Lena Grey: Hi! I'm Lena Grey. I'm on the book review team at Rainbow Book Reviews. I'm here, today, with author Brent Hartinger, who has written several books for and about young people, his most famous being 'Geography Club', which has also been adapted into a film by the same name. He's also written award-winning screenplays, and scripts for stage plays. Brent has been involved in several projects, volunteer and otherwise, including occasionally teaching Writing for Children and Young Adults and much more. Brent also co-founded one of the country’s first gay youth support groups in Tacoma, Washington, but today, he's here to talk about his project, The Real Story: The Safe Sex Project. Welcome, Brent! I'm pleased to have you here today.
Brent Hartinger: Thanks! I'm really happy to be here, especially to talk about this particular project.
LG: I'll start the interview with the most logical question: What is The Real Story Safe Sex Project?
BH: The official answer is that it's a way to encourage safe sex among gay and bi male teenagers and twentysomethings.
HIV/AIDS is still a really serious disease, and gay and bi guys are a really, really high (and rising) risk of catching it. But a lot of people don't seem interested in talking about that any more.
So I decided to try a new, hopefully more entertaining approach: talk about the subject using characters from books and other entertainment projects. A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down and all that.
I started with a story using the character of Russel Middlebook (the star of my four-book Russel Middlebrook Series, and also the Geography Club feature film that came out last year).
Russel goes to a clinic to get an HIV test, but along the way, he recalls the most significant sexual encounters in his life. I'd never really written about Russel's sex life before, not in any detail. So I did, in a way that's hopefully "hot" to readers, but also maybe a little thought-provoking too.
How does the Real Story Safe Sex Project work exactly? Well, it's basically just me and a bunch of volunteers. I asked my writer-friends if they'd be interested in joining in, and quite a few of them said yes (although I also found out that a lot of writers procrastinate even more than I do!).
Plenty of my volunteers have experience with HIV/AIDS education (and I do too). And to tell the truth, I tried partnering with three "official" HIV/AIDS organizations, but in the end, they were all so scared of the topic of gay teen sexuality -- worried it affect their funding and all that -- that it became impossible to work with them. Depressing, huh?
Anyway, with ebook technology, it was possible for me and supporters to distribute our stories all over the world all by ourselves. So that's what we did, and what I'm hoping other writers and filmmakers will do now too.
LG: With all the medications available now, HIV/AIDS has seemingly become less of a threat. How do we increase awareness that the disease can still be fatal, in a time of all these new treatments?
BH: That's the real challenge, isn't it? The treatment of HIV is much, much better than it was ten or twenty years ago. And yet people still die. And these new treatments are both really expensive and can have really nasty side effects.
It doesn't help that when you're talking about teens and twentysomethings, you're talking about a population that kinda sorta feels "invulnerable" anyway -- it's a cliché, but it's true. And they also may not have any direct experience with HIV/AIDS among their friends.
That's why I think things like The Real Story Safe Sex Project are so important. Sometimes older gay people say, "Oh, everyone already knows all about safe sex!"
But I can tell you that, based on my email, that is not true AT ALL. There are plenty of people who have never heard some of these facts. Or they believe things that are flat-out wrong. It's not really their fault -- like I said, a lot of people have decided not to talk about safe sex anymore. So where would a 16-year-old or a 20-year-old learn it? Health class? Most of them don't talk about gay sex. Gay porn? Sorry, but that's gone exactly the opposite direction. These days, gay porn is basically just all slick advertisements for unsafe sex.
The greater point is that safe sex isn't just about individuals. It's about the community too. A lot of people say, "Well, safe sex is a personal choice!" But it's more than that. It's about setting community expectations, about people looking around at their friends and seeing how they act. We all take our cues from each other about so many things.
Anyway, the way I see it, a big part of The Real Story Safe Sex Project is communicating to gay and bi guys that, no, not everyone is having unsafe sex -- gay porn is lying to you. There are plenty of us who think all choices aren't equally healthy or good for the community, and are willing to take a stand and say, "Please care about yourself and your gay and bi brothers, and make the choice to stay healthy and help keep others healthy."
