Yesterday was World AIDS Day, dedicated to educating the public about AIDS prevention and eliminating discrimination towards those suffering from AIDS. However, what is most interesting about the day of international events and education dedicated to the eradication of HIV and AIDS is that no event, website or news outlet commemorating the day acknowledged the single most effective method of preventing the spread of the disease—abstinence.
As with most STD prevention programs, the emphasis was universally placed on risk reduction rather than risk elimination, or more simply put on condom use. The UK World AIDS Day website, for example, claims, “Using a condom during sex . . . is the best way to protect yourself and your partner from HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs).” (Note the new politically correct term for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), designed to remove any stigma from these diseases.) This is in fact false, as abstinence before and fidelity in marriage is the best way to protect you and your partner from HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases.
The fact that abstinence is never mentioned as an option starkly illustrates the cultural attitude towards sex that dominates media and policy—the attitude that abstinence, fidelity and sexual restraint are impossibilities. Rather than spreading the message that one should eliminate risky behavior, events such as World AIDS Day encourage the public only to make inherently risky behavior less risky.
Has this risk reduction message worked? No.
According to Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institute for Health, “the annual number of new HIV infections in the United States — about 56,000 — has remained fairly constant for more than a decade. That’s right, 56,000 people are infected in this country every year.” If the number of annual infections holding steady for a decade is considered effective, then, perhaps, an argument could be made that it is effective.
The AIDS epidemic in Africa, however, illustrates the failure of risk reduction messaging. After years of multi-million dollar Western condom programs in Africa, a study conducted by UNAIDS (one of the largest condom provider for Africa) found that condom programs have not turned around any of the severe AIDS epidemics in Africa. Those countries that did succeed in turning around the epidemic did so through programs emphasizing changes in behavior, particularly abstinence or limiting the number of one’s sexual partners.
Therefore, what makes World AIDS Day and the media hype it receives so infuriating is that it continues to reinforce the cultural attitudes that are responsible for the spread of the disease. It is a gross misdeed on the part of those most committed to stopping the spread of HIV. Until we begin to culturally value sexual restraint, fidelity and abstinence, until we begin to connect actions to consequences, until we stop spreading the myth that condoms are the safest means of protection, the AIDS epidemic will continue to spread.