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AIDS Program Cleared by CDC

Federally funded workshops were criticized as promoting sexual activity.

February 14, 2003|Eric Malnic | Times Staff Writer

Federal health reviewers have cleared controversial Stop AIDS Project workshops in San Francisco that had been criticized as potentially obscene and appearing to promote sexual activity, in violation of government guidelines.

Review teams from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have concluded that "the design and delivery of Stop AIDS prevention activities was based on current accepted behavioral science theories in the area of health promotion," Dr. Julie L. Gerberding, director of the CDC, wrote in a letter Thursday.

The controversy began in August 2001, when Rep. Mark E. Souder (R-Ind.) complained about the workshops to Gerberding's boss, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson.

Thompson ordered his inspector general to take a look at the Stop AIDS workshops, which are largely federally funded. The workshops included events such as "Intimacy and Mr. Right," which advised participants to "get ready for some fun, interactive intimacy games to help you keep sex safe and hot," and "Flirt, Date and Score," which urged those attending to "share pick-up strategies, negotiate safe sex and talk about what you are looking for in a date."

The inspector general, Janet Rehnquist, daughter of U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, found that the workshops appeared to directly promote sexual activity. That, she said, would be inconsistent with guidelines adopted by the CDC.

"The project did not follow the CDC requirement that curriculum materials be evaluated by a local review panel," Rehnquist wrote in 2001. In addition, she said, the project's sexually explicit advertisements could be construed as obscene, and thus in violation of federal law.

Advocates of the workshops countered that, because advertising aimed at the gay community is often sexually provocative, reminders about safe sex must be explicit to get attention. Stop AIDS said successful promotion campaigns need to provide prevention messages with positive images of sex.

In November 2001, Thompson ordered his deputy secretary, Claude Allen, to set up a panel to look at Stop AIDS and all the other HIV/AIDS activities that receive CDC funding.

During this process, Rehnquist's office performed a follow-up inquiry and found that Stop AIDS programs had been adequately studied by a San Francisco Department of Public Health review panel, as required by federal law.

The panel, applying local community standards, concluded that the workshops did not promote sexual activity or include actual sex practices, according to a December report by the inspector general.

"The potential for preventing HIV infection in San Francisco outweighed any possible obscenity," the review panel found, according to the report.

Darlene Weide, executive director of Stop AIDS, hailed Gerberding's letter and the December HHS report as a vindication.

"There is nothing obscene in the work we do or in talking about the reality of gay men's lives," she said. "What is obscene is that sound prevention techniques that we know work in the real world are constantly on trial."

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