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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Safe-Sex Education for Chinese Homosexuals

BEIJING / HONG KONG -- Lexy Zhang laughs nervously as he talks about his first experiences picking up men for sex in a country where condoms are widely available for family planning but not always promoted to prevent AIDS.

"I was just having unsafe sex all the time," said the 26 year old, sitting in a fashionable Beijing bar frequented by gay men. "Lots of gay Chinese think it's great that you don't have to worry about pregnancy but have no idea about sexually transmitted diseases," said Zhang.

"There are just not enough organizations paying attention to this community. The government thinks it doesn't exist."

In China, homosexuality, while no longer officially considered a mental disorder, is still a subject off-limits for many. That taboo often extends to discussions about AIDS and condom use for homosexual men.

Condoms are widely available, thanks to China's long-standing one-child policy, but conservative attitudes and an unwillingness to talk about sex mean the connection with AIDS prevention is not always made.

"Sex is taboo, and condoms have mainly been used as part of family planning rather than for safe sex," said Lee Folland, a graduate student doing research at Cambridge University on the social marketing of condoms in China.

A survey in late 2004 by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention in the northeastern city of Harbin found that almost 20 percent of men who had sex with other men also slept with women. More than 10 percent were married.

"There is strong social pressure to get married -- or what would the neighbors say? It's not only about how your parents would react, but how others will react to your parents," Folland said, referring to fear of social ostracism for parents whose sons were thought to be gay.

In Hong Kong, meanwhile, Ricky Fan, 40, goes cruising once a week at one of the city's many gay saunas, venues that have become increasingly popular in recent years among men looking for anonymous sex with other men.

These places are invariably pitch black. But once they get used to the darkness, visitors are likely to be greeted with eye-catching flyers and postcards on safe sex, HIV testing and free condoms from the locker rooms to the tiny cubicles.

The message is certainly not lost on the more frisky members of Hong Kong's gay population.

"I always use condoms, 100 percent of the time," said Fan, who has visited saunas in the last five years in Hong Kong, mainland China, Thailand, Taiwan and Japan.

But this attitude is far from the norm. New HIV infections among men who have sex with men have shot up in almost every big city in Asia in recent years.