I can’t speak for all of Southern Africa, but certainly, the area where I’m currently doing HIV/AIDS work is inundated in HIV/AIDS ad campaigns. There are ten million taglines, ten billion posters and stickers and t-shirts and events and commercials and shoutouts on the radio and and and …. Every other billboard is HIV-related. Every khumbi (van in the public transit system) has at least one sticker. Every class in school incorporates AIDS into the curriculum; even kids studying math draw graphs of HIV prevalence. I have never seen anything like this level of media coverage for anything in America, anything at all.

I was recently intrigued to note a new permutation on the back of a sports magazine. (Sorry, these images aren’t great — there ain’t no scanners here, so I had to use my digital camera.)

One of the hardest things to do here is get southern African men to test and to talk. Women are perfectly willing to speak about how multiple partners contributes to the disease’s spread, for instance; women are, indeed, usually eager to discuss some of the problems of abuse and male entitlement that are contributing to HIV/AIDS. (Warning: that link is really depressing.) Men, not so much.

Here’s an article describing the campaign whose ad I’m highlighting here. Excerpt:

Until now, most AIDS schemes have centred on health centres, which are used mainly by women.

“It is hard to go to a clinic and acknowledge your vulnerability as a man,” said Dean Peacock, coordinator at Sonke Gender Justice Network, one of the groups working to engage men.

But men still hold the upper hand in sexual relations, so the “Brothers for Life” campaign aims to convince men to use condoms while also improving their access to treatment.

Currently, women account for three quarters of the HIV tests conducted in South Africa, and two thirds of the anti-retroviral drugs dispensed. What’s more, men tend to seek treatment later than women, when their immune systems are already weakened.

“There is nothing especially made for men. We need to do something to talk to men,” said Mzi Lwana, head of the Men and Aids program at the HIV research unit at Witwatersrand University.

The “Brothers for Life” icon, in the ad’s lower right corner, looks like this:

Which sure looks manly to me. But the most interesting and culturally revealing part is the text, which I’ll close-up on:

“There is a new man in South Africa. A man who takes responsibility for his actions. A man who chooses a single partner over multiple chances with HIV. A man whose self-worth is not determined by the number of women he can have. A man who makes no excuses for unprotected sex, even after drinking. A man who supports his partner and protects his children. A man who respects his woman and never lifts a hand to her. A man who knows that the choices we make today will determine whether we see tomorrow. I am that man. And you are my brother. Yenza kahle — do the right thing.”

This reminds me of a presentation I saw at the 2009 Alternative Sexualities conference at the Center on Halsted; I was on a panel about BDSM communities, but secretly I was most excited about the chance to sit in on the other panels and lectures. One of my favorites was a gent named David Moskowitz from the Center for Disease Control, who told us that a whopping 25% of leathermen surveyed at International Mr. Leather tested HIV-positive, and correlated the risk of unsafe sex with a host of interesting factors such as whether the person in question was dominant, submissive, a switch, etc. (Moskowitz planned to publish his data in an upcoming issue of “Journal of AIDS and Behavior”, but I don’t know whether that happened or not.)

After describing the statistics, he started to talk about possible interventions. The gay leather subculture is very focused on ideals of masculinity; I asked whether he’d considered a “masculinity campaign” around condom usage.

“Yeah, that would be interesting, wouldn’t it?” he said. “Be a man, use a condom …. Right now we’re focusing on recruiting community leaders to talk about safer sex, though. We’ve found allying with such figures to be the most effective strategy.”

I wish I could ask David Moskowitz about this South Africa campaign. Is this really going to work — even a little? Is it possible to influence, to remake, something as deep-rooted as gender conceptions with a publicity campaign? Does it make sense to try and redefine manliness to a purpose? Isn’t that kind of patronizing to men? The two questions I find myself caught between most are, firstly, is it a useful campaign — and secondly, is it a morally good one?

One interesting point that came up in the fracas that resulted from my three masculinity posts (followup coming soon, really! I’ve been busy with a conference) was that many men who are genuinely willing to talk about gender are frustrated and alienated by discussions of masculinity because those discussions are not male-centered. Is the Brothers for Life campaign focused on men’s needs, or is it attempting to redefine masculinity in a way that men will perceive as serving an agenda that doesn’t work for them?

The thing that makes me feel less uneasy about that is that it’s men running the campaign, and so I don’t feel quite as much as if values are being imposed. Additionally, the campaign seems quite concerned about — not just stopping abuses by men — but creating space for men to get testing, counseling, et cetera. I think the idea of having a male-centered clinic is smart, for instance, because I see so very many clinics and testing facilities staffed almost entirely (if not entirely) by women. I suppose one could make the argument that this is “men’s fault” for not stepping up as much as women do, but perhaps this is due less to social irresponsibility than to general male discomfort in relevant spaces.