Web series aims to educate on PrEP
by Yael Chanoff
The rallying cry, "Always use a condom!" has been the basis of HIV prevention videos for years. In one well-known 1987 ad that uses the slogan, the grim reaper goes bowling with people as pins. A 2011 public service announcement illustrates the same plea with close-ups of diseased anuses. These ads are part of a tradition of talking about HIV using fear and shame. But a new web series looks to do the former while chucking the latter out the door.
That series, called the " PrEP Project," premieres May 16. Part of the goal is to spread the word about PrEP, a once-a-day pill that studies show is over 99 percent effective in preventing HIV. It also sets out to break down stigmas about sex and HIV.
The project "presents the information in a nonjudgmental way. It's OK to be doing what you're doing. It's OK to be having as much sex as you want. There's a big culture of fear surrounding HIV. Our goal is to move the conversation away from fear tactics," said the series creator, San Francisco filmmaker Chris Tipton-King.
The series features Eric Paul Leue, Mr. LA Leather and a sex educator for kink.com. With Leue as a guide, the series explores sex, love, body autonomy, and PrEP. Actors play out the scenes Leue describes in vivid, often hilarious detail. The series starts with Leue describing why he doesn't like condoms.
"Medical establishment organizations can't admit that people don't want to use condoms, so they tiptoe around the issue," Tipton-King said. He wanted the "PrEP Project" to "just admit and accept that straight out the gate."
"It's what I can do as an independent filmmaker," Tipton-King said.
Tipton-King has a Kickstarter page for the project that's so far raised just over $10,000 of the $15,000 goal with about 10 days to go.
Less than 17 percent of men who have sex with men use condoms every time, according to a 2016 study from the National HIV Behavioral Surveillance Study Group.
"The number one thing everyone is telling you to do to prevent HIV, a lot of people aren't doing it. There have to be other options on the table," Tipton-King said. "If you're targeting a campaign at people who don't want to use condoms, which is more than half the population, they need to see themselves in it."
Casting was one of the biggest challenges in the filmmaking process.
"We needed guys who were willing to be in gay sex scenes with the intention of it being blasted in every social media channel possible," he said. "Casting was really hard."
And when he held auditions, "mostly what I got was a not terribly diverse range of people."
This didn't reflect the community, including young men of color who are some of the most affected.
Through a nationwide, word-of-mouth search, Tipton-King managed to put together the diverse cast he wanted. Cast members come from as far Florida, home of drag queen and bodybuilder Rock Evans, who appears in the series.
Most of the cast is local, though, and Tipton-King is a Fremont native. Part of his motivation to create the series came from dedication to the local gay community. Tipton-King himself was an early adopter of PrEP and says he is "99 percent sure" that it prevented him from contracting HIV in at least one instance.
"I've dated HIV-positive people in the past, I have a lot of close friends who are HIV-positive. I've seen how much they suffer from stigma and discrimination," Tipton-King said.
In one scene in the series, an HIV-positive character explains what it means to be undetectable, or to have a low viral load level that significantly reduces risk of transmission. Tipton-King said he made it a point to film that scene in a restaurant, "in a public setting, and in daylight – not in a dark alley." The message: this is nothing to be ashamed of.
That symbolism is found throughout the series' five episodes. "We tried in every scene to create a visual subtext of openness and inclusion," Tipton-King said.
It's a long way from the grim-reaper-goes-bowling brand of HIV-related media. But even today, this "sex ed for the 21st century" has detractors. Tipton-King said he's been told the project is anti-condom. And he had to make a shorter, censored version of the trailer to avoid getting the video banned from Facebook. He obliged – the goal is to get the video out on as many social media channels as possible.
But he's quick to point out that the project isn't anti-condom. It's anti-fear. Because, as Tipton-King said, "I don't think that's where we should be in 2017."