Do You Know Risk When You See It?


Most successful people from Oprah to Goethe have commented on risk. Their collective wisdom is that no risk is the biggest risk of all. Risk taking can be a blind leap of faith or a calculated strategy. But when should you leap rather than analyze? It’s tricky, but isn’t that what risk is about?

For 25 years plus public health mavens have been trying to sell the idea of risk reduction to gay men and most recently, women who have sex with men who have sex with other men or use injection drugs or steroids. Given 56,000 new HIV infections each year in the US, someone is not getting the message. Or is the message not really the right one to be giving?

A good friend of mine, a professor at a very famous school of public health, talks a lot about the fallacy of the “risky person” in HIV prevention — those we assume to be running around having unsafe sex with multiple partners because they are “risky people” fueled by crystal, Special K, coke, crack or a big sexual appetite. Does pegging someone as “risky” really keep us safe? If we categorize people by their labels can we tell which ones to avoid the next time we’re in the mood for love? Ah, if it were only that simple!

In “True Blood” the charismatic Marianne made Eric and Bill seem like boy scouts. If you were at a vampire party, you probably would have steered clear of the guys and hung out with her. Imagine your surprise when you ended up in the town sex orgy. Did you see that coming? No, because middle aged white women rarely trump the vampires. By relying on stereotypes you miss the point and end up have sex with a guy who is really a dog. Hmmm.

That’s why sociologists encourage us to look at systemic factors rather then individual characteristics. Homelessness and poverty are better predictors of risky behavior because they put people in situations of desperation and survival which sometimes lead them into behaviors like trading sex for shelter or drugs.

If you look at HIV incidence, those at highest risk are often in situations that cause the risk in the first place. How do we minimize risk? That’s what we need to figure out as we enter the third decade of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Safer sex education? Microbicides? Abstinence? Female condoms? Risk analysis? I wonder what Sookie would say?

Image Credit: Sidereal

About The Author

Ms. Quattrochi is the Chief Executive Officer of Bailey House, an award winning community based organization that since 1983 pioneered permanent supportive housing for persons living with HIV/AIDS. Ms. Quattrochi, an advocate committed to housing as a human right, has worked for the rights of low income men and women living with HIV/AIDS and the communities that serve them to have access to housing, healthcare and HIV prevention. She serves on numerous national and local boards and is playing a key role in the development of national AIDS policy under the Obama administration as a member of the policy consortium briefing the President and his staff on issues critical to the epidemic here and globally.

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