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Bringing Sexy Back: Chris Tipton-King and the PrEP Project

July 19, 2017

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Chris Tipton-King

Chris Tipton-King (Courtesy of Chris Tipton-King)

Condoms, condoms, condoms have been the major HIV-prevention sex message from health care professionals since the beginning of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, and putting a rubber on a banana was the most graphic and homoerotic image out there. Filmmaker Chris Tipton-King is breaking those rules, giving us the PrEP Project, a web series that's funny, smart, well made and sexy as hell. It's so not-safe-for-work sexy that the videos were taken down from Facebook for their R-rated sensual scenes.

The PrEP Project was funded entirely by private donors on a shoestring budget, and it has garnered thousands and thousands of views since its release. West coastie Chris and I had a long-distance chat recently about his project, condoms, PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) and sexy health messaging.

Charles Sanchez: Greetings from the East Coast!

Chris Tipton-King: Hey, Charles!

CS: Congratulations on the PrEP Project. It's amazing.

CT-K: Thank you.

CS: It's funny and smart and really hot.

CT-K: (Laughs) Well, I'm trying to bring sex back into sex education.

CS: Right? Oh my gosh, it's like there's this dearth of anything sexy in HIV messaging. It's the elephant in the room. I guess it's because we're American that we shy away from putting the sex in sex education.

CT-K: That seems to be the trend. Our nation has this kind of weird or puritanical heritage of not wanting to talk about sex.

CS: Damn pilgrims!

CT-K: Right! Yeah, it keeps a lot of important conversations from happening.

CS: I agree! I just saw on Facebook last week that the PrEP Project is being translated into four different languages. How did that happen?

CT-K: For Spanish, I actually hired a translator. But there's this fantastic group on Facebook called PrEP Facts that has 17,000 people in it, and I've been posting about the videos there, and people are so excited about it that I had volunteers volunteer to translate the subtitles into French and Polish -- and someone recently, without even asking, translated one of the videos into Greek! And we're working on Vietnamese and Chinese, too.

CS: That's amazing. Congratulations.

CT-K: You hear stories of people putting stuff on the internet and being shocked that people around the world are finding it. It actually took me by surprise. It's really U.S. specific, and I use statistics in the messaging that's specific to the United States audience, but especially Episode 1 got to a lot of other countries where PrEP is brand-new. They've got no messaging so far, so people are saying, "Wow, this is great! Fantastic! I want to use it in my country."

CS: I think that these truths are universal. I think it's great that the videos are very gay. Gay people have historically been the leaders in the HIV everything, so I love that that these videos are so freaking gay!

Something somebody said that I really liked was that "finally someone is putting out a video that doesn't reduce gay men to cheap corny animation like bananas."

CT-K: Something somebody said that I really liked was that "finally someone is putting out a video that doesn't reduce gay men to cheap corny animation like bananas." Of course, there's a banana! But people are responding to that it's real people in real situations.

CS: Yeah absolutely! What was your initial impetus? What made you want to do this kind of a project?

CT-K: I wanted to do something about HIV prevention. When I started doing research initially, I found the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2013] said only 16.9% of gay men use condoms consistently [for HIV prevention]. Being a gay guy in my thirties living in big cities, you get the wave of "use a condom every time" messaging from every angle all the time. I had this sense that everyone is [wearing a condom all the time], and to find out that the number-one prevention strategy for the last 30 years was actually not that effective, and has not been very effective for a number of years, was really eye-opening. It felt like, OK, well, if this isn't working, we need to come up with something else. At the same time I was doing this research, PrEP was in clinical trials and then became publically available, and it seemed like, aha!

I was in grad school for cinema, and I took a break for a few years to start a business, and in that time, four years later, PrEP's been out. It surprised me that it hadn't the kind of popularity it should. The CDC has numbers for how many people should be on PrEP, and it's a lot of people. Currently only about 12 to 15% of the people who the CDC says should be on PrEP are actually on it, despite somewhere between 65 to 75% of guys being aware of it. And so, it felt like something had to be done.

CS: There's the whole slut-shaming, whore mentality about PrEP. Those messages seem like they came out hand in hand: that if you use PrEP you're a whore. Do you think that's part of the reason why people aren't using PrEP so widely?

CT-K: I think it's a couple things. This culture of not openly talking about sex doesn't help, and the shame associated with barebacking.

Over the years, our community suffered from such trauma from the AIDS crisis in the '80s, right?

Using a condom started to be framed not just a medical intervention, but as a moral choice: that if you use a condom you're protecting partner, you're protecting yourself, you're protecting the community and to not use a condom was an amoral choice. And that was a useful attitude to a point.

Condom culture was a useful thing. But I think that because of the way [condom use] became conflated with morality, now it's kind of hard to get people to let go, even though the science has moved on.

CS: Well, certainly when it was a life-and-death situation, yeah.

CT-K: Absolutely. Condom culture was a useful thing. But I think that because of the way [condom use] became conflated with morality, now it's kind of hard to get people to let go, even though the science has moved on. So, I think it comes down to rationalizing what is really an emotional feeling that condoms are the right thing to do.

When it comes to PrEP and the idea that people might not want to use a condom, the science is pretty clear. PrEP is very effective. The fact of it is that it's a good medical intervention. The people who are worried that, "Oh no! People are going to stop using condoms and there's going to be this [sexually transmitted infection] rampage!" Well, of course, we don't want anyone to get sick, but on a scale of one to 10 ...

CS: What's a little Chlamydia between friends, right?

CT-K: (Laughter) Well on the scale of problems, HIV is still a much bigger problem! And ... and ... and ... I had a second point and I lost it ...

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