Safer Sex & Young Gay Men: A Focus Group Report

Conducted by:
Allie Lehmann
Health Education Consultant, City of Toronto
Department of Public Health

John Maxwell
Gay Men's Health Promotion Coordinator
AIDS Committee of Toronto



The AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT) is currently in the process of developing a safer sex campaign targeted to young gay & bisexual men, aged 18-27 years to promote safer sex practices.

The purpose of this campaign is to replace the existing material targeted to young gay men (the "Safer Sex Generation" campaign) with a more contemporary and updated approach.

The purpose of the qualitative research conducted was to:

- test reactions to general concepts, materials and venues
for targeted safer sex campaign materials

- identify the risks young gay men take regarding safer sex

- understand the barriers involved in practicing safer sex.

The focus group discussion guide included in the appendix highlights the issues that were explored.


Two focus groups were conducted with gay men in Toronto on the evening of August 30, 1994 at 519 Church St. (a community centre in the heart of the gay community).

The two separate groups consisted of:

- seven gay men aged 18-22
- four gay men aged 21-27

All participants were recruited through an ad in Xtra! magazine (a gay community newspaper) and through notices posted on ACT Information Boards in gay community venues. They were directed to call the phone number of the sponsoring agency commissioning this research. Hence, the participants do not necessarily represent all young gay men but are a segment which read a gay biweekly publication.

The results of this research are qualitative and not statistically significant. Interpretation of results are thus directional rather than definitive.

Target Group and Implications for the Campaign:

Gay male youth aged 18-27 years old are very different. Any promotional campaign will be received and interpreted differently by young gay men depending on their:

- Age

- Length of time and comfort level being out

- Sexual experience (both level and length).

Similarities Between both Groups:

I Societal Homophobia

Both groups indicate the paucity of gay relevant images in their everyday lives and would like to see themselves reflected in the media (TV, radio, print etc. These observations are part of a more general response to the types of campaign materials or content required to promote safer sex. Homophobia and safer sex practices are inextricably linked. One participant notes:

"I'd like to see images of normal gay people - not stereotyped but rather a suburban gay couple. "It's important to see images of gay men in the media talking about sex, being together," adds another.

In addition, younger men in high school noted that teachers must be better trained in combating homophobia in both within themselves and in their schools.

II Self Esteem:

Both groups articulate the connection between low self-esteem arising from isolation, and marginalization with unsafe sexual practices. Such feelings are derived at a very young age - one participant recalled that when growing up, being different in any way, resulted in one being called "gay". Hence, this negative association persists into adulthood. Ending the isolation that gays and lesbians experience in the school system through gay specific groups is needed to help people feel better about themselves.

III Respect for Self and Others:

Another notion shared by both groups was a linkage of safer sexual behaviour and respect - both respect for themselves as well as respect for their partners. As one participant noted, "if you respect yourself you'll have safer sex".

IV Drugs and Alcohol:

Both groups agreed that drugs and alcohol interfere with practicing safer sex. There was some agreement that gay culture is "obsessed" with drugs/ alcohol. Younger gay men may often use alcohol or drugs to smooth out first encounters with potential sexual partners. Participants in both groups demonstrated the acquisition of strategies to mute the deleterious impact of alcohol.

"I knew it could impair my judgment so I decided not to use it" or "I know some guy was trying to get me drunk (to take advantage of me) so I just let him buy me drinks and then I split."

One younger gay male noted, "I only get drunk with my straight friends".

V Age Differences:

Both groups concur that age differences between sexual partners (and implicit power differences) can be a factor in practicing safer sex. One participant noted that "my lovers were much older than me and didn't want to use condoms; negotiating safer sex is much more difficult due to age differences."

Many young gay men feel that because they are young they are invincible and are entitled to "one free ride". Young gay men are also aware that they are sometimes desired by older gay men who think they are "a little more pure."

VI Inconsistency in Safer Sex Practices:

Both groups spoke of inconsistent behaviour, but for different reasons. For the younger group (18-22) the motivation behind this behaviour seemed to be a feeling of invincibility.

For the older group (22-27), some expressed a sense of "battle fatigue" as though they had become tired and felt disheartened by practicing safer sex.

Differences Between both Groups:

I Age:

In general, the younger gay men did not speak as candidly about their sexual experiences, or sex in general. Talking to this group about sex was much like talking about sex in the third person. Younger gay men are much less comfortable talking about or negotiating safe sex acknowledging, however, that
"things get better over time".

They seemed to like stimulants or catalysts to discussion i.e. a TV show dealing with HIV and/or sex that will help to initiate conversations.

Younger gay men are also impressionable, so their early experiences may set the tone for a life of safe or unsafe practices. One respondent noted that "many gay youth hook up with the wrong crowd and throw their morals out the window".

The younger men prefer educational and promotional campaigns resounding with serious, factual and (sometimes) fear provoking material. They prefer a more traditional and conservative information approach - pamphlets. One man noted that his favourite pamphlet was "Condom Sense" produced by the Ontario Ministry of Health. He attended a Catholic high school and as a result was not exposed to much HIV prevention information.

