by Suzy Subways
MARCH 2007 • Issue 3
People associate anal sex with gay men—and homophobia can make it not only a topic that many people avoid, but also something they won’t admit to doing. In a 2005 survey by the National Center for Health Statistics, 35 percent of U.S. women between ages 25 and 44 said they had had anal sex with a man. Surprised? Anal pleasure may be much more common than many of us assume.
“Anal sex is ten to 100% more effective in transmitting HIV than vaginal sex,” says Jim Pickett, chair of the International Rectal Microbicide Working Group (IRMWG). Microbicides are topical gels or other compounds, some now in late-stage clinical trials, designed to be applied before sex to prevent HIV infection. But a vaginal microbicide, while desperately needed, may not work in the rectum, although people are likely to use it for anal sex. And it could even be dangerous, creating irritations or other conditions in the rectum that might increase the chance of transmission. That’s why IRMWG is calling for rectal safety studies for the vaginal microbicides that are now in development.
In addition, the international group believes that microbicides specifically for rectal use must be developed. “A safe and effective rectal microbicide would benefit all people who have anal sex with men, which includes vast numbers of women around the world,” Pickett says. And men who have sex with men, who make up a large percentage of new HIV infections, need new prevention tools. In January, amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research, awarded nearly $1 million in research grants to projects that will contribute to the development of prevention technologies for anal sex.
But much more needs to be done—from advocating for research dollars to making it a priority in the fight against AIDS. “There is societal discomfort in talking about anal intercourse,” Pickett says. “There have been attempts to marginalize the issue.” IRMWG has a steering committee of 17 people from all over the globe, some of whom are scientists. Sign up for the listserv at http://www.lifelube.org to get involved in advocacy, or just to stay informed.