home, not knowing, or not wanting to believe that there is a side dish out there.

Recently I heard about a couple who were both cheating, yet when the wife found out her husband was in a long-term relationship with someone else, she was outraged saying how she needed to take an HIV test. I didn’t want to point out that she too had been playing outside the marital bed, and in fact almost thought she was pregnant – meaning she was not using condoms, so really she had put her husband at as much risk as he’d put her at.

I think when people are doing these prevention messages they really need to think about the audience and how they are receiving those messages. The condom message as is is fine for casual sex, or a regular sex partner, but when you’re in a steady relationship, it needs to address the emotional side of using a condom too.

I feel we need to turn condoms from being a ‘dirty’ thing to something that isn’t shrouded in distrust but to something that gives you peace of mind, which equals more pleasurable sex. Maybe messages should focus on your partner’s other sexual partners, we’ve all dated partners who have dated questionable people, if you think you are indirectly sleeping with that person when you don’t use a condom, maybe it’ll make you think twice about not using one!

It does mean that other than making generic ads on condom use, you have to really segment your audience and address their emotional, financial, and physical needs. It does mean that people have to invest more dollars into mass media prevention campaigns. But isn’t that how you will achieve impact at scale? It makes me laugh how so many development agencies want to be ‘like the cool brands’ and launch a ‘brand’ or copy a technique used by popular brands, but ignore the fact that these so-called cool brands spend a hell of a lot of money on their R&D and more importantly, their advertising campaigns. If an HIV prevention campaign had half the advertising budget of say Apple of Coca Cola and left it to the experienced ad agencies to develop the campaign for them (that’s another pet gripe, for another blog post), I’m sure they would get some traction. But thinking that you can run a mass media campaign for a year to reach millions of people and throw less than even a $100k is a bit of a joke if you ask me. But now I’m digressing to my other blog post (for another time).

Another message that I think has not helped is the get tested message, certainly in Zambia. I sat through a message design meeting – if that’s the right word – for one of our clients as they asked us to develop a spot for them that would get people to go for an HIV test. I innocently asked, ‘why should people get tested?’ – It’s common in putting across a message to communicate the benefits of the action you want people to take. However, I was met with a look of disbelief, like what’d I’d said was either sacrilegious or the stupidest thing they’d ever heard. To be their answer was what was shocking, ‘because research shows that if you go on treatment early you can have a longer life’ or something like that – basically, they meant that because when you tested positive you could access treatment and care. Which is obviously great and useful information to know, but if someone told me that if I was personally asking why I should go to get tested, then I’d immediately assume that to take a test means finding out you’re HIV positive.

Unfortunately that is how the message has been communicated for too long. People forget that there are more people who are not infected than they are infected. Knowing your status should be about taking control of your life.

That’s another interesting debate as my brother, and creative director at Media 365, says that that is also a problem message in itself because a lot of people in Zambia don’t actually believe they can take control of their life. Again that’s another blog post, I won’t digress.

My point is we need to do the remix on some of these messages, or at least upgrade them to reflect the realities on the ground, understand how they are perceived and look at people’s motivating factors to adopt these safe behaviours and then flood the market with them. These are my thoughts today when we ask, why 30 years after the first case of HIV, still an overwhelming 2.7million people were newly infected in 2010.

I’ve spent the last week in Nairobi listening to stats on HIV there during the day – women are up to 4 times more likely to be infected than their male peers and women in their 20s disproportionately affected etc – and at night, my Kenyan family and I are hitting the bars and clubs. Bend over Thursdays as it was known, thanks to the popular song of the same title – no longer exists but doesn’t mean you can’t go to a club on Thursday night (Thursdays are the new Fridays) and not hear Bend Over come on. As soon as it does, the young women in there go crazy and bend over, and thats when you see some all out daggery that leaves your mouth open.

I get it is a dance, a sexual dance no less, but it is just dancing. Though sometimes that dancing can go a bit far. I’m not a prude at all, but as I hear the stats, I can’t help but wonder how our sexuality plays into all of this.

My issue isn’t so much that here in Africa (or is it even many parts of the world?) we, as in black people, seem to be oversexed, my issue is that we’re made to think this is a bad thing. Cultural as a woman (in many African cultures) we are told to say no to sex, we must never be seen to want sex. But at the same time, women continue to be objectified as a sexual object. Is there any wonder than rape and sexual violence continues to occur? Sometimes women not even fully understanding that they have been raped as isn’t their role to serve a man? Or the misunderstanding that occurs when men believe the no to mean a yes?

Thankfully more and more men are choosing to err on the side of caution and accept no to mean no. But this still doesn’t empower women to say yes.

I look at the sexual health messages that are put out, all about the dangers of unprotected sex – which with our HIV rates is still necessary – but no one is talking about sex as a pleasurable act, not even in healthy relationships. So you have the guilt element coming into play. What is wrong with me if I like sex? Am I a slut? Does this make me a bad woman?

I’d like to say things are changing. In Kenya, I was shocked to hear about just how ’empowered’ women are. Women choosing to have sex when they want to and with whom, including being bisexual or bi-curious. This seems great, until I hit the clubs on Thursday night.

The sexual energy was intense – it would be if you’re dancing to Bend Over I guess – but was it a healthy one? These so-called empowered women, demanding the sex that they want are wearing outfits that made me wonder, are they really empowered or is this just a trend?

Let’s be honest, it’s one of men’s biggest fantasies to see two women at it, and who better than to feed that fantasy than women. Doesn’t it immediately make you more attractive to men if you entice them with that fantasy? So my questioning really became a matter of are women doing this because they want to and makes them happy – i.e. they are empowered – or are they doing it because it makes them more attractive to men?

Until we become absolutely confident in who we are as sexual beings and being comfortable with that, can we really, and honestly be sure about the sexual choices and decisions we make? And to support that level of security, we need the society to enable it, not by condemning sex as some moral issue, but embracing it as a healthy and positive experience, that can be enjoyed safely and responsibly.

I truly believe that once we can give young people healthy messages about sex can we then begin to see a change in our sexual behaviours – so that people aren’t hiding or feeling ashamed of their desires, but enjoying them safely. Yesterday I learnt that only 7% of young people in Zambia use condoms, there have been safe sex messages here for as long as I can remember (er over 15 years), so what isn’t working?

For now we’ll continue to see younger and younger girls doing daggery on the dancefloor and hope that’s where it stays.