Bringing Sexy Back: Chris Tipton-King and the PrEP Project
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!
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.
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 ...
CS: I'm sorry. I apologize; I distracted you. Well, I've always said about PrEP, if this pill would have come out in the middle of the AIDS crisis in the '80s, it would have been considered a miracle. What makes it any less miraculous today? It's a miracle that there is this medication that people can take to keep them from getting the virus, and the fact that people aren't on the PrEP bandwagon is just mind-boggling to me.
CT-K: Yeah, it is. There are some cultural barriers, and I also hear the argument that, "well, young gay men just aren't afraid of HIV like they should be." I think that what we have to realize -- and this is kind of a shocking thing to say -- but I think there isn't actually as much of an alarm response, right? That HIV in 2017 is a treatable condition, right? That people aren't dying of AIDS.
CS: Right. So, maybe people don't need to be as afraid of it as they used to be.
CT-K: Right. The calculus is different, and the motivation to use condoms is different. It's still a huge health problem; it's still not something anyone wants to get, and PrEP seems to be the obvious solution.
CS: Now I know why you're doing the PrEP Project. Tell me about your creative process. You said you wanted to put sex back into sex education, what made you think, "This is the approach I want to take?"
CT-K: Looking at the effort to get the word out about PrEP so far, there was a lot of timidness on about it because it was very controversial in the beginning. ... Oh, I just remembered my point from earlier, can we go back a little?
CS: Of course!
CT-K: I was going to say that a lot of people were doing a lot of hand wringing, "Oh, no, people are going to stop using condoms," and the deal with PrEP is, people who are using PrEP now were not using condoms in the first place! So, it's not like PrEP is causing this mass abandonment of condoms!
CS: That's a good point.
CT-K: So moving on, when you look at the PrEP messaging so far, with very few exceptions, the messaging about PrEP seems to be avoiding the target market: people who are at high risk for not using condoms, right? Especially gay guys. And a lot of the organizations traditionally tasked with doing the marketing work around this are also organizations that kind of can't, by nature, come out and say, "Well, it's fine if you don't use condoms!"
And let me be clear: I am not trying to say you should stop using condoms. That's absolutely not the point, right? I think that if you're using condoms, that's great, you should keep doing it. The problem is this vast majority of people aren't using condoms consistently, and those are the people that should be on PrEP.
CS: We need to know what our choices are.
CT-K: It's a radical idea, but there are valid reasons people do not want to use a condom: personal, intimate feelings about it, or that your physiology does not work well with condoms. Not to mention sex! Like, there was a blog post that came out a month ago, and the headline was "PrEP Messaging Finally Gets Homoerotic!" and the example of what was homoerotic was two guys looking each other on a subway car! It was so vanilla. Come on guys! You know this is about sex, right? The message has to get attention, and it has to be sexy.
I realized that it would be somewhat controversial to start off what is basically an HIV prevention series with Eric Paul Leue ranting about what he hates about condoms.
CS: I thought that was great. I could all relate to it in a very real way. Like the scene where you have to stop the sexy action to put on a condom, all that that stuff that's in that scene, how icky post-sex condoms are, etcetera. I thought that was so great. It almost made me embarrassed! Like you had been there with me or something.
CT-K: What I'm trying to say is, hey, we get it! If you don't like condoms, if you don't do condoms, it's not the end of the world. There is still something you can do to be safe, and it's not a moral choice.
CS: I love that in the series you also talk about other, alternative -- I hate saying it like this but -- taboos or perceived taboos of threesomes and other kinds of sexual practices (wink-wink, nudge-nudge), things that aren't often mentioned in any kind of health videos or messaging.
CT-K: If I were to come up with an overarching thesis of the project, it would be that we need more knowledge and less fear.
CS: Amen brother!
CT-K: No judgment, no stigma, no shame: Those are all things we should we should work on having less of in the gay community as a whole.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.