Medical advances, improved access to care, prevention initiatives, and our nation's aspiration of an AIDS-free generation are all good signs, but as a culture we will need to shift our perspective to stop the spread of HIV.
Over the last 30 years, where have we failed? We know that HIV is still mostly spread by sexual behavior. Yet, the disease is rather easily preventable through the use of condoms. Condoms are reasonably inexpensive, potentially readily available, easy to use, and highly effective in preventing HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (and unintended pregnancy). What a bargain! So, why are they not used more?
Behavioral HIV prevention strategies and interventions have tried to get people to reduce risky sexual behavior and promote condom use. While reasonably effective, there needs to be continuous implementation of these interventions, and they are costly. Investment in prevention strategies has always been difficult.
New strategies are overdue. In the United States, we continue to experience 50,000 new infections a year, with young people aged 13-29 accounting for 39% of all new HIV infections.* And, there are serious health disparities. People of color, youth, and sexual minorities are much more likely to become infected than other groups. While 60% of new infections around the world are found in gay and bisexual men, only 2% of the global prevention budget is directed at this group. Also, transgender individuals are an overlooked population at major risk for HIV, due in large part to continued stigma and discrimination. This disparity in funding efforts represents the institutionalized stigmatization, heterosexism, and homophobia that exist in our cultures as well as in our public health systems. If we do not attend to this population as well as other marginalized populations such as sex workers and drug users, we will fail in our efforts to stop the spread of infections.
A fundamental problem remains. We remain a sexually dysfunctional culture. We live in a culture that is still uncomfortable talking about sex and sexuality in a mature and honest fashion. We continue to debate and hold back on providing comprehensive sexuality education. It is very clear that what distinguishes the United States from other developed countries in sexual health indicators is the existence of (or lack thereof) early and sustained comprehensive sexuality education. When kids are educated early they grow up to be more comfortable with talking about sexuality, more likely to be sexually responsible, and have lower rates of sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancies. They contribute to a cultural climate that is sexually healthy. That climate then insists on comprehensive sexuality education and thereby creates a cycle of healthiness. In the United States, we are still caught up in a negative and unhealthy vicious cycle. The goal of the Joycelyn Elders Chair in Sexual Health Education is to reverse this negative cycle.
As the current Chair in Sexual Health, I continue to push a sexual health agenda in HIV prevention. I believe in the need for a broad sexual health approach to stem the tide of the HIV epidemic. I envision an approach that goes beyond venereology and on an individual level
• emphasizes a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual expression throughout the lifespan;
• acknowledges sexuality as a basic and fundamental aspect of our humanness and that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is natural and desirable;
• combats sexual coercion, shame, discrimination, and violence;
• promotes positive sexual identity and esteem;
• encourages honest communication and trust between partners;
• supports the possibility of having pleasurable, fulfilling, and satisfying sexual experiences;
• insists that individuals take responsibility of the consequences of their sexual choices and their impact on others; and
• optimizes reproductive capacity and choice
At the community level, it is achieved through
• access to developmentally appropriate, comprehensive, and scientifically accurate sexuality education;
• clinical and preventative sexual health services; and
• respect for individual differences and diversity and a lack of societal prejudice, stigma, and discrimination.
As the Chair in Sexual Health, I will continue to work with our faculty at the Program in Human Sexuality and with partners around the world to promote a sexually healthier culture - not only to address the sexual problems in the world -- but to advance the opportunity for everyone to lead sexually healthier lives which are pleasurable and satisfying.
Eli Coleman, PhD
Professor and Director
Chair in Sexual Health
New HIV Infections in the United States by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention