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Sex = Fun? Pro-Pleasure Videos Bring "Sexy Back" to HIV Awareness
A Conversation With Elicia Gonzales, Executive Director of GALAEI and Co-Founder of PleasureRush!

By Olivia Ford

February 14, 2013

Elicia Gonzales

Elicia Gonzales

What if you were having a hot time with somebody new -- and a hard question about playing it safe came up? What if there were videos out there that brought up these questions via scenarios just like the ones happening in bedrooms and locker rooms all over the world -- without holding back a bit on the action?

From steamy online videos to hilariously fun, sexy parties to raise awareness within communities, Philadelphia's PleasureRush! program is committed to bringing sex-positive, pro-pleasure messages and activities back into HIV awareness, especially among LGBT communities of color.

"People have a right to have a healthy and pleasurable sex life, regardless of orientation, gender identity or HIV status," says Elicia Gonzales, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Latino AIDS Education Initiative (GALAEI). She spoke with TheBody.com about the program -- and how other HIV service providers can incorporate a sex-positive outlook into their work.

Please Note: The videos embedded on each page of this article are sexually explicit in nature. Watch at your discretion!


Encounter 1: What would you do if you find yourself in a situation like this?


Tell us a bit about PleasureRush!: How did the idea for the campaign come about? What community needs were you responding to?

Going through school, I knew that I wanted to be a sex therapist. I thought I would be the next Dr. Ruth. I have a master's degree in human sexuality education and a master's in social work. When I got into the HIV field, I felt that my legacy, if you will, would be to "bring sexy back" to HIV prevention. Obviously, this was when Justin Timberlake's song was very popular. [laughs]

The driving force behind PleasureRush! has been the need to talk about sex within the world of HIV, where surprisingly it often doesn't get talked about enough. Prior to coming GALAEI I worked at the Mazzoni Center, where I made some attempts to have a sex-positive perspective by throwing an event in honor of National Masturbation Month -- which is in May, in case you didn't know -- promoting the notion that masturbation is literally the safest sex of all. And it was met with some mixed reviews -- in part, I believe because it was focused more so on female sexuality and female masturbation, and those two things are oftentimes incredibly neglected when it comes time to talking about HIV and HIV prevention. But for other folks it was seen very positively and a step in the right direction.

"Sex is something that can be both pleasurable and healthy."

When I came to GALAEI, I knew that I would have an opportunity to bring home this notion that sex is something that can be both pleasurable and healthy. At the time my "co-conspirator" if you will, Norman Medina, who was working at GALAEI at the time, he and I really started to brainstorm around what we could do to get this idea off the ground. And hence PleasureRush! was born. It's been in existence now for almost two years. May 2011 was our official launch.

PleasureRush! acknowledges the connection between pleasure and health. It supports an understanding that sex and sexuality are healthy, natural and an integral part of everyone's life. It's focused specifically on the LGBT community, and our claim is that people have a right to have a healthy and pleasurable sex life, regardless of orientation, gender identity or HIV status.

What are the components of the campaign?

To date there are primarily two components, but we are in process of turning this into a fully operational program. The first consists of our "What If" video series. The "What If" videos are created to entice people and engage them in dialogue around sexual scenarios that might happen to them. There is a series of seven videos that are now at our blog. They're considered pornographic in nature, so some of them have been flagged by YouTube and taken down. But we will just keep putting them up.

So each "What If" video asks, "What if you were in this situation?" -- where you are in the heat of the moment and you had a difficult decision to make. It could be around using a condom, disclosing your HIV status, whether or not to get an HIV test, whether or not to engage in quote-unquote "risky sex." But the point is that it's showing real-life scenarios that would really happen. And begging the question "what if?" That's one of the more established components of this project that are out in the world right now.

Creamium invitation

The other piece of it that we have done so far is engaging community. One of our primary goals is to bring conversations around sex and sexual health to the masses, if you will. So in May 2011 we had our kickoff event, which was the launch of the first video. This past May, we partnered with ScrewSmart, which is a sex-positive burlesque-type troupe in Philadelphia that's fantastic and amazing. We did a game event at a local bar based on the board game Cranium, but we called it "Creamium" and it was, again, in honor of Masturbation Month. It was hysterically fun sex education, and 110 percent sex positive . We invited community folks to come to this local bar that is very community focused, and we had a few vendors, and the highlight of the night was that random contestants got together and played this great game of Creamium -- asking questions about you know HIV, masturbation, favorite sexual positions -- but all very fun and silly and campy while also providing a sex-positive education message. There are pictures all over our Facebook, so you can look it up. We are going to do it again in May for Masturbation Month.

