Why some men continue to prefer bareback anal sex, is still largely a mystery to HIV/AIDS educators, despite widespread publicity of the risk of contracting HIV which all too often destroys lives and leads to an untimely death. Currently medics are confirming a new diagnosis of New Zealand-contracted HIV in men who have sex with men every 4 to 5 days, adding alarmingly to the lengthening list of sexually active HIV positive men in this country.
In the past sexual behaviour research techniques have been based on telephone questionnaires or face to face interviews - either one on one or in focus groups. But right now, and taking advantage of internet technology, a group of researchers from Massey University's SHORE Centre are using a chat room to enable focus groups of geographically spread men to confidentially discuss why, with the hugely increasing risk of contracting HIV, they never or rarely use condoms.
"While chat rooms have been around for a long time, they are only recently being used as a way to access the views of participants, with a researcher acting as moderator and raising issues for the group to consider," according to a leader of the research group, Jeff Adams.
Its a significant departure from traditional qualitative social research. "Participating [in traditional information gathering] involves a considerable amount of time on behalf of the participant, and often involves traveling to a venue," says Adams. "There is also some trepidation as participants are not sure who else will be involved in the group, which is often an issue when addressing sensitive topics."
The results are less 'clinical' and more personal, according to Adams. Participants who have taken part so far have been keen to tell their stories. "The focus groups have allowed participants to freely share their ideas, and these have been much more in-depth and personal than is possible in a face to face focus group," says Adams. "There is no settling in, the technology is easy to use and within a few minutes the conversation is going... While it starts off with the conversation being directed by me, the momentum moves and it becomes much more participant driven and much more interactive."
The chat room groups have proved remarkably convivial, with researchers finding that participants have been respectful of others and engage in "a great deal of questioning, commenting and supporting amongst the men in the group." Participants are able to be anonymous to each other and therefore increase the potential for disclosure around sensitive issues being discussed. It is also convenient for the participants as they can take part with minimal effort.
In this current research Adams and his associates are particularly interested in men who have sex with men, aged 24 to 44, living in Auckland, who have anal sex and don't regularly, or never, use condoms. Auckland is being targeted because it has emerged in recent years as an epicentre of the revived New Zealand HIV epidemic "The use of chat rooms allows participants to have their say on this delicate subject, without the need for any public disclosure," Adams notes.
Although response to their requests for participants has been good, Adams says SHORE needs a few more men to take part, "to make the study more robust." Those who take part will receive a $30 voucher and results of this study are expected to be available around the end of April.
SHORE can be contacted via the link below.