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Gay clubs set new safety standards

Clubs are a popular place for picking up partners Keystone Archive

A minimum standards charter for gay clubs and saunas has been launched in a bid to curb the rise in HIV among Swiss homosexual men.

This content was published on January 18, 2004 - 12:10

Gay organisations and the Swiss Federal Health Office hope the move will boost the use of condoms during casual sex and stop complacency about Aids.

During 2002, the rate of HIV infections among homosexual men in Switzerland went up by 37 per cent, highlighting the fact that public anti-Aids campaigns were no longer reaching a major target group.

Moël Volken, director of the gay association Pink Cross, says some gay men have become tired of hearing the same message of gloom and doom.

“If you keep hearing that children in Africa are starving one year after the other, then ten years later you won’t be able to raise money anymore with that message. You have to find a new message. That’s exactly what’s happened with Aids,” Volken told swissinfo.

Roger Staub, head of the Health Office’s Aids section, adds that the fear of Aids has diminished because of medical advances.

“The main change in the last seven or eight years is that it is no longer a question of life and death,” said Staub. “The new treatments available since 1997 in Switzerland have changed the face of Aids for homosexual men.”

Fifty-five year old Fred Kappeler, a gay sauna owner who lost his business partner to Aids, believes young gay men are the most complacent.

“[In my generation] we all knew people who died... but now we have young people who don’t see Aids as a drastic illness,” he explains. “It used to be a death penalty to hear 'I’m HIV positive', but today’s generation don’t know anyone who has died.”

Saunas

Spearheading the new initiative is the new gay trade organisation, Vegas.

The association will play a key role in bringing the minimum standards to establishments popular with the gay community, particularly those that are similar to fitness clubs.

These are often equipped with a swimming pool, whirlpool, sauna and a training gym.

Some also have video cabins showing gay porn and have areas designated for sexual encounters. According to research, some of the sexual activity taking place within these facilities happens without condom use (see related story).

The Pink Cross believes that targeting gay clubs and saunas is the best way of reaching men who are at high risk of contracting HIV through casual sex - something it has not been able to do so far.

“[We are in contact] with gay men who live conscientiously and we don’t reach gay men who go only to saunas. Pink Cross has 2,300 members but there are 200,000 gay men in Switzerland,” said Volken.

Safe sex

Staub admits that the authorities are partly to blame for the disregard for safe sex. Buoyed by the success of early Aids campaigns in the eighties and nineties – which led to a fall in new HIV cases - the Health Office may have been guilty of resting on its laurels.

“We realise that we have not been working hard enough within this target group during the last five years,” Staub says.

“Because the first years of work against Aids were quite successful and everybody said the numbers were going down, we probably forgot that you have to keep communicating the same message, even if everybody knows it already.”

The new standards, created by the Health Office in consultation with gay organisations, stipulate that condoms and lubrication should be available free of charge in gay establishments.

It also says that facilities should be cleaned thoroughly every day and that anti-HIV and Aids posters should be clearly displayed and leaflets distributed.

Business need

Gay clubs and saunas will have to respect the new standards or could risk facing closure, according to Vegas.

“The gay community is sensible enough to see that we need to adhere to standards,” says Kappeler, a founding member of Vegas, which requires all members to comply with the new charter.

Vegas hopes to attract new members by offering benefits such as discounts on bulk purchases of condoms, lubricants, towels, soaps and other items necessary for business.

The Health Office will also be launching a bold new poster campaign in 2004, using colour photos similar to advertisements for phone sex or other sexual services. The posters will contain a health warning, like those found on cigarette packets.

The government body also plans to extend the concept of minimum standards to heterosexual premises where sex takes place, a move which would require cantonal support.

swissinfo, Faryal Mirza

In brief

The Federal Health Office, Swiss Aids Federation, Pink Cross and Vegas have launched a scheme to introduce minimum safety standards in gay clubs where sex takes place.

The new standards stipulate that condoms and lubrication should be available free of charge in gay establishments and that facilities should be cleaned thoroughly every day.

The rate of HIV infection among Swiss gays increased in 2002 by 37%.

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