Cute Boy Trading Cards

Ideation, Mentoring, & Normalizing Healthy Sex

Project: Cute Boy Trading Cards
Task: Provide HIV prevention messaging to young gay men
Challenge: Facilitate the development of a youth-driven prevention campaign
Team: Ervin: Idea mavin — David: Mentor and teacher — Me: Researcher and facilitator

A core goal of the MPowerment project was to make HIV prevention messaging attractive, engaging, and not look like anything Public Health would ever develop. An appropriate tone and natural language surrounding healthy sex had been our foremost priority. Ervin, our first youth intern, was excited to get to work on the project.

RESEARCH: Learning what we don’t know

Partnering with local street outreach projects created the opportunity to see two sides of prevention, the outreach worker’s and the young men they were trying to reach. Outreach workers develop an ongoing and tenuous relationship with the youth they serve. Trust is developed over months of conversation and consistency. Regardless how seasoned the worker, broaching the topic of sex was largely avoided, even when it came time to hand out condom packs and prevention-education materials. If a packet handoff did take place, the transaction was a mix of plea by the worker and reluctance on the part of the youth. Conversely, requests and conversations around cotton works (cleaning supplies for injection needles) were casual and utilitarian. The youth didn’t hesitate to openly request the cleaning packs. On our subsequent visits to outreach sites, carcasses of safe-sex packets were strewn around the area, education materials intact but condoms missing.

NEED: Something to talk about

As we processed through our research observations with Ervin, we realized we needed to create the opportunity for conversations about healthy sex to feel more natural. Whatever the conversation piece turned out to be, it also would have to work as a stand alone education piece for the youth. Ervin came up with the idea of the Cute Boy Trading Cards — a set of cards portraying characterizations of young men in the community, each with a unique backstory and a different perspective on healthy sex.

As it turned out, Ervin was a pretty outstanding artist. The prevention project created the perfect opportunity to align his passion with our strategy. David and I could teach him illustration skills (OK, that was all David), messaging, and how to create the experience he had envisioned.


With Ervin leading the way, we had a lot of fun experimenting with the personality of each character, playing with the type of advice each would give their friends. Eventually, Ervin crafted the idea of a flirtatious interaction with each card.

ITERATE: Start small

We wanted to test the cards in the field to start gathering feedback and identify potential for improvement. The Orion Center Outreach Team, a community partner, agreed to include the first version, printed on our b&w office printer, in their condom packets. 

I have guys who would never talk to me, much less take a condom, approaching me and asking for the Trading Cards.
— Timothy, Orion Center Outreach Lead

The cards became a popular and easy launching point for outreach workers to work the topic of sex into a conversation. Quick demand for the Cute Boy Trading Cards provided leverage to funding we needed to develop Ervin’s idea further. By the third set, the cards were produced and printed in full color (a slightly bigger deal in the early 2000’s) and distributed to outreach teams at five different youth service organizations around the city. In its final iteration, at the request of Seattle Public Schools, Ervin created a few “Cute Girls” for a series of prevention posters distributed to all of the high schools in the city.