Dr. Monica Sweeney, the city's assistant commissioner for HIV/AIDS prevention and control, did not speak, as scheduled, at last night's community forum about a controversial HIV campaign that has angered AIDS activists.
The forum was organized by Gay Men's Health Crisis. Spurred by the release of a visually jarring Department of Health anti-AIDS campaign, the meeting's goal was to open a discussion about effective ways to construct HIV prevention messages. Sweeney, who up until now has been the public face of the defense of the campaign, was slated to speak on the panel, but sent the DOH's Dr. Blayne Cutler in her stead.
"The city releases this gory, stigmatizing video, doesn't consult anyone in the AIDS community, and then its top brass ignores efforts to make suggestions," said Kristin Goodwin, Housing Works' director of New York City policy and organizing.
In December, the city health department launched a video featuring bloody anuses and rotten bones, designed to teach young men to use condoms to avoid HIV. The piece aired on TV for two months. Much of the local (and national) AIDS and LGBT community harshly criticized the ad, arguing that it increases stigma and discourages testing. Since, the city has rolled out a subway poster version of the campaign.
At the forum, Cutler, DOH's director of HIV prevention, defended the city: "Through our focus groups, young men said to us ... 'You need to be direct, you need to be hard-hitting. So this is the approach we've taken."
But a number of panelists and audience members -- many of them living with HIV -- continued to attack the campaign's sinister tone, questioning its efficacy in changing behavior, the validity of the statistics presented, and the choice of a bloody anus as imagery. "I think you can be honest without scaring the crap out of people," said Oriol Gutierrez, deputy editor at POZ Magazine and HIV-positive for 20 years.
Meanwhile, Natalie Wittlin, project coordinator at Columbia's Department of Sociomedical Sciences, has launched a petition calling on the DOH to halt the campaign. Sign on.
Editor Kellee Terrell of the Body.com criticized the ad's tactics last night.