Can you tell who has HIV?

From the ever-helpful Kaiser Family Foundation we have a new game: Pos or Not? Players get to see a photo and profile of young men and women, then have to guess whether or not the person is HIV-infected. It’s intended to challenge prejudices and preconceptions, and I have to say it does it pretty well. Check it out by clicking here:

Pos or Not

It takes me back to the time we were trying to explain the results of a study of HIV and syphilis to transgender sex workers in Jakarta. Stats — even terrifying ones like “23% HIV positive” don’t necessarily mean much to people who dropped out of primary school, so we drew 100 waria on a graph and coloured 23 of them in red, and 17 in green, with quite a few in red and green stripes. The red ones have HIV, we said. The green ones have active syphillis. And it immediately opened up the discussion: who’s a red one? How can we tell? Only by getting your test results.


An HIV prevention organisation targeting gay men in Britain did much the same thing. They put 10 men on a poster with a who-will-you-go-home-with-tonight message: one of these men has HIV. The poster did not show faces, but a more focused part of the anatomy. I’m afraid I can’t post it on a family website like this one… Much less give many details of the same organisation’s wonderful campaign to get guys to recognise the symptoms of syphilis, and go for tests and treatment. Suffice it to say that the information came as an insert with a fabulous CD called Sex Pigs: 60 minutes of music to fuck by.

More politely, while I’m on syphils, check this delightful essay by Marlene Zuk. It discusses whether or not it is in syphilis’s own interest to leave ugly, suppurating boils on the genitals. But it’s delightful, really.

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This post was published on 02/05/08 in Good sex and bad, Men, women and others.

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  1. Comment by Lee Rudolph, 02/05/08, 10:21:

    “More politely, while I’m on syphils, check this delightful essay by Marlene Zuk. It discusses whether or not it is in syphilis’s own interest to leave ugly, suppurating boils on the genitals. But it’s delightful, really.”

    No doubt it would be hellishly difficult to untangle relevant information from the huge mass of data on HIV, but I wondered, when I read that essay the other day, whether (at least, in the earlier stages of the epidemic, when its evolution wasn’t being modified at all by drugs, because there were none) similar pressures might have favored strains of the virus that postponed (or never manifested) laying the groundwork for Kaposi’s sarcoma. Certainly, early accounts in (lay) literature, e.g., _And The Band Played On_, played up the cosmetic horrors of KS — I remember one particularly overwrought passage (maybe not from that book) describing “Patient Zero”, dimly lighted so that his sarcoma couldn’t be seen, having sex and then pointing to the Deadly Disfiguration and cackling “now you’re infected too”, one clear implication being that if his partner had seen the sarcoma he’d have steered clear. These days, on the other hand, KS seems (to me, purely anecdotally) not to be brought up much.

  2. Comment by elizabeth, 03/05/08, 12:21:

    V much on topic, I was in a gay bar In London the other day talking to a 20-something year old about this and that, and I said something along the lines of “it’s not as if you see people standing at the bar with Kaposi’s”. And he looked at me baffled, and said “What’s Kaposi’s?”

    And people are still writing papers about a possible link between “treatment optimism” and risk behaviour?

  3. Comment by Jessica, 06/06/08, 02:14:

    Pos or Not is a large waste of money. I have recently started to work in the HIV prevention area in Kenya and my team and I, although initially in intrigued by the Pos or Not ‘game’, had an almost 100% correct strike rate when playing. So any underlying prejudices we had already were reinforced, not challenged. Plus the benefit of Hot or Not is being able to see the results of how other people have voted – Pos or Not would benefit from some sort of forum to discuss these results. There is nothing to keep a young person interested or to return. It is also not clear who the ‘game’ is aimed at – the subjects are all adults, yet the MTV audience is young people – children and teenagers. It feels like another awful waste of money and yet has been launched with real fanfare. It was first developed by students trying to win a competition judged by adults, it was not developed by and for young people.

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