LG: Most kids these days probably don't know anyone who has died from the disease, or seen someone in the last stages of AIDS. If they were to experience this soul rending event, do you think it would make a difference in how they viewed trying to prevent it?
BH: Yes, absolutely. That's why I also think it's important for HIV-positive people to speak out, to come out of that closet too and say, "Look, this isn't as easy as you think it is. Please think before you act."
But I understand why some don't. Even now, there's a lot of prejudice against HIV-positive people, which is just so wrong.
LG: Benjamin Franklin said, “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” How does this apply to teaching safe sex? How can it be implemented? And, what have you learned by teaching?
BH: Ha! There's a tasteless joke in there, isn't there? But I'm not touching it!
But the serious answer is that I think part of the power of "story" is that we experience things through character. That's the beauty of books and stories! So by having the characters in stories make decisions, some good and some bad, the reader can learn and explore issues vicariously. Good characters are messy -- they make mistakes. But unlike with actual people, the consequences are only fictional.
Maybe some of the people reading these stories will think, "Wow, I can really relate to that character. How does that relate to my life and my own behavior?"
They'll also see that they're not the only ones having to make these decisions about safe sex. These days, literally every gay and bi guy has to deal with this issue, one way or the other. And the choice he makes will have a big, big impact on the rest of his life.
LG: Going back to the learning through teaching question, do you think young people would pay more attention to being safe if they were presented with clear and graphic information about the effects of the disease and its fatal potential.
BH: Well, there's a whole school of thought on this -- I studied it in school. Everyone learns in a different way, of course, but some people, if you emphasize the scary aspects of HIV/AIDS, if you used a fear-based model, it ends up having absolutely no effect, or a counter-productive one. People immediately start rationalizing -- I'm different from that person for XXX reason, and that's why none of this applies to me.
And while the facts are always important, if you emphasize the facts too much, people's eyes glaze over.
That's honestly why I think that using stories and characters to get the message about safe sex across is the perfect way to go. People are invited in with familiar or relatable characters and a hopefully engaging storyline. And if any learning happens, it's effortless. It's not a chore -- it's entertaining!
In fact -- ahem -- some of these stories are pretty hot! Which is another thing I hope The Real Story Safe Sex Project does -- show people that safe sex can be hot sex. To me, there's nothing quite as sexy as a guy who truly cares about me, and also himself.
And on the contrary, there's nothing as UNSEXY as a selfish jerk who just wants to get himself off.
LG: With all the technological advances these days, most people should have, at least, a basic knowledge of how and why to practice safe sex; yet they still make excuses for not doing so. How can we bridge the gap between knowing about safe sex practices and consistently putting them into use?
BH: Here's what I wish would happen: we as a community would go back to the way things were when more people were dying of HIV/AIDS. There was more of a sense of urgency. People acted like it was a crisis, because it was. And as a result, our community created a strong sense that it was important to be and stay healthy, and it was important to encourage everyone else to be a stay healthy too.
But now that there's less urgency, less an apparent sense of "crisis," we all sort of look the other way. We shrug and move onto the next issue.
But HIV/AIDS IS still an important issue! So many gay and bi guys are dealing with serious health effects, and the financial repercussions that come from that. And lots of people are still dying!
But it's not the topic du jour anymore, and AIDS was really, really depressing to begin with -- not at all sexy. So people were eager to move on, to pretend everything is okay.
It's not okay, not yet, and as a community, we need to get that message out, and support people who are struggling with unsafe sex. It's not about fear or shame, or at least it shouldn't be. It's about love and encouragement.
LG: Last, but certainly not least, how can we help support your program? In what areas do you specifically need help? How can we contact you to offer our assistance?
BH: Help spread the word! Post about it on social media. And if you have a blog (like this one!), write about it. If you know a journalist, let 'em know what we're doing, and that you think it would make a great story.
And if you're a writer, write a story yourself. Or if you have experience as a proof-reader or graphic designer, that's great too.
It's all explained here, along with my contact info:
LG: Brent, thanks so much for your time and the wisdom you've imparted in this interview. I wish you much luck and success with your future endeavors, particularly with this project.
BH: Well, thank you for helping to spread the word!