University: Case Western Reserve University
Description of Work:
In 2014, I published Rhetoric in the Flesh, an ethnographic study of the gross anatomy lab, which examined how rhetorical discourses, multimodal displays, and embodied practices facilitate learning and technical expertise, all the while shaping participants’ perceptions of the human body.
My current major project investigates the discourses surrounding the use of Truvada as a pre-exposure prophylaxis (or PrEP) for HIV/AIDS. Based on the findings of four clinical trials, Truvada, an HIV treatment medication (by the pharmaceutical company Gilead) that makes it harder for HIV-1 to multiply in the body, has demonstrated strong efficacy, when used as a pre-exposure medication. (When taken consistently, PrEP has been shown to reduce the risk of HIV infection by up to 92%.) Since May 2014, the CDC has recommended the use of Truvada as PrEP for adults at higher risk of getting HIV: primarily HIV-negative men who have sex with men and male-female sex partners in serodiscordant relationships (where one partner is HIV+ and the other is not).
Some in the medical and queer communities herald PrEP as a (supposed) “magic pill” that promises to eradicate HIV/AIDS, even though currently Truvada is expensive, not covered by all insurance providers, and used primarily by white, middle-class, gay men. Others condemn PrEP as a “party drug” that encourages a decrease in condom use and an increase in (supposedly) reckless promiscuity. In fact, longtime AIDS activists, like Larry Kramer and Michael Weinstein (president of the AIDS Health Foundation), argue that PrEP leads to dangerous sexual behavior. Meanwhile, a growing number of gay men (HIV+ and HIV- alike) are opting to take Truvada and criticizing those PrEP-unfriendly activists of “slut shaming.” This is all happening in a queer historical moment (in America, at least) characterized by three larger cultural narratives: (1) “AIDS amnesia” (what some see as a kind of willful forgetting of the AIDS crisis of the 80s and 90s); (2) openness about “bareback sex” (anal intercourse without condoms); and (3) the legalization of same-sex marriage, which some worry will prompt more heteronormative, more monogamous forms of queer relationships.
My goal in this project is not only to understand the rhetorical construction of PrEP in medical and popular media, but also to trace the anxieties and fantasies about gay male sex and desire that animate this debate. In the first stage, I am analyzing the journalist accounts, public health policies and publication, scientific research, as well as statements, websites, and short films released by HIV/AIDS organizations, activists, and the drug company (Gilead). In the second stage, I will focus on pro-PrEP social media campaigns and conduct ethnographic research with Cleveland-area activists and healthcare workers who advocate for greater access to PrEP.