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National Penis Day - taking the joke over the edge?

Fri 5 Sep 2003 In: Safe Sex View at NDHA

It starts, like most things, with the best of intentions. A serious issue needs to be highlighted, but nerdy, earnest campaigns don't usually meet with the greatest of success ("Say No To Drugs", anyone?). So, inject some controversy, a bit of humour, and voila! A transformation has occurred - now you can use those subversive elements to carry your message through. Or can you? You see, it depends on the medium which you're trying to use to facilitate this. Kerry Price, Gay Men's Health Manager at the NZ AIDS Foundation, says that several radio stations were approached to see what they could bring to the promotion of National Penis Day, an AIDS Foundation initiative aimed to "create a fun way of getting men to think about sexual health and to do something about it". Price admits that it's difficult to get some to take the issue seriously. Stations such as Channel Z, Hauraki, The Edge, ZM, and The Rock were all contacted at some point by the Foundation, with The Rock being particularly uncomfortable with the idea, appearing to admit they had an openly homophobic format. It's not a "gay" campaign specifically, says Price. "We want to create an environment where men talk openly about sexual health issues. We don't want the controversy to become the issue." But a major target of AIDS Foundation campaigns in general are a particularly high risk group - men who have sex with men but don't identify or want to identify with anything "gay". These men are certainly less inclined to talk openly about sexual health issues because in their eyes, they're not gay. They sleep with guys, sure, but that's just a sex thing, it doesn't mean they're gay or faggy or anything. But best to keep quiet about it, because most people wouldn't understand that (particularly their girlfriends), and you can't have anyone thinking you're a faggot. So, is National Penis Day a case of cart before horse then? If commercial radio is anything to go by, men don't seem to have much problem talking about their penises. According to Edge afternoon jock Alex Behan, formats like theirs thrive on penis jokes. But sexual health as it relates to same-sex experience? We might just draw a quiet veil over that one, while making reference to the fact that the veil is pink. Anyone who has listened to The Edge could reel off any number of homophobic on-air incidents, ranging from mild "that song is gay" comments, to open denigration of same-sex affection, unless it's of the heterosexist "lesbian" variety. Earlier this week, Alex and his afternoon partner in crime Fletch issued a press release detailing their plans to promote National Penis Day on their drive-time show on The Edge. The plan was to create a naked art sculpture in the shape of a penis using members of the public, in the middle of the afternoon in Cathedral Square, Christchurch. "The hardest thing will be getting it straight!" it said. The release also made mention of the AIDS Foundation connection, stating that the aim of National Penis Day was "to raise awareness for men's sexual and genital health issues in a frank and open manner". Considering it ironic that a station, and in particular a show, that features homophobic callers and offensive rhetoric was pledging its name to a cause encouraging men to talk openly about their sexual health, I decided to give Alex a call to ask him about it. After discussing how such a promotion was perfect for their show and format, and how they had been encouraging open discussion of sexual health by discussing personal experience of medical check-ups and so forth, I asked Alex about the homophobic remarks. He was genuinely surprised to be asked about it. "I personally don't think we put homosexuals down at all...but it's hard to make a mainstream audience laugh and there are certain stereotypes that come into play," he admitted. "We recently had a very homophobic caller on and I completely took the piss, which is what we would usually do. But it's difficult to discuss sensitive stuff without offending someone, and we do live in a homophobic country." The Edge's stronghold for many years has been in rural areas, only recently making inroads into metropolitan markets, so these provincial listeners must be the "mainstream" audience that Alex is referring to. But don't a lot of these people also refer to coconuts, chinks and currymunchers as often as they would to fags? Surely pandering to the racist element would send the ratings through the roof - after all it works well for talk radio, which consistently rates highly in surveys all over the country. Alex believes that the media generally reflects the society we live in, rather than influences it. Why then, are there so many openly gay men living happy lives, generally being respected by their friends and co-workers, and treated with dignity by employers in the mainstream when there are no openly gay men on the radio? Now, I'm not having a go at Alex - he's a really nice guy, intelligent, definitely not homophobic, and I don't think any defamation suits will be forthcoming if I inform you that he's openly heterosexual. Unfortunately, another recent case has shown what lengths a media employer will go to protect a man's "integrity" if the opposite is inferred. Campaigns like National Penis Day are only a part of the AIDS Foundation's programme, however, and there have always been periodic initiatives aimed at specifically fighting homophobia. It will be interesting to see how many commercial radio stations line up to support the AIDS Foundation when that issue gets raised. Chris Banks - 5th September 2003    

Credit: Chris Banks

First published: Friday, 5th September 2003 - 12:00pm

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