I'm new at being single. I met my husband when I was 19, and I've just been divorced 1 1/2 years. I have a number of single women and men friends who are talking about the AIDS problem. We're all saying that this is no time to be single. AIDS is all-consuming. People wondering who has it, who's going to get it? It's like being under siege. This (disease) is going to do a lot for monogamy.
--Paula Van Ness, new executive director of AIDS Project Los Angeles, December, 1985.
Because of her job, Paula Van