|Two years ago, several hundred gay men around Auckland City were approached to participate in a research project called GAPSS - the Gay Auckland Periodic Sex Survey.
In just over a week, this project will be launched for the second time, with the investigators hoping for over 800 men who have sex with men to participate over the one-week study period. It involves participants filling in a short questionnaire about their attitudes to various issues, their recent sexual partnering and sexual practices, HIV-related questions and some "social milieu" items - where they go to socialise and look for sex. Worried about privacy? You shouldn't - apart from a few basic demographic items such as age, ethnicity and suburb of residence, the survey is completely anonymous and can in no way identify those who take part. Lead investigator Peter Saxton says GAPSS is an important tool in the prevention of HIV in New Zealand. New Zealand can no longer rely on overseas research, because every country is different in terms of its social environment. "From the mid-1990s the HIV environment started taking different trajectories here, and the responses by different groups of gay men to the epidemic also started to diversify. A need for local research grew more pressing," he says. "Contemporary HIV prevention is also very much evidence-based. Because the study is repeated every two years, GAPSS aims to provide those working in prevention with reliable signals about progress. When you look at the results for particular sub-groups of men, the GAPSS data is also able to suggest where resources are most likely to have an impact." The 2002 results show just how much can be gleaned from a simple questionnaire. What were the highlights? "Aside from condom use and HIV testing information, a particularly striking finding for us was the complexity of sexual partnerships we were able to uncover. Often you hear people talk about 'regular' or 'casual' partners, as if there is a clear, widely agreed distinction separating them, and that all 'regular' partnerships look the same. In fact, mens sexual partnering is not so neatly defined. "Less than half the participants were in the categories of 'only had 1 boyfriend' or 'only had casual sex', with more claiming a combination of both over the most recent six months of their lives." What does this mean for HIV prevention, and for gay men as a population? "One thing for certain is that overlapping sexual relationships - either short or long-term - provide ideal conditions for HIV transmission if condoms aren't used for anal sex. A particular challenge for gay men is how (or whether) to discuss these complexities in each other's sex lives." What can't GAPSS tell us? "It's a very short survey that's been condensed to a small number of key issues. That limits the detail, but provides a backdrop or a landscape. What projects like this can do is help launch other sociological and psychological research (for example in-depth interviews) which can explore how partnerships are formed, what these relationships mean to individuals, and how practices like (non)exclusivity, safe sex, and mutual care and consideration occur between people. "The study is also a 'slice in time' of six months, so other projects can investigate what happens over the lifespan of relationships - we'd expect these to evolve just as individuals do. Despite this, the GAPSS study is a very useful tool not just for HIV prevention but also for measuring broader changes among the gay male community". How do respondents know that their privacy will be respected, and whether the results are accurate? "No names are requested - there's absolutely no way someone's results can be identified. Because there's no personal exchange of information - respondents fill the survey in themselves - there's also no incentive for people to intentionally give false answers (like for example raising or lowering the number of sexual partners, or generally giving answers that are seen as socially desirable)." GAPSS is obviously not inclusive of all men who have sex with men in Auckland, but with its consistent recruitment strategy (recruitment occurs at the Big Gay Out, and Auckland gay bars, saunas and sex on site venues in the week following), the findings are comparable from year to year and trends can be mapped. The New Zealand AIDS Foundation's Research Director, Tony Hughes, says they are totally committed to communicating both the good and the bad news that comes out of the survey. "We need to hear what's currently going on in terms of gay men's sexual behaviour. It's not a test for participants," he says. "We're now at a cross-roads in our management of this epidemic in our community, and there's no time we've needed this information more." The findings of this year's GAPSS study will be released publicly later in the year, with a summary report giving a breakdown of all the key results as well as comparisons with the last survey. "It'll be available on the NZAF website to download, and we'll also do articles in the media," says Hughes. "We want the community to feel it has ownership over the findings as well, and that requires access." In a world where generalisations and hearsay too often form a basis for damaging opinions, the GAPSS study is a useful and interesting reality check. "Just seeing where you sit in terms of your place in the findings compared to everyone else can be a very interesting exercise for many people, and the extent to which it contributes to personal identity formation shouldn't be underestimated," says Saxton. "So often we generalise out the experience of ourselves and our friends to the whole community, so it's nice to be able to throw some more objective light on things from a project such as GAPSS." So if you're approached by a GAPSS recruiter in an orange t-shirt this February, consider sparing a few minutes to make your mark on the picture. The 2004 GAPSS project is being launched at Auckland's Ansell Big Gay Out on Sunday 8th February and concludes on Sunday 15th February. GAPSS is a joint project between the Research, Analysis and Information Unit at NZAF and the AIDS Epidemiology Group at the Department of Preventive and Social Medicine, University of Otago. GayNZ.com - 1st February 2004