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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 September, 2003, 03:57 GMT 04:57 UK
Gay men in HIV concern
By Jonathan Amos
BBC News Online science staff, in Salford

A small group of disaffected gay men in London are knowingly putting themselves in danger of contracting the HIV virus in the belief that it will give them a "badge" of belonging, a researcher has claimed.

HIV infected T-cell
There is no cure for HIV
Dr Melissa Parker is a medical anthropologist at Brunel University studying sexual networks and HIV transmission in the capital.

She says anecdotal evidence from in-depth interviews is revealing deeply disturbing information about some individuals' behaviour.

She says traditional safe sex messages are failing to reach these vulnerable men and the authorities appear reluctant to address their problems head on.

Unknown status

This could be because their sexual practices, if discussed openly, are likely to shock mainstream society and promote homophobia.

These activities involve visiting so-called backrooms in pubs and other venues where men can engage in unprotected sex with multiple partners.

"These environments provide an environment for men to have sex with other men in the presence of other men," Dr Parker told the BBC.

"There is very little light in these venues and so it is often not possible to see much more than the outline of the man or men that people are having sex with.

"A diverse group of people are coming to these venues, some of whom are HIV positive, some of whom are HIV negative and some who don't know their status.

"And it is in this context that it is almost certainly the case that HIV is being transmitted."

'Supportive world'

Dr Parker told the British Association science festival that several hundred men could pass through these backrooms each day, with some individuals having sex with 30 to 40 partners on any one visit.

Controversially, she claimed some men were deliberately putting themselves in harm's way in their search for identity.

"The prevalence of HIV in the UK among men who have sex with other men continues to rise and, in part, this can be attributed to the fact that HIV is being transmitted with a deliberate recklessness in the backrooms of London's pubs, clubs and saunas."

She added: "There is a significant number of men who struggle with being gay," Dr Parker told the BBC. "They long to belong. They can't help putting themselves in vulnerable situations where they might acquire the virus.

"There is a tendency for some men to say 'now I'm HIV positive, I am truly gay'. They want to get into that caring more supportive world and the acquisition of a diagnosis is obviously going to help them do that."

Soft data

She went on: "If you are feeling lonely, and marginal, and struggling to eek out a living then you're not thinking about the long term of how you're going to live; you're thinking about how am I going to solve my immediate problems?

"It is in that context that some people will put themselves in a situation whereby they are very vulnerable and actually acquire the virus."

Dr Parker conceded she had no solid data to back up this claim - only the comments of many gay men she had spoken to during long interviews conducted over a period of years.

She said there was an urgent need to develop an effective intervention strategy that made unsafe sex in backrooms unacceptable and unavailable.

Commenting, the Aids charity the Terrence Higgins Trust said it was deeply sceptical about Dr Parker's assertions.

It said the Brunel researcher had no real evidence to support her remarks and their only effect would be to increase prejudice against gay men.

Dr Melissa Parker
speaks to 5 Live about HIV infection


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