Study by York University professor Trevor Hart surveyed gay, bisexual men at 2005 Toronto Gay Pride Festival
HIV-positive gay and bisexual men who believe current drug treatments make it more difficult to transmit the virus that causes AIDS are much more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors than those who don’t share that belief, according to a study conducted by a professor at York University.
Dr. Trevor Hart, a clinical psychologist and professor in York University’s Department of Psychology, surveyed 554 gay and bisexual men who attended the 2005 Toronto Gay Pride Festival. Hart’s intent was to study examine the relationship in Canada between risky sexual behavior and men’s ideas about Highly-Active Anti-Retroviral Therapy (HAART), the HIV drug cocktail used since 1996 to prolong the lives of HIV-positive individuals.
Of those who participated, more than 81 percent were HIV-negative, according to a statement released by the University on Aug. 18. Another 13.7 percent were HIV-positive and about 5 percent were uncertain of their HIV status, the news release said.
Participants were asked about their sex lives over the preceding six months with both long-term and short-term sexual partners. Risky sex was defined as unprotected insertive or receptive anal intercourse with partners of unknown or opposite HIV-status.
Hart said the study results indicate that HIV-positive men who believe the drugs make it more difficult to transmit the virus were three-and-a- half to ten times more likely to have unprotected sex with someone whose HIV status was unknown or who were known to be HIV-negative.
Hart said the study also highlights a strong association between beliefs about the drugs and risky sex that is consistent with most studies performed in the United States and elsewhere. But it is impossible to know where those beliefs caused the risky sexual behavior, he said.
However, Hart said, in contrast to most earlier studies, his study distinguished between unprotected insertive anal sex and unprotected receptive anal sex.
Hart said his study found that HIV-positive men who believed the drugs were effective at preventing HIV transmission were six times more likely to have unprotected insertive sex with casual partners who were HIV-negative or whose status they did not know.
Among the larger sample of HIV-negative men in the study, those who believed the drugs were effective in preventing transmission were three times as likely to have unprotected receptive sex with a longer-term partner known to be positive or whose status was unknown.
Hart said the study’s findings show that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, since those with a little knowledge about HIV medications are relaxing their vigilance.
“Gay and bisexual men are much better educated about AIDS than most heterosexuals. But we need to get the message out that while the drugs may reduce the risk of transmitting the virus, the viral load in a man’s genital tract may not be the same as in his blood sample,” he said.
“So,” he added, “unprotected sex is still very risky for transmitting HIV.”
A separate study, also conducted by Hart, indicates that religion is more important than ethnicity when it comes to predicting who will engage in risky sexual behaviors.
Hart surveyed 500 undergraduate students at York, and he and his research team found that among sexually active students, Catholics, other Christians and Jews were more likely than non-religious students to have engaged in unprotected sex within the past six months. Those students were, however, not more likely to be sexually active, according to the study’s results.
“The good thing about these findings is if people are members of a religious community, religious leaders can guide their members to reduce their HIV risk. It is logistically more difficult to reach non-religious people with HIV-prevention messages,” Hart said.
Only about 10 percent of the study sample had been tested for HIV, Hart said, and many said they would be anxious about being judged by other people for even getting tested.
In fact, people with high anxiety about being judged by others are only half as likely as others to say they could get tested in the future, Hart said. He said that the Public Health Agency of Canada has reported that about 30 percent of the people in Canada who have HIV do not know it.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, August 25, 2006.