Condoms, Hunks and the AIDS Celebrity Circus

Wear your dancing shoes and attend a masquerade ball or walk into a bake sale or buy some ornaments or pamper yourself in a day spa or send teddy bears. It is time for one more celebration. Just pin a red ribbon on your lapel for World AIDS Day.

Beneath all this concern for HIV positive people, there is the huge marketing potential for condoms. Mumbai’s most prominent socialite got volunteers to blow 20,000 heart-shaped balloons that together with 12,000 condoms make up her imported 65 kilo installation called ‘HIV’. The 30-foot high piece has been placed outside CST railway station and is supposed to educate the 3.8 million people who pass through every day. The important question is why would a socialite choose a railways station? A socialite whose private parties are mentioned in the papers with the sort of awe reserved for revered folks cannot afford airtime, not even with an advertisement from her industrialist husband’s company? Is the intention only to “grab enough eyeballs”?

Do these people know that commuters are in a hurry and will see it only as one more thing to glance at before they rush to catch their train? And why do they assume the disease infects only those of a certain strata and their ignorance, when careless sexual alliances are not their preserve?

These people do not have the time to watch how it self-deflates, which is a slow process. “It is a powerful metaphor for the destruction of the virus through the use of condoms,” said the socialite. While transmission through sexual contact is the most prominent cause, it is highlighted more than any other. How many NGOs strive to convey the message about pinpricks rather than pelvic thrusts?

When the AIDS virus first struck, there was the usual talk about cleansing a debauched society. Since then the disease has transformed from Something Dreadful to a cause celebre, from the curse of the poor to star endorsements. The famous dead roster began to be read aloud without any trace of fear or sensitivity. It became an A list of hunks.

* * *

Without quite realising it, AIDS became about men. The whole condom idea keeps it going, not to blame the male but how he, as sufferer or vulnerable creature, will be denied posterity. The varieties on display are supposed to make women feel ecstatic. What is really happening is that a man wearing a fancy prophylactic for the evening is dressed for the occasion; he is expressing himself, putting forth a point of view. He is also concealing many a hard truth. David Friedman analysed it thus: “The ignorance is part cultural and all foolishness. Not long after humans left caves to live in huts, women started passing key information about menstruation and reproduction from one generation to the next. Men, on the other hand, told their sons to go out and get laid.”

The condom worked way better than the pill did for women’s liberation. It has liberated men from that slip between the cup and the lip, so to speak. Women will visit their gynaecologists; men would fear exposing their warts.

That is precisely the reason condoms were made sexy. Marketing people decided to transform it into a symbol, a grand combination of potency combined with supreme sacrifice. All dread vanished the moment the male species was made to realise that they were doing it for the better of humankind. With AIDS, the man began to be seen as an honourable citizen, health conscious and enlightened. Suddenly, an ordinary latex thing became a political, social, and even economic (you are contributing to a better lifestyle for the future generation) statement.

What are its real connotations, though? The problem with a high profile illness is that you cannot afford to feign indifference. At events, you are informed about what a model wore, what a rock star said and how a Hollywood actor travelled in a taxi through the red light districts of crowded cities in Third World countries. If the disease has got prominence due largely to indiscriminate sex in the stud farms of the West, then is this where we must find role models?

How does it help to distribute free condoms in cheap brothels when these commercial sex workers have no power over their own bodies and cannot dictate terms to the clients? Has anyone bothered about these women becoming carriers precisely because of many men who come infected to them despite being aware of it? Does anyone talk about disbursement of condoms to the gay community that is at high-risk? It goes against the macho principle, does it not?

* * *

Tony’s handshake was firm, his body taut. I could not see his eyes clearly beneath the tubelight. He was a grassroots worker, himself a patient. We had decided to meet near the alcove inside the church grounds in his neighbourhood one late evening. He revealed no bitterness at all. We walked, we talked and I almost forgot that he was a guy who had waited at a clinic to get his blood report which would have those stark words ‘HIV positive’ that would give him, an unknown guy who had screwed things up, an identity.

He became a well-known pseudonym in silhouette pictures. His mother began to chide him, “You have big ideas to come clean but when I ask you to attend social functions you clam up.”

He may have shed his inhibitions, but he did not want to be a naked man exposing his warts. As he confessed, “For some time I may have played the tragic hero, but soon realised there is room for no such games. There is no foundation for any image.”

The media that used him stopped finding the fallow territory of his anonymity interesting enough. They wanted to ‘out’ him, almost mocking him for pretensions at honesty. “What kind of people are these?” he had asked me. “They want me to talk and then they say I have an ego problem. Am I not entitled to protect my family? Can I not talk about our problems instead of being identified as a personality? Aren’t people keen to be educated about the spread of the disease?”

The problem is that a disease has limited appeal. You quote figures, talk about the ultimatum it gives. So we scour for all the human interest we can – hospital rejects, family callousness or care, love, marriage between fellow sufferers, the battle, the temporary victory.

They will ask you to wear a red ribbon. What are we supposed to protest against – our own callousness, shame, ignorance? Or of those who have been dangling the carrot of the disease over our heads? Show us the sticks and cut out the gimmicks.

FARZANA VERSEY is a Mumbai-based columnist and author of A Journey Interrupted: Being Indian in Pakistan, Harper Collins, India. She can be reached at kaaghaz.kalam@gmail.com


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Farzana Versey can be reached at Cross Connections

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