amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research

Feds Clear STOP AIDS Project

Investigation Into Use of Funds Halted

February 24, 2003—Government investigators have concluded that San Francisco’s STOP AIDS Project did not misuse federal funds in its prevention outreach to gay and bisexual men, wrapping up a series of inquiries into the prevention group’s possible violation of federal obscenity guidelines.

In a February 13, 2003, letter, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Dr. Julie Gerberding 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." And a December 2002 Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) report concluded that STOP AIDS Project’s workshops did not promote sexual activity or include actual sex practices that violated obscenity standards.

Investigation History

The inquiries began in August 2001, when Representative Mark E. Souder (R-IN) complained about STOP AIDS Project's workshops to HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson. In November 2001, HHS investigators concluded that while the agency's workshops appeared to promote sexual activity, STOP AIDS

"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 

Project’s federal funding could not be revoked because its programs did not violate San Francisco’s community obscenity standards.

At the same time, however, Congress added a provision to the fiscal year 2002 HHS appropriations bill allowing the agency’s inspector general to conduct an audit of any federally funded HIV/AIDS prevention program. And in August 2002, the CDC began an inquiry 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 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.”

STOP AIDS Executive Director Darlene Weide wrote on the group’s website: “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

Government scrutiny of the STOP AIDS Project generated considerable controversy, given studies indicating increased risk-taking and sexually transmitted diseases among men who have sex with men (MSM) that can signal higher HIV infection rates. In fact, at the 10th Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections in February 2003, government officials reported a 14 percent increase in HIV cases among MSM, compared to an 8 percent increase in the general population. Black and Latino MSM are at particular risk. In 1999, the rate of new AIDS cases for African American MSM was more than five times that of whites, and the rate of new cases among Latino MSM was 2.5 times that of white MSM. In addition, a recent CDC study showed that MSM aged 23 to 29 had infection rates comparable to levels seen in the mid-1980s.

“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: “Prevention is best implemented using local community standards.”