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Cyber Counselors Spread Safe-Sex Message

Gay chat rooms targeted to prevent STD outbreaks

SUNDAY, Feb. 3, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- In an online world where almost anything goes, cyber counselors from the Bible Belt to San Francisco want to make sure no one forgets safe sex.

Each night, they log on to the major Internet providers and enter chat rooms aimed at gay men. There, they offer tips about how to avoid sexually transmitted diseases during real-life encounters.

"In certain ways, chat rooms are the bars of the new millennium," says Joseph Interrante, executive director of Nashville CARES, an AIDS agency that sponsors an online counseling program. "It's important to be right there to provide prevention information."

Several outbreaks of STDs have been linked to chat rooms, bringing national attention to the debate over how to bring more sex education to the Internet. In San Francisco, health officials have counted 16 cases of syphilis this year among men who frequent gay chat rooms.

Like bars and bathhouses before them, chat rooms have revolutionized how gay men meet each other. Instead of going out, men can look for dates from the comfort of their own homes. Chat rooms are especially useful for men in rural or suburban areas who cannot meet dates easily, says Dan Wohlfeiler, former education director of San Francisco's Stop AIDS Project.

Of course, not everyone in a chat room is looking for the same thing. "Some of them want a one-night stand, some of them want marriage," Wohlfeiler says. "Some of them will be very explicit about what they are sexually, and some won't."

The cyber counseling program at Nashville CARES may be the oldest in the country. Paid workers have been going online for five years.

Kevin Lawson, one of the online workers with Nashville CARES, says he enters chat rooms and looks at the member "profiles," which reveal personal interests. He searches for words that imply that they want risky sex.

"I'll go ahead and (send an instant message) to them and start a conversation," he says. "I don't always ask, 'Hey, do you want information?' You start talking and flirting a bit to get them engaged, then you start talking about HIV and safer sex, making sure they understand what they're getting into."

Most of the men understand the basics of how STDs are transmitted, although some under 25 are shockingly uninformed, Lawson says. One young man thought he could only get AIDS from someone over 30.

"You get them to challenge what they're believing, and maybe they'll make a change," Lawson says.

Other cyber counselors aren't as direct as Lawson. In San Francisco, volunteers for the Stop AIDS Project sit quietly in chat rooms and wait to be approached by the curious. "It's very clear: They say, 'We are not the sex police. We're here to answer questions,'" Wohlfeiler says.

Of course, not everyone is receptive to suggestions about safer sex, he says: "There's a set of guys who are perfectly capable of being 100 percent safe, another group that occasionally has unsafe sex, and a third group that doesn't appear to care what kind of sex they have or with whom."

It's hard to measure whether the cyber counselors are having any effect on the sex lives of men who frequent chat rooms.

But Marc Cohen, a Miami AIDS activist and cyber counselor who spends up to 40 hours a week online, says his efforts are working. He has seen some men take code words for an interest in unsafe sex -- like "uninhibited" and "barebacker" -- out of their profiles after talking to him. One man began acknowledging he is HIV-positive.

"It is making quite a positive impact," Cohen says. "It's an attempt to heal the community from the inside out."

What To Do

If you're at risk for AIDS, consider getting an HIV test. Learn about HIV tests and what they mean from this San Francisco AIDS Foundation fact sheet.

Syphilis outbreaks have also been linked to chat rooms. Learn more about the disease from the American Social Health Association.

SOURCES: Interviews with Joseph Interrante, Ph.D., executive director, Nashville CARES, Nashville, Tenn.; Kevin Lawson, HIV program coordinator, Nashville CARES; Dan Wohlfeiler, researcher, University of California at San Francisco, and former education director, Stop AIDS Project; Marc Cohen, president, United Foundation for AIDS, Miami
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