Steinhardt Research Team Creates 'Project Desire' to Address Recent Spike in HIV Infection Among Young Men
Earlier this year, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (NYC DOHMH) released a sobering report about an increase in HIV infection rates among young men, ages 13-29, who have sex with men. The 2006 HIV incidence estimates show that gay and bisexual men of all races remain the most heavily affected by HIV, accounting for 53% of all new infections.
In response, a team from NYU Steinhardt's Center for Health, Identity, Behavior and Prevention Studies (CHIBPS) has devised a new study, Project Desire, to better understand the sexual behavior and health of this population. The one-year study is spearheaded by professor Perry Halkitis, doctoral candidate Robert Moeller, and recent MPH graduate Daniel Siconolfi, and is funded by the NYC DOHMH Bureau of HIV/AIDS.
Through street surveys of 540 young men and through semi-structured interviews with 70 men, the research team aims to understand the psychological pressures that lead young men to engage in unsafe sex. By studying not only what the youths tell them about their sexual practices but also how they talk about those experiences, the researchers want to discern the way in which fear and anxiety about HIV can lead to unsafe behavior.
"The pressure to claim a gay identity poses a distinct challenge for young men," says Halkitis. "Coupled with the fear of contracting HIV, it can feel overwhelming for emerging adults who still struggle with integrating same-sex desire into their adult identity." Mutually reinforcing risk factors such as depression, unprotected sex, and substance abuse are also prevalent among the population.
Project Desire will also offer free HIV testing for the 70 men who participate in the interviews. The research team at Steinhardt will collaborate with the NYU School of Medicine to administer the testing and provide those men who test HIV positive with access to care.
Ultimately, the project aims to create better prevention strategies for young men who have sex with men. Towards that end, the researchers will assemble focus groups of men aged 13-17, and will craft prevention messages in conjunction with the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. By using the young men's own experience to inform the messages, the team hopes to create relevant prevention strategies that will resonate for this at-risk population.
"Gay men must come together to protect each other," says Halkitis. "Prevention efforts must be part of a program that considers the totality of our physical and mental health. Our discussions must focus not only on HIV, but also the spectrum of issues gay men face."