Despite decades of efforts to get people talking openly about HIV, discussing safe sex at a party still isn’t hip. But former nightlife promoter Eli Dancy hopes to make “Hey, baby, have you had an HIV test lately?” a respectable pickup line with his STFree Card (www.stfree.com)—as in STD-free. He’s even recruited his own entourage of hotties, the Safe Sex Angels, to promote it at public events.
The wallet-size card displays the owner’s photo and an ID number. You give potential bedmates a secure code that they can use online or through a 24-hour hot line to review your recent lab-certified HIV test results. (A lifetime membership costs $20, including a phone tutorial about HIV and condoms.) Just knowing test results, however, no matter how reliable the gizmo reporting them, doesn’t guarantee safety—since a cardholder could, of course, have been infected subsequently. What the STFree site calls “a safe sex license” some critics have dubbed merely “a license for unsafe sex.”
Other prevention innovations, like the Internet Notification Service for Partners or Tricks (inSPOT.org), an e-mail card that anonymously informs partners that someone has exposed them to an STD, also hope to make a safe sex conversation easier. But does STFree make that conversation entirely about test results instead of self-protection? Dancy says no, contending that every call also offers information about the importance of condoms and suggests that the card be used as an icebreaker for broaching the topics of STDs and safer sex.
Dancy—who is HIV negative—managed professional escorts and exotic dancers for years. Having witnessed daily what he calls irresponsible sexual behavior, he says he conducted research and discovered that his Brooklyn neighborhood had one of the highest HIV rates in New York City. “No one ever gave me a condom or safe sex info, so I knew my homeboys weren’t getting them either,” he says. “People here still think you have to be a homosexual or crackhead to have HIV.” So Dancy launched STFree, in 2004, hoping to raise awareness “in a cool way” among the young and urban, especially African Americans.
Cardholder Miriam Medina, 25, says, “If a guy hits on me, I can pull out the card and make a joke” to lighten the topic. “The responses have been totally cool.” Dancy also hopes the cards’ eye-catching styles will make people proud to flash them. Options include a red model designed for the street gang the Bloods and a blue one for its rival, the Crips, among others. Dancy has already registered 12,000 members in New York and hopes to take the popular card national.
Studies show that HIV transmission most often occurs when people don’t know that they’re positive, so STFree’s testing push is a plus. Also, prevention strategies tailored to communities, like Dancy’s, could help get HIV infection rates in the U.S. to dip for the first time in a decade. But can we encourage testing and safe sex in a fresh, catchy way without suggesting that learning someone’s test results is prevention enough?
Or, perhaps, we could stick this on the plastic or in the e-mail text: you can never truly know another person's HIV status. The decision to have unsafe sex after asking when a potential partner was last tested and what that person has been doing in bed since, requires trusting a human being, not an automated service. Membership has its privileges—and its responsibilities.