An international conference on the sexual health of men who have sex with men (MSM) is being held in Cape Town from the 23rd to the 25th of May.

The term MSM encompasses all men who have sexual interactions with other men, regardless of whether they identify themselves as gay, bisexual or straight.

This is especially pertinent in Africa where sexual identities are often complicated by culture, social stigma and repressive laws.

We spoke to one of the organisers of the TOP2BTM symposium, Glenn De Swardt from Health4Men, about the event.

What is the aim of the symposium – what does it hope to achieve?

It’s to share expertise related to MSM and sexual health, including prevention, treatment and care, in order to disseminate expertise and encourage ongoing research focusing on MSM groupings.

Why is it important that MSM be specifically targeted?

There are many reasons. Any person, whether straight or gay, who engages in unprotected anal intercourse is at an elevated risk of HIV, especially if they are anally receptive. Then, social factors such as prejudice, stigma and shame contribute to MSM not being free to access the healthcare system with a sense of openness.

Sexual health promotion messaging is also generally heterosexist, and does not acknowledge the complex realities of many MSM’s daily lives – MSM require nuanced and often specialised preventive messaging. And finally, there is a fair amount of research being undertaken focusing on MSM, both locally and internationally, both psychosocial and biomedical, and we need to reflect on these findings and translate them into services.

Is enough being done in current programmes to address MSM?

A very clear “no”! Although MSM are mentioned in the National Strategic Plan for HIV, 2007 – 2011, very little has been done for this grouping other than Health4Men, a project of the Anova Health Institute, establishing Africa’s first two public sector clinics, in Cape Town and Soweto, dedicated to MSM sexual health as well as services at OUT in Pretoria. There have been positive developments – statements by the Minister of Health, for example, and an emphasis on MSM and HIV within the South African National Aids Council are very encouraging.

Has a conference like this been held in SA before?

Not on this scale. We have a number of international speakers, for example, and the programme includes plenary sessions, presentations, workshops and poster presentations.

What are the biggest challenges facing MSM in SA?

There are several, some quite basic… Most MSM in South Africa do not know about water-based lube, and if they do know about it they are unable to access it. Many men continue to use products such as petroleum jelly, body lotions or margarine, all of which contain oils and lead to condom failure. MSM are not aware of or are unable to access PEP (HIV post-exposure prophylaxis) [which reduces risk of infection after a risky encounter].

In terms of structural issues, the healthcare system remains hostile to MSM. There is also no messaging about the risks of HIV infection related to unprotected anal sex, due to the taboo around this subject and analphobia; and there are also high levels of recreational substance abuse.

Who should take part in the conference?

Policy makers, doctors and nurses, researchers, academics, psychologists and social workers, educators, counsellors and journalists…

The TOP2BTM – Prevention, Care & Treatment for MSM symposium takes place from 23 to 25 May at the Vineyard Hotel and Conference Centre in Cape Town. For a programme and information on how to attend, contact Glenn De Swardt on

To contact one of the sexual health clinics operated by Health4Men, call Pretoria (OUT): 012 430 3272, Soweto: 011 989 9756, and Woodstock, Cape Town: 021 447 2844.

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