Despite decades of efforts to get people talking openly about HIV, discussing safe sex at a party still isn't hip. But former nightlife promoter Eli Dancy hopes to make 'Hey, baby, have you had an HIV test lately?' a respectable pickup line with his STFree card -- as in STD-free.
The wallet-size card displays the owner's photo and an ID number. You also give potential bedmates a secure code that they can use to review your recent lab-certified HIV test results online or through a 24-hour hotline. (A lifetime membership costs $19.99, including a phone tutorial about HIV and condoms.) Just knowing test results, however, doesn't guarantee safety -- since a cardholder could, of course, have been infected after the test. What the STFree website (www.stfree.com) calls 'a safe sex license' some critics have dubbed 'a license for unsafe sex.'
Other prevention innovations, like the Internet Notification Service for Partners or Tricks (www.inSPOT.org), an e-mail card that anonymously informs partners that someone has exposed them to a sexually transmitted disease (STD), also aim to make a safe sex conversation easier. But does STFree make that conversation entirely about test results instead of self-protection?
Dancy says no, contending that every call also offers information about the importance of condoms and suggests that the card be used as an icebreaker for broaching the topics of STDs and safer sex.
Dancy -- who is HIV negative -- managed professional escorts and exotic dancers for years. Having witnessed daily what he calls irresponsible sexual behavior, he conducted research and discovered that his Brooklyn neighborhood had one of the highest HIV rates in New York City. 'No one ever gave me a condom or safe sex info, so I knew my homeboys weren't getting them either,' he says. 'People here still think you have to be a homosexual or crackhead to have HIV.' So Dancy launched STFree in 2004, hoping to raise awareness 'in a cool way' among the young and urban, especially African Americans. He even recruited his own entourage of hotties, the Safe Sex Angels, to promote the card at public events.
The card has come in handy for Miriam Medina. 'If a guy hits on me, I can pull out the card and make a joke' to lighten the topic, the 25-year-old says. 'The responses have been totally cool.' Dancy also hopes the cards' eye-catching styles will make people proud to flash them. He already has registered 15,000 members from New York to Norway.
Studies show that HIV transmission most often occurs when people don't know that they're positive, so STFree's testing push is a plus. Additionally, prevention strategies like Dancy's that are tailored to communities could help get HIV infection rates in the United States to dip for the first time in a decade.
But can we encourage testing and safe sex in a fresh, catchy way without suggesting that learning someone's test results is prevention enough? The decision to have unsafe sex -- after asking when a potential partner was last tested and what that person has been doing in bed since -- requires trusting a human being, not an automated service. Membership has its privileges, and its responsibilities.
Reprinted from POZ (Nov. 2006), a magazine about life, health, and HIV; www.poz.com.