This younger group was much more concerned about saying what they think they should, in order to make a positive impression on society. The dual pressures of adolescence - young adulthood couple with coming out - make this group very different than their more adult counterparts.

The younger gay men were less comfortable discussing safer sex and sexuality with their partners. Feelings of invincibility and indestructibility were expressed:

"Just this once - I'll be OK."

A sense of entitlement also seemed to exist: "we're entitled to one free ride."

As well, risk was often seen as "us" vs. "them.":

"People who are young are less at risk than those who are old - that is until your age group gets infected with HIV."

Generally, the use of catalysts and more experience helps. When discussion or practice of safer sex occurs, the focus is primarily on condom use:
"In the middle of sex you're not going to start a conversation about safer sex - you're just going to bring out the condom";
"just bring out a condom";
" which colour would you like tonight";
" I'm not really big on initiating anything, but when it comes to safer sex I put my foot down."

The older group share the belief that the condom is a signal for safe sex. However, these men are much more comfortable making demands:

"I'll introduce it and put it on";
"If he says no condom - I'll say forget it";
"I'm able to say what I like and what I don't like ...."

The older group are less concerned about what society thinks and are much more comfortable with themselves and their sexuality. An important distinction between the groups was that older gay men were more comfortable with the concept of sexuality as being more than just intercourse. One man summed this up with:

"I'm turned off when the first thing a person does is dive for my prick."

Another commented, "There are so many ways to have low risk non-penetrative sex."

Being young and gay is very much akin to having two strikes against you in our society. Because of homophobia and age, these men are less valued and are made to assume a certain role -- less demanding and more malleable.

II Degree of Comfort About Being Out:

The younger group are suggestible and vulnerable as they try to find their way in a homophobic world. When people are in the process of coming out they may follow what others do, "hooking up with the wrong crowd and throwing morals out the window." (as one participant noted).

These men are also very concerned about the possibility of rejection from sexual partners, and therefore may not insist on safer sex.

The older group, in contrast, are more sure of themselves and better able to negotiate. Some participants spoke of their youth when fear of rejection from potential partners and penetrative sex seemed paramount in their lives, whereas now their sexual repertoire has increased and the fear of rejection has decreased. This may be due in part to feelings that accompany choice:

"I'm more interested in someone who will talk and listen - I like exploring one and other's bodies... I want someone I can connect with as opposed to a one night stand."

III Sexual Experience:

Many of the sentiments observed in the participants comfort level around coming out are easily transposed to sexual experience. The older group had more sexual experience and were comfortable with a wider interpretation of safer sex. The younger group defined safer sex more narrowly; mainly using and negotiating the use of condoms for anal sex.

Problems Linked to Unsafe Sex:

A number of problem areas emerged that are linked to the younger group, including: conveying risk, asserting oneself with an older partner and acquiring effective strategies to minimize risky situations that may arise from the use of alcohol and drugs. The latter two problems are shared by both the younger and older groups and could be addressed through innovative promotional strategies.

In terms of campaign materials, the younger group tended to prefer traditional educational campaign materials: posters and pamphlets. This group seemed hungry for recognition or catalytic material of any kind and were not at all discriminating.

In contrast, the older group tended to be cynical towards traditional educational tools. They heartily recommended a variety of popular culture tools to disseminate messages such as: live performance pieces, videos, collectable postcards and trading cards.

Implications for the Campaign:

Given that these two groups are so different, a specific campaign spanning the entire age range would be difficult.
It would be advisable to set priorities within this target group for the campaign to be effective.

In general, the older group (aged 22-27) responded more favourably towards innovative materials and dissemination tools. The younger group continue to remain an important target group, but given their favourable responses to traditional materials and concepts, development of new materials is not essential. In the opinion of this researcher, much of this material exists. For example, the 1994 AIDS Awareness Week campaign developed by The Canadian AIDS Society meet the needs of this target group.

Given the findings of this research, the campaign materials should be directed primarily to:
- Gay men aged 21-27

Depending on the types of campaign material chosen, segments of the campaign communications may have appeal to use in younger group.


- Provide anti-homophobia training to all teachers in Metro.

- Ensure that sexuality education and HIV education is kept on the agenda of every school.

- Explore ways of cost sharing or sponsorship to allow massive, realistic, gay- positive advertising reaching gay men aged 18-30 in college, university and industry.

- Develop campaign materials resembling "Joy of Safer Sex" trading cards. A sequence of 4 or 6 cards would allow key issues of unsafe sex to be addressed, namely; the joys of non-pen sex, age differences, alcohol and drugs....

- An appealing image from these cards could be made into an off-size poster and postcard for use with the younger group.

- Share these results with other governmental and ASOs to ensure that other organizations can adapt and/or reproduce materials for their local communities.

e-mail: Gay Men’s Community Development Coordinator