Safe-sex campaign targets modern-day Don Juan

The Swiss Aids Federation has completed the nationwide pilot phase of a project that for once, does not specifically target the gay community, prostitutes or drug users.

This content was published on June 17, 2000 minutes

Instead the campaign, dubbed the "Don Juan" project, urges heterosexual men to take responsibility for their own actions, by making sure they, and not their sexual partners, are the ones to insist on wearing condoms.

It means breaking down the deeply-ingrained attitudes of many men towards wearing condoms.

Planning the project started in 1997, but the first nationwide pilot project was completed this year. Dr Christina Hofmann, director of prevention at the Swiss Aids Federation, says local volunteers pitched tents in the red-light districts of Switzerland's major cities: Geneva, Lausanne, Basel, Zurich and Lucerne, and engaged in what she calls, "face-to-face education."

"Three educators were in the street and approached clients on their way to prostitutes or on their way back from prostitutes...and asked them about their knowledge of sexually transmitted diseases."

The tents were pitched firstly to let people know there was something special going on in the streets, and secondly, to give clients an atmosphere of privacy.

In total, around 800 men were approached with over half getting involved in deep discussions with the Don Juan workers, talking about their sexuality, their needs and their feeling about safe sex.

For Dr Hofmann, the level of response was higher than expected:

"We were very much surprised. When we planned the project we expected that we would experience some aggression but nothing like that happened. The men we approached were very interested, we realised there is a real need, they wanted to talk about sexual needs, about their behaviour....we never thought we would approach 800 men."

One of the men who has got involved in the project is known to his friends as "Wolf". He has been married for 28 years, and has a 27 year-old daughter who, he admits, knows nothing about his colourful past.

"If you don't get your needs as a man fulfilled at go out of the door and look for happiness," Wolf says.

Wolf estimates he has slept with around 400-500 women since he was 14 years old. He has traveled the world looking for adventure. His behaviour nearly cost him his marriage. Now reformed, he says the value of a project like Don Juan is that it gets people talking about Aids.

"When I was 20, 25, 30, nobody talked about Aids, no one even knew the started when I was 40, around 14 or 15 years ago, then they started with Aids. But before then we had syphilis and so on, but Aids? No-one had heard of it."

He says his attitude towards condoms in his younger days was that wearing one while making love was like taking a shower while standing under an umbrella. It was when Aids first made world headlines in the mid-80s that Wolf started re-evaluating his life.

"I was in Venezuela. I was thinking, no, with me it cannot happen, I cannot get Aids. But it was crazy thinking."

He says he soon realised he was gambling with his life. He now says the last time he cheated on his wife was five years ago, and got involved with Don Juan to give the project his experience.

However, the project has been criticised for it lack of visibility. Brigitte Obrist, from the Berne-based prostitutes' organisation, Xenia, says she began working on a similar concept in 1995.

"All these years, clients have been men. There are projects for women, but there are no projects for Aids and men - only for homosexual men. But when you look at it, a man can be bisexual, homosexual, can be a client of a prostitute, and then return to his wife or girlfriend. He has the most risk of spreading HIV."

She agrees the project is a good idea, but says the biggest problem is its lack of profile. "If you ask somebody, 'what is Don Juan?' they have never heard of it, and that is the problem."

"You cannot just make a project targeting clients of prostitutes, you must make a project for heterosexual men, and say all heterosexual men can, potentially, be clients, and it is not interesting in which specific situation they do not wear condoms. You must bring the message over to men so that they start thinking that wearing condoms is trendy."

From her own experience working in the sex industry, she says the most common excuses from men who do not want to wear condoms are firstly, that they are clean (not HIV positive), that they cannot feel anything while wearing one, or that they are allergic to rubber.

But Obrist says, "It is not a question of feeling, it is a question of power." Clients try to haggle over the price if the condom issue is raised.

Obrist estimates around 50,000 women are working illegally as prostitutes. She says they may not have the clout of a legal prostitute to stand their ground and insist on the client wearing a condom, if they are under pressure to bring a certain amount of money to their pimp, or they are afraid of being caught out by the authorities. For her, it is vital that men are made to take more responsibility.

Wolf agrees with Obrist that the projects needs more publicity. Although the project has a simple message, he says the biggest problem for men is that, "when the small friend is up, the brain goes down". He says that in the heat of the moment, many men are prepared to risk their lives.

Dr Hofmann of the Swiss Aids Federation, however, says the pilot has been hailed a success, and that follow-up projects are in the pipeline.

by Jamsheda Ahmad

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