Artistes joining HIV fight
by Nekaelia Hutchinson
The topic of sex is often considered the ultimate taboo, as it touches on issues that are seen as sacred, or at least, private and personal; but sex was seen in a different light last Saturday, when artistes participating in this year’s Love, Poetry and Song concert, gathered at Almond Bay, Hastings, to participate in a “no holds barred” discussion on sex and HIV.
Led by the HIV Commission’s Behaviour Change Communication Specialist, Alexis Nurse, the frank two-hour session offered the artistes a refresher course about sex, sexually transmitted infections, HIV, AIDS and their responsibilities both as performers and partners.
Offering insight into how the virus functions, Nurse explained that “HIV uses the machinery of the cells and tells it to reproduce new HIV particles … so the viral load in your system will go up while your immune system [weakens]”. This, she said, was why an HIV test detected the antibodies the immune system produces in response to its presence in the body.
Even though Barbados has made progress in addressing HIV-related issues, and no HIV-positive babies were born here in the last four years, behavioural change continues to be a major stumbling block. It was this area of effectively reaching the masses where Nurse said artistes could use their popularity for a good cause.
Directing her comments especially to the males in the audience, she threw out a challenge to the participants to encourage persons to get tested, especially males.
“We find men at the stage of AIDS, where they are clinically diagnosed because they are ill, and that is too late… We are losing our men. It is not just young men, it is not just old men, it is all men!”
Testing, though necessary, cannot protect you from HIV or STIs, however, and Nurse reminded the workshop attendees that it was sexual choices that determined who remained safe and who was at risk.
In response to one of the artistes who asked about the current trend of casual sex and correct condom use, the communication specialist cautioned that having multiple partners at the same time carried “a very, very, very high risk”.
“We have to really make our minds up that we are going to make sex safe, but also make it enjoyable,” she added.
The HIV Commission played a role even at this level, as Nurse revealed that her agency reviewed new products introduced to the market. She stressed that with all the options available which catered to every possible taste, there was no reason to ever be unprotected. However, she re-emphasised that it was the human element which could make or break a safe sexual encounter.
“Prevention [is crucial and] this is what you [artistes] need to be selling… If you do not use condoms correctly, if you do not use them consistently, they will not be effective,” she said, and encouraged persons to read the instructions carefully prior to use.
Illustrating that protection — whether male condoms, female condoms or dental dams — was always necessary, Nurse explained that while oral sex carried a lower risk, all a virus required was “an entry point [into the body]… If there is bruising [or] any cuts, STIs like herpes where there is a sore … those are direct entry points”. However, she added that with any type of sex, the “receptive partner” was more likely to be infected than the “insertive partner” and added that the presence of an STI made it easier to contract HIV.
External factors also influenced the chance of transmission, the commission representative said, listing poverty, stigma and discrimination and cultural factors as some of the issues involved.
It was the third theme which led one of the participants to suggest that stigma could result in persons refusing to get tested, for fear that information that should be confidential — such as sexual orientation or HIV status — would not be treated as such.
“If we continue to [perpetrate] stigma … then we are part of the problem… We cannot be judgmental… People have the right to make their own decisions,” he said.
These decisions could also include the option of abstinence which, although less popular, still has a place in the discussion on HIV. One of the artistes, Laryx, observed that young people should be taught how to abstain. She added that the decision to have sex was mental, emotional and spiritual and the choice to have sex or abstain should be grounded in knowledge and awareness.
It was this fact, coupled with the need for both males and females to value their bodies, that was at the root of behavioural change with regard to sex and HIV. Sex, Nurse said, should not be reduced to anything more than proof of manhood for men and a means to an end for women; however, the reality was that it was regarded as a commodity, where boys would be teased for valuing their virginity and girls would be pressured to reconsider their chastity.
There was still hope, however, as Nurse said that the artistes’ fans and supporters would listen to any message they had to share, for example, if that message was one of safe sex and non-discrimination: “If we stop stigmatising people … then people will start feeling empowered to express themselves… It has to start with us.”
The Love, Poetry and Song concert will be held on Saturday, February 16 at Ilaro Court, beginning at 6 p.m. Persons are encouraged to bring their blankets and chairs and enjoy Barbadian jazz singer, Marisa Lindsay; international recording artist, Hal Linton; soca and reggae sensation, Biggie Irie and other vocal and spoken word artistes.
The event, which is being coordinated by the internal HIV Education Committee of the Barbados Government Information Service is designed to raise funds and food items for the HIV Food Bank. Patrons are invited to make a donation of at least $10, as well as two non-perishable food items. Additional information on the event may be found by visiting www.facebook.com/LovePoetryandSong.