We also did an event on November 8 that was sort of a spinoff of the popular erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey, as a kick off of Philadelphia Leather Pride Weekend. It was also all sex positive, with more of a focus on the kink community, as in the book. The focus was more on the queer community end, but talking about how people can explore different acts of sex and sexuality that don't necessarily involve more vanilla kinds of traditional sexual expressions.

We have a crazy fun time with the community celebrations. We got a ton of positive feedback. People are bored of just going to a bar and drinking and hanging out. They want a lot more interactive stuff to do, and we absolutely gave them that -- but in addition to that they learned all kinds of stuff that they might not have thought they needed to know, or known where to turn for, you know?

We probably also made some matches, because there were so many people getting pretty close to each other and playing the game that they would not have otherwise been talking to. So it turned in to a dating night too, I think.

That's excellent! And it's all happening in the context of HIV awareness and HIV prevention -- so folks go off and have their fun, but they have all this great information and ways to start dialogue.

There were condoms and lube everywhere, gloves everywhere! Our hope is that we continue to do these community organizations, not just at bars but also at different community-based organizations and even schools. We're working right now to figure out how to create an under-18 project. Obviously youth as early as nine and 10 are exploring sex and sexuality -- and forget talking about pleasure when you're talking about youth and sex. People are really uptight about that. Luckily we have folks on staff, myself included, who are trained to create curriculum, so we want to make something that's youth friendly as well.


Encounter 2: "What If" sex was creative and safe? "What If" you could have a hot time without breaking the flow of playing?


How do you get feedback on the videos and the online component? Is there a form that people fill out after they've watched it, or is it more word-of-mouth or comments on the blog by which you get responses?

That's another thing that I need to put out there. This program is all volunteer run, it's not funded in any sort of way, so our capacity is limited to just working with volunteers and doing some of this stuff outside of work hours. As a consequence of that, we haven't devoted as much time to drumming up publicity around it. So some of the videos get comments while others don't, but we hope that the videos will entice people to engage in dialogue and respond back to us about "liked it," "loved it," "hated it," "what are you doing?" -- that kind of stuff. So right now it's just a few of us who are working on promoting the videos, primarily through social media, Facebook and what-have-you, and encouraging people to please give us feedback, good, bad or other.

The point isn't that you love it; the point is that it entices you to talk about it. You can hate it, but at least you thought enough about it to make a comment, and that's our goal. It's just to get people having a conversation they might not otherwise have.

Why do you think there has been this reticence to embrace sex-positive, pro-pleasure messages when it comes to HIV prevention?

Fear: Fear-based practices have prevailed from the beginning of time when it comes to sex. Fear about pregnancy has always been at the forefront, as has fear about getting HIV since the beginning of the epidemic; and there's always fear about promoting homosexual behavior. Because HIV, from the beginning, has been known as a gay disease, any talk of promoting sex when it relates to HIV is, I believe, automatically equated to promoting homosexual sex. And so that is the ultimate taboo.

"When you use that word [pleasure], I think it provokes some fear for some folks -- because why would you possibly be encouraging people to do something that's pleasurable when doing that thing is putting them at risk?"

When you recognize that HIV is a sexual condition, the consequence of people who are in the throes of passion -- whether they love each other or not is irrelevant, it doesn't matter who the players are -- then you can start having conversations about what motivated people to want to be sexual with somebody else, and usually it's pleasure focused. When you use that word, I think it provokes some fear for some folks -- because why would you possibly be encouraging people to do something that's pleasurable when doing that thing is putting them at risk?

And when you couple that with homophobia, sexism, racism, all these -isms, you're going to get a world of people who don't want the message of sex as pleasurable and healthy getting out there. We're fighting against people who are anti-woman, are anti-gay, all of that. That's a powerful force of folks to fight against. So these projects oftentimes have to get kind of softened a little bit. Even Dr. Kevin Fenton, the now-former director of HIV/AIDS for the CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), got a little pushback because he wanted to include the word "pleasure" in the definition of sexual health, and had to kind of water it down by calling it "sexual fulfillment," for political reasons. I completely applaud his effort and know he was going in the right direction and have every intention of working alongside him, to make sure that pleasure is included in these conversations moving forward. I know it's political, I get that; but the fact that pleasure was taken out of the CDC definition just demonstrates how powerful a force we're working against.

