STOP AIDS Project Cleared by CDC, HHS
Ends Investigation Into Use of Federal Funds
February 14, 2003—Government investigations into San Francisco’s STOP AIDS Project have cleared the prevention group of allegations that it misused federal funds in its prevention outreach to gay and bisexual men. These findings wrap up a series of inquiries that began in August 2001 into the organization’s possible violations of government obscenity guidelines.
In February 2003, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) concluded that “the design and delivery of [STOP AIDS Project’s] prevention activities was based on current accepted behavioral science theories in the area of health promotion,” according to a February 13, 2003, letter by CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding. And a December 2002 HHS report concluded that STOP AIDS Project’s workshops did not promote sexual activity or include actual sex practices that violated obscenity standards.
The inquiries began in August 2001, when Representative Mark E. Souder (R-IN) complained about the workshops to Health and Human Services Secretary (HHS) Tommy G. Thompson,
“There is nothing obscene in talking about sex in a way that is meaningful and respectful of gay men's lives. What is obscene is that sound prevention techniques are on trial.” —letter from STOP AIDS Executive Director Darlene Weide on group’s website
leading to a November 2001 investigation. Although the investigation, led by HHS inspector general Janet Rehnquist (daughter of U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist) found that the workshops appeared to directly promote sexual activity, the investigation ultimately found that STOP AIDS Project’s federal funding could not be revoked because it did not violate San Francisco’s community obscenity standards. At that time, however, Congress added a provision to the fiscal year 2002 appropriations bill for HHS allowing the agency’s inspector general to conduct an audit of any federally funded HIV/AIDS prevention program.
Following the HHS investigation, the STOP AIDS Project, which relies on federal funding for many of its programs, revamped some accounting procedures to ensure that federal funds were not used for objectionable workshops.
Gerberding initiated the CDC’s inquiry in August 2002, which focused on allegations that the group used federal money to support HIV/AIDS awareness programs—such as its “Booty Call” and “Great Sex” workshops—that encourage sexual activity and violate federal obscenity standards. Advocates of STOP AIDS Project defend the sexual nature of the group’s workshops, saying that because advertising geared to the gay community is often sexually provocative, language about safe sex must be explicit as well. “Communicating AIDS prevention messages is tricky,” wrote Dave Ford in an August 16, 2002 editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle. “You’re trying to reach a tough demographic...young men who have sex with men. They think about sex. A lot. So you have to talk about sex.”
And STOP AIDS Executive Director Darlene Weide wrote on the group’s website that “The worst outcome of these investigations has been to divert attention from the real issue—that gay and bisexual men need more explicit and powerful support for their health than ever before.”
Prevention for At-Risk Groups
At a time when MSM, especially black and Latino MSM, are experiencing wildly disproportionate HIV infection rates, government scrutiny of the STOP AIDS Project became particularly controversial. CDC researchers have found that the rate of new HIV infections among MSM is nine times higher than among women and heterosexual men. “The CDC is definitely aware of the need for resources to reach MSM,” said Shana Krochmal, STOP AIDS Project’s Communications Director. “However, abstinence-only programs that the government is pushing are not respectful or aware of the needs of gay youth and the ways in which they may be more at risk.” She added that “prevention is best implemented using local community standards.”