Earlier this fall, Planned Parenthood of Greater New York (PPGNY) launched a new campaign that focuses on connecting cisgender Black and Latinx women to pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), a drug that protects users from HIV transmission.
The highlight of this new initiative is “PrEP for Women Too,” an HIV/AIDS prevention video containing illustrations of Black and Latinx women from across the diaspora as well as information on how PrEP can empower women to take control of their own sexual health.
The images for this video were created by multidisciplinary designer Laci Jordan to address the fact that in 2018, Black and Latinx women accounted for 90% of all women newly diagnosed with HIV in New York City, even as new seroconversions decreased between 2014 and 2018. Additionally, women accounted for only 8.5% of those prescribed PrEP in the city.
According to PPGNY’s findings, the leading causes of these inequities were systemic racism—including poverty, housing instability, and limited health care access—as well as HIV-related stigma and misunderstandings about preventative care. That is what made engaging Black and Latinx women about HIV and PrEP so crucial; because previous efforts were failing to get through.
In the wake of Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation to the Supreme Court—and her on-the-record hostility toward women’s ability to maintain autonomy over their own bodies—providing women with as much information as possible about sexual health care is more crucial than ever.
Kim Sanders, vice president of education and training at PPGNY, says that what began in 2014 as a social-marketing awareness campaign for Black and Latinx women that focused on HIV and sexually transmitted infection (STI) screenings has evolved to create targeted messaging that resonates with women living in those communities.
According to Sanders, during conversations with service providers and clients in the Bronx, PPGNY learned that many women thought that PrEP was exclusively “for men who had sex with men, because that was the focus of a lot of the messages at that time.” They also discovered that many of the women with whom they were speaking lacked awareness about their risk for HIV, or the fact that 85% of cisgender female seroconversions occur through heterosexual sex.
Using data collected from conversations and community-engagement meetings, PPGNY began to focus on raising awareness around factors that put women at risk for HIV—such as personal behaviors and the behaviors of their partners—while also promoting PrEP as a tool for women.
To do that, Sanders says that they began speaking with women who were in different stages of contemplating PrEP use in order “to learn from them what was guiding their decisions.” PPGNY discovered that when it came to discussing PrEP as a tool for preventative care, it was important for Black and Latinx women to hear from women who looked and sounded like other women in their communities, and to shift away from using materials that stigmatized behaviors or were fear-based, because that approach—which was already in wide effect—failed to register with them.
This information helped mold the “as told by us” approach used in “PrEP for Women Too.” Sanders says, “We really learned from women in the community; what they needed to hear, and how they wanted to hear it. I often say that this campaign was created for Black and Latinx women by Black and Latinx women, because we really tested everything from the messages to the images and really allowed them to drive where we landed with the campaign materials.”
It’s an organic approach that taps into the power of representation to engage a community of often-ignored women, while also dispelling medical mistrust, particularly during a period of heightened insecurity due to the forced sterilizations of women of color being held in immigration prisons and fears that the government is experimenting on citizens to develop COVID-19 vaccines.
Being open to those conversations was an essential part of the work, Sanders says. “Whenever you’re having conversations about accessing medical care in Black and Latinx communities, those things are going to come up.”
“There is mistrust that things [medicines] are out there to harm folks—or just feeling uneasy about side effects. That’s another barrier to folks receiving quality care, and I think that the way to combat that is to acknowledge those concerns and to provide folks with as much fact-based, medically accurate information as possible.”
By embracing these conversations with patience and kindness, PPGNY was able to promote PrEP as a tool for bodily autonomy.
“Women can use this prevention method without having to disclose or rely on their partners to make decisions,” Sanders says. “Very often, when we have had conversations with women about HIV prevention, prior to PrEP being a tool, so much of it was focused on condom negotiation. And that involves someone else making a decision. For women, PrEP allows them to take control of their HIV prevention needs in a way that was not available to them before. And that is super important, particularly when you think about how challenging it might be for a woman to have a conversation about using condoms.”
That is a crucial point that was brought up during SYNChronicity 2020’s health conference session on Black women. During her presentation, Gabriella Spencer—a program associate of NMAC (formerly National Minority AIDS Council)—shared that women “often don’t feel empowered to say no if a man does not have a condom.” But if a woman has condoms of her own, she is more likely to use them.
And with PrEP, Black and Latinx women can make decisions about their sexual health in the privacy of their own homes, which helps bring all of society closer to eliminating HIV. More importantly, as with birth control, bodily autonomy requires women to have the tools to be able to take control of their bodies and future. PrEP is a vital component of a person's fundamental human right to bodily autonomy.
For more information about PrEP or assistance in accessing preventative care, visit Planned Parenthood of Greater New York’s Your Body Needs You initiative. In addition to providing facts about PrEP, the page also helps visitors decide whether it is right for them and offers a video feedback survey, contact information to speak with a prevention case manager, and testimonials from Black and Latinx women who decided that PrEP was right for them.