Toronto youth may know a lot about sex, but that isn’t protecting them against STIs.
So, that’s it, then. After last weekend’s glitzy bash headlined by Elton John, a quarter century of Fashion Cares has come to an end. The final designer stiletto has left the runway and the (presumably impeccably stitched) curtain has come down on a fundraising bash that was once an iconic symbol of Toronto’s struggle with the AIDS epidemic.
Though Fashion Cares hit a rough patch in recent years, over its 25-year history it channelled more than $12 million towards the AIDS Committee of Toronto. ACT will now focus its fundraising efforts on the less-well-shod feet at events like the Scotiabank AIDS Walk for Life (taking place this year on Sept. 23).
When Fashion Cares launched in 1987, AIDS was hitting Toronto’s arts and fashion communities hard. But in that same year, the first anti-HIV drug was released and, since then, HIV has been transformed from a deadly diagnosis to a manageable condition (albeit one that requires fistfuls of complex drugs to keep it in check).
But, whichever way you look at it, sex is still a hazardous hobby, particularly in Toronto. Like most large cities where diverse populations rub up against each other very, very closely, Toronto is a hotspot for STIs, with rates of certain infections 40 per cent higher than in the rest of Ontario. Recently, new HIV infections have been declining, and in 2010 (the most recent year for which data is available), they reached their lowest level in a decade. Still, over 500 people were diagnosed with HIV in Toronto that year.
Although the HIV numbers are headed in the right direction for now, other infections, such as chlamydia and gonorrhea, aren’t following suit. In 2010, the number of chlamydia diagnoses shot up by 11 per cent—the largest single increase in 11 years. Nearly 70 per cent of those infections were among young people aged 15 to 29.
That has put health workers on alert. The professionals who spend their days worrying about what we might pick up when we hook up fret that safe-sex messages are being taken less seriously by younger people. While those now in their 30s and 40s were frightened into virtual chastity by apocalyptic government warnings about sex and AIDS in the late ’80s and early ’90s, younger generations haven’t received such shock treatment. Perhaps that’s why over half the people diagnosed with chlamydia in Toronto reported having sex without a condom.
Adam Busch, a gay youth who works as a gay men’s harm reduction co-ordinator, says that many of the young people he sees have big gaps in their knowledge about safer sex. That’s cause for concern, since the vast majority of HIV infections in Toronto occur among men who have sex with men, and of those infections, nearly 90 per cent occur in the 15 to 29 age-group.
Busch highlights oral sex as an area of particular haziness. “According to the Canadian AIDS Society guidelines, oral sex is considered a low risk activity for HIV transmission,” he says. “However, it is a high risk activity for something like syphilis, an STI that is still a huge concern in Toronto.”
Busch works for Spunk!, an ACT program for gay, bi, and trans guys that deals with sex, drugs, and alcohol—and how mixing them can mess up your safer-sex judgment.
“We recently did a community- wide survey on youth in Toronto regarding drug use and safer sex,” says Busch. “Of the 279 youth who responded, almost 20 per cent reported they sometimes get drunk or high to make unprotected anal and vaginal intercourse easier to negotiate.”
Part of the reason Spunk! is needed is that many young people struggle to find others to talk to about their weekend activities in a non-judgmental atmosphere. In a recent article for Psychology Today, educational psychologist Kathryn Stamoulis argues that conventional sex education has failed and we need to address the stigma associated with STIs. Citing government stats showing that one in four teen girls in the States has an STI, Stamoulis contends they are a normal part of sex. She writes: “Even in the most comprehensive sex education programs, STIs are often presented as a dark side to sex. A thing a person dare not ever have.”
Since science and etiquette have failed to give us a non-buzz-killing way to determine the STI status of a potential sex partner, we’re probably going to go on blindly fumbling our way towards all manner of itches, rashes, and life-changing diseases. Condoms and testing are the best tools we have to prevent STIs, but a sensible approach to talking about them wouldn’t go amiss, either.