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Sex Positive Or Innuendo: Campaign Highlights Conflicting Views On How to Promote Safe Sex In Utah

An illustration showing images of condoms in a pink background.
KUER's Caroline Ballard talks with former Utah Department of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention employee Christy Porucznik about the impact of a recent controversial public health campaign.

On Wednesday, a new HIV prevention campaign was quickly shut down by Gov. Gary Herbert. The problem? Condoms with suggestive state-themed phrases — like “Greatest Sex on Earth” and “Explore Utah’s Caves.” The Utah Department of Health apologized and said it is re-evaluating. KUER’s Caroline Ballard spoke with Christy Porucznik, an associate professor at the University of Utah’s School of Medicine, who has also worked for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Utah Department of Health. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Caroline Ballard: You were not part of this campaign, but what, in your mind, went wrong here?

Christy Porucznik: I think the unfortunate thing about this incident is that there was apparently bad communication between various stakeholders so that something went forward that people thought was a good idea. And then in the end, a person in power thought was not a good idea.

CB: What kind of an impact will that have going forward?

CP: I'm really concerned that this has taken a lot of resources. It took resources to produce these condoms and to put together the campaign, and now those resources have been spent and they're not available to do something else. 

I was particularly alarmed that as part of this shutdown, they shut down the website that went along with the campaign. And the way that we're now talking about condoms and HIV prevention because of this incident might have actually sent people to seek out more information, and now the website’s down.

CB: What about the financial impact? You mentioned resources — what goes into a campaign like this?

CP: Well, there was certainly a lot of staff time spent developing the campaign and making the plans. And they bought these condoms that were especially produced for this campaign. They've already distributed many of them, and now we're seeing reports that they're actually trying to recall them, and so spending more time and resources to get them back. 

We work on really limited budgets in public health. And, you know, this is money that's now not available to do anything else.

CB: What about the conversation itself? Could this have a chilling effect?

CP: I actually hope that instead of a chilling effect, that this may have a positive effect, because here we are on the radio talking about sex and condoms. Longer term, I think it may have a chilling effect on what sort of campaigns people think about undertaking and how creative they might be in their attempts for marketing and advertising and reaching out to the public.

CB: How can a campaign be sex positive and have a sex-positive conversation about something like HIV in a more culturally conservative place?

CP: We have a perception that this is both a place that's culturally conservative and culturally homogenous. And I think that we're coming up with a challenge here that the groups who may be at higher risk and who really need to have these conversations and who would be open to this kind of creative messaging are not the groups who are in power to decide about what messaging can happen. 

I don't know what the solution is for having sex-positive messaging in this culture, but I do think that starting to have these conversations is at least a first step.

CB: One of the things that's clearly resonated very differently between different people is the innuendo. That was the main thing that Gov. Herbert sort of pointed out and said we shouldn't be using this as part of a state-endorsed campaign – it was federally funded, but distributed by state agencies. Do you think having innuendo in public health campaigns devalues the seriousness or the subject of sexually transmitted diseases?

CP: I think that pun and innuendo and humor can be a great way, both to catch people's attention, and to catch them off their guard a little bit. If the opening was something about “We are going to talk about sex,” then people may not want to engage in that conversation. 

I know that as I've been talking about this with my public health colleagues over the past couple days, overall people laugh — they think it's great. They’re like, “Wonderful! Now, maybe people will talk about condoms and HIV prevention and how they can go together.”

CB: Do you think this has been an overreaction on the part of elected officials?

CP: It may be an overreaction. I think that we're living in a time where people are very sensitive about image, and I think people are understandably protective of their own world views.

So maybe the positive that can come out of this event is more conversations about how there are lots of different views within Utah and how can we work together.

Caroline Ballard hosts All Things Considered at KUER. Follow her on Twitter @cballardnews

Caroline is the Assistant News Director
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