HIV Made Me Fabulous unpacks link between social inequity and sexual health

Short film from SFU professors presents HIV research to a wide audience

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A woman laughing on the right with positive reviews on the left hand side
The film is narrated by Juno Roche (pictured above), whose personal story about living with HIV is featured in the film. PHOTO: Courtesy of Life and Love with HIV

By: Yelin Gemma Lee, News Writer

SFU health science professors Dr. Allison Carter and Dr. Angela Kaida presented their national study through the short film HIV Made Me Fabulous which premiered publicly for the first time at an online event on November 26, 2021. The researchers conducted a survey with over 1,400 women living with HIV across Canada who were part of the Canadian HIV Women’s Sexual and Reproductive Health Cohort Study.  

The Peak spoke to Carter, adjunct professor at SFU faculty of health sciences and senior lecturer at the Kirby Institute to learn more about the study. 

“We wanted to disseminate our research findings to a wide audience but we also knew that affecting people’s attitudes and emotions around HIV would require more than just sharing information and statistics and the science around undetectable = untransmittable,” said Carter. 

“We wanted to provoke emotion. And so we partnered with an incredible filmmaker, producer, and director Edmond Kilpatrick whose film uses embodied storytelling to connect with audiences.”

Carter explained the study focused on women’s individual health priorities and concerns such as satisfaction, pleasure, love, relationships, and sexual activity. One of their core findings was the diversity of experiences with sex and sexuality. About 49% of women in the study were not sexually active, whereas the other half were involved in several different relationship types. One in two women in this study viewed sex as an important part of their lives.

“There was a common thread of social inequity being related to sexual health outcomes so violence, poverty, HIV stigma, sexism, so women who scored higher in those areas tended to have poorer sexual outcomes,” said Carter. “I think that’s a really important finding because it tells us a lot about how we can promote sexual health — not just for this population but for the population as a whole. So, promoting sexual health is also about addressing social injustice.”

Carter said the main motivation of the study was to try and shift the narrative of women living with HIV from risk and disease to pleasure and positive sexual health. She said much of the public is still unaware of “undetectable = untransmittable,” which means that, with treatment, people who have an undetectable viral load of HIV in their blood cannot transmit the virus to their sexual partners.

“We hope that science can disrupt embodied prejudice and stigma and improve health and relationships and quality of life for women living with HIV,” said Carter. “Certainly we need to be, at the same time, as a society, addressing gender inequality, stigma, violence, and all of these other social determinants that can play a major role in outcomes for women living with HIV.”

Writer and campaigner Juno Roche wrote and narrated the film based on her experiences as a transwoman living with HIV since the 1990s. Carter said Roche was selected due to the provocative and radical perspectives present in her writing, which challenge preconceived prejudices.

Before public screening, the film underwent six to seven private screenings where discussions and a survey were conducted among “women living with HIV, service providers, clinicians, students, educators.” Carter said they used the feedback to create a discussion guide accompaniment for the film to facilitate positive conversations about the film’s themes.

“I think for a lot of women living with HIV they saw themselves and they saw their lives reflected on screen. Both the struggles, as well as the triumphs.”

Carter explained the biggest institutional issue that needs to be addressed is HIV stigma and the criminalization of non-disclosure of one’s status. Despite believing Canada has come a long way through the efforts of many activists, Carter believes there is more to be done. “We need more structural interventions around HIV stigma, to promote the latest science within the public, and to address discriminatory practices, behaviours, attitudes, and knowledge in the public. 

“That work really needs to be grounded in intersectionality and thinking about the diverse experiences of women living with HIV.”

The short film HIV Made Me Fabulous can be viewed through the Life and Love with HIV website, along with the accompanying discussion guide and survey. This film is based off of specific studies on sexual activity, sexual importance, relationships and love, and social justice and sexual health.