Walking by the Safe Sex Store on South University Ave. on Friday, students may have noticed a white Ford trailer parked outside with the words “Community Outreach & Prevention” written on the side.
Friday was National HIV Testing Day, and S3 administered free testing from 2 to 8 p.m. For a part of that time, the store was joined by the HIV AIDS Resource Center, the owners of the Ford trailer. HARC also visited several other locations around the county to conduct testing, including Walgreens on Washtenaw Avenue and the Harmony House Motel in Ypsilanti.
According to the most recent Center for Disease Control and Prevention survey, 1.1 million Americans are living with HIV, and 1 in 6 infected people are unaware they have the disease. In Washtenaw County, specifically in people age 13-29, the number of HIV cases is on the rise, according to Leon Golson, Director of Prevention Programs at HARC.
S3 owner Beth Karmeisool, who has a M.S. in Public Health from the University, has been offering HIV testing since June 2012. She said she thinks of her store as a community resource.
“We wanted to provide a comfortable environment for people to walk to,” Karmeisool said. “We’re a convenient location, we’re nonjudgmental, we’re a safe zone for people to come and get tested. Other places like a community health center or a doctor’s office might be prohibitive for some people to get to.”
Karmeisool said she looks to create a cheerful ambiance within her store. The left wall is lined with glossy condom boxes, and the right with books covering topics from homosexuality to orgasms. Soothing pop music plays overhead. On a modern-looking couch against the wall lies Jake, a trained therapy dog.
All of these efforts help calm people as they go through the stressful testing process.
“If somebody’s coming in and getting tested, there’s an emotional element there,” she said. “It’s nice to be in a bright cheery environment where there’s distractions, things to look at, touch. We try to make the process as comfortable as possible.”
HIV awareness was a main reason why Karmeisool started S3 in 1995. She wanted to correct wrong information that was being disseminated about the disease, and she also wanted to make items like condoms accessible for all ages.
She said when she started the store, it was much more difficult for minors to buy condoms than it is today. Even now, she added, there are areas where condoms are kept behind counters rather than on open shelves.
“A lot of stores would turn young people away from purchasing condoms,” Karmeisool said. “You don’t magically become a sexual being at the age of 18. We are all sexual beings from birth.”
Although abstention is the only way to fully protect from sexually transmitted HIV, a condom can be the next best option. This makes buying and using condoms an important part of HIV prevention efforts.
“It is truly the best way to keep a barrier from fluid exchange with someone else,” Karmeisool said.
Golson said young adults know they should wear condoms to prevent HIV, but they still don’t. He said one reason for the spike in HIV cases in the youth population is an idea of invincibility.
“They didn’t think they had it to worry about,” Golson said. “That invincibility mindset is a misconception that is still very prevalent.”
The misconception may stem from CDC statistics that AIDS in America is
most common in the Black populations and in the population of men who have sex with men. Karmeisool said these statistics are self-perpetuating.
“There is a focus on the young, African-American, men having sex with men group,” she said. “Of course their numbers are going to be higher, because you’re testing more people in that group. Statistics tell a story, but statistics only tell a story of those who are being tested.”
Both Karmeisool and Golson encouraged everyone who is sexually active to get tested, even if they don’t think they have an STD.
“If you are sexually active, you should definitely consider getting a test for HIV and
the other STDs,” Golson said. “Two-thirds of people who have an STD will not exhibit symptoms, so that’s the only way to know for sure.”
Along with Friday’s efforts, S3 has offered free HIV testing every Thursday in June. All donations raised by S3 throughout the free testing will go to HARC and the AIDS Partnership Michigan.