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Healthy sex: Exotic clubs promote HIV/STV lessons

"We have been a part of the Ministry of Health's National HIV/STI Control Programme for six years now and we have engaged well over 300 clubs, bars and street sites in that period," said Boris Bloomfield, prevention coordinator for vulnerable populations.

While admitting that there was still a lot of work to be done in the industry, Mr. Bloomfield said that there had been a significant change in the industry's approach to sexual activities since the launch of the programme.

"The approach that we have taken with them over the years is to work with them as partners and we have seen where that has really caused some amount of change among them in terms of their support and involvement with the programme," he said. "...There are some people who have really done excellently in partnering with us, (which) is quite promising."

LEGAL GREY AREAS

Mr. Bloomfield added: "In the early days, even people who were not aware of what we were doing would view it with suspicion because they were operating in legal grey areas. (However), we have been able to build confidence with them ..."

Among the programmes encouraged by the Ministry of Health are condom-use policies geared towards promoting the use of a condom during every sexual transaction and regular testing for HIV, syphilis and other sexually-transmitted infections (STIs).

With the number of commercial sex locations estimated at well over 400, it appears that the paradigm shift to safer sex practices will be a gradual one. But already, there are clubs that have begun to regularise their approach to include standards relating to testing and sexual intercourse.

One such club is Shades Night Club in Ocho Rios, where sex workers are not only educated but are trained as peer counsellors.

"We are very closely connected with the Jamaica Aids Support (JAS) (and) the local health authority," said the club owner.

"The health authorities come in periodically and give lectures and demonstrations to our girls. They have interesting debates and sometimes they bring people from abroad (who provide funding) to monitor the progress," Mr. Cameron related. He added that his girls also attended seminars on sexually-transmitted diseases and that some of them were trained as peer counsellors.

"The whole thing is geared towards safe sex," he stated. "All our girls are well drilled and trained with respect to that. They know all the slogans and we have X amount of literature around the place, (such as) posters and calendars with that information. (Also,) whenever the instructors come around, they basically leave them with songs."

A consultant in the exotic club industry and current chief executive officer of the popular Gemini Club, in Kingston, Denzel "Sassa Frass" Naar, agrees that the culture of the industry, with specific regard to safe sex practices, has been changing over the years.

CHANGE OF IMAGE

According to Mr. Naar, this change started in 1998 when the stakeholders of the industry decided to move away from the image of the "Go-Go club" to that of the more palatable "exotic dance club." This, he said, has led to the regularisation of sexual practices for the majority of the clubs in the industry.

"The girls could no longer go away with a client without our consent and then we started to provide rooms because sometimes they were taken away and abused," he said. "(Also), we ensure that they never engage in sex without using a condom."

While acknowledging the increase in safe-sex practices over the years, Mr. Naar stated that given the transient nature of the exotic dancers, it is often difficult to police their sexual practices.

"Most of the girls move around because if they start at one club where a friend from the neighbourhood recognises them, they would not go back to that club that night; they would go to a club far away," he related. "They rotate; they are no longer attached to one club and so it makes it hard to develop a policy for them because they might be in Mandeville tonight, in the morning they go to Ocho Rios and then the next weekend they are in Negril."

Under its National HIV/STI Control Programme, the Ministry of Health is currently trying to map the number of sex work locations across the island.

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