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Interventions Can Ease Dangers of Cybersex: Counselors Educate While in Chatrooms

October 1, 2003

Two successful Internet prevention programs targeted at MSM who use the Internet to meet anonymous sex partners could easily be replicated. Each site compiled a database on HIV/AIDS resources and facts that allows it to quickly answer questions, make referrals, and communicate safe sex messages.

Prevention Organizations With Empowerment Resources On The Net (PowerON) of Seattle and SexEd4U of Ferndale, Mich., provide counselors with training in deflecting sexual propositions and understanding common Internet symbols and abbreviations, said Jeffrey Neil Weldon, program director of the Friend-to-Friend Project and PowerON of the HIV/AIDS Project Development and Evaluation Unit of the School of Social Work at the University of Washington-Seattle.

SexEd4U, a program of the Midwest AIDS Prevention Project, sent letters to gay publications and newspapers announcing the intervention was legitimate to establish trust and rapport with Internet users. When HIV counselors -- who log on using SexEd4U as their pseudonym -- found the same questions coming up repeatedly, they established a topic-of-the-month feature. The counselors provide answers promptly because about 80 percent of people in MSM sex chatrooms are looking for casual sex partners and will not waste much time with other agendas, according to Michael Odom, SexEd4U project director.

SexEd4U receives no grants or extra funding but relies on a core group of committed HIV counselors. SexEd4U has averaged three MSM interventions during each one-hour online discussion in the past year, Odom added, and has made referrals to local agencies for HIV testing, treatment and other services.

"We knew that saying it was about HIV prevention wouldn't interest people, so we marketed it as a gay health site," said PowerON's Weldon. PowerON's $150,000 two-year budget pays for referral site research and Web site design. PowerON's referral service, updated monthly, helps users find the agency and the particular staffer who can help them with a problem or issue. The site received more than 55,000 hits in its first two months.

Internet HIV prevention interventions have two advantages over traditional interventions: They reach people when they are seeking an anonymous sexual partner, and they give people anonymity regarding their questions and problems, Weldon said.

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Excerpted from:
AIDS Alert

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