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It sounds like GALAEI's work, and the work of the PleasureRush! program, are focused on communities beyond just the Latino community, despite GALAEI's name. But could you talk a little bit about this campaign as it relates to Latino communities specifically? Was there a particular need among Latino LGBT communities that sort of led that has led you and the folks that you've been working with to create PleasureRush!? What has been the response to the program in Latino communities?

I think that there's a particular need to highlight the fact that Latino communities aren't necessarily any more homophobic or sexist or what-have-you than other communities. There's this myth out there that if you're Latino, you're automatically against homosexuality, you're homophobic, your Catholic -- there are all these myths out there about the Latino community that I have not necessarily found to be true.

In fact, I had the good fortune of interviewing several Latinos from across the world, primarily South America and Mexico, and in the U.S. as well, at the XIX International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C., in July 2012. I didn't ask a leading question; I just said, "Can you tell me what you think the role of pleasure is in HIV prevention?" All I got was positive feedback from folks about the need for it, and talking about it specifically in Latino communities, and the fact that it's a shame that we haven't already been discussing these very real and important issues within HIV prevention specifically for Latinos. The people who are in our videos, some of them happen to be Latino. We have a video now that's primarily in Spanish, with English subtitles

Because we recognize that the myth that Latinos are a little bit more conservative or traditional, or would potentially be against a campaign like this, is just not what we are finding to be true. However, at the same time we also know that sexuality in general remains a taboo topic in many Latino cultures. You don't talk about sex period, let alone sex between same-sex people, let alone pleasure, let alone sex outside of a marriage, or sex outside of procreation. So those sorts of things still exist. I'm not saying that they don't. But what I am saying there is a need and a receptivity from Latinos to this project.

Say there are folks out there reading this article or your blog, who are working in conservative HIV organizations, who really want to start their own campaigns that are pro-pleasure and sex positive, and incorporate some of these more honest messages and imagery into their work, but might not know how to start those conversations, whether within their organizations or as independent volunteers. What advice or guidance would you give to them?

The first thing would be to call us at PleasureRush! [laughs] One of the things that we're working toward is developing toolkits specifically for providers so that they know how to make their agencies, their work, their curriculum more sex positive. Our hope is that we create toolkits that are specifically designed for providers, whether they work in HIV or family planning, so that they know how to incorporate sex-positive language, messaging and images into the work they're doing -- so that people feel like they're not doing it alone, and that they don't have to reinvent the wheel. There is stuff already out there that's sex positive; it's not a new concept. In fact, when HIV first got here in the '80s, HIV community work was far more sex positive than it is now. It's not reinventing anything.


Encounter 6: "What If" you get to know your status?


You can call us and we'll help guide you through the process. I would also just look at what the responses are from the people you're serving. Are you only talking about HIV in terms of the medications that people are taking? Do your intake forms include questions like: Are you enjoying your sex life? Are you having sex? Why or why not? Is sex even talked about in your office space at all? That would be a place to start. Because I think there is oftentimes a sense that HIV automatically means not necessarily a death sentence, but a death to your sex life. We at GALAEI are sex positive, and so we are having conversations with our clients, be they HIV positive or high-risk HIV negative, around "You can still have a pleasurable sex life. You deserve it!" We believe it's a human right.

"If the thought of having a conversation with a client about sex scares you, then don't have that conversation until you're ready, because your discomfort is going to speak volumes."

To providers who are considering their own documentation, their own questions that they're asking of clients, first and foremost -- and I hate to sound like Gandhi -- but start with yourself. If the thought of having a conversation with a client about sex scares you, then don't have that conversation until you're ready, because your discomfort is going to speak volumes. So, it's about getting in touch not necessarily your own sexuality but your own stuff, with your own comfort, around your views on sexuality. This is bigger than just individuals and what they do in their bedroom. This is about messages that we got at an early age from our family, from our church, from our teachers, from our lovers. It's pretty deep, and it's a societal condition. Get in touch with that, get in touch with GALAEI and we'll be fine. [laughs] We'll be sex positive together.

In closing: I want people to be open-minded -- be it funders, community folks or ourselves as providers. Just be open -- that's all I ask. Even as providers, I think oftentimes we feel like our hands are tied because of lack of funding. There's ways around that. PleasureRush! is not publically funded, and we're doing this. I don't want to jinx it and I don't want to say we will never get public funds! But if you have an idea that you think needs to happen, and you believe in something with all of your might, there is a way to make it happen.

For more information about PleasureRush!, their videos and other community activities, check out the PleasureRush! blog. You can also "like" PleasureRush! on Facebook.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Olivia Ford is the executive editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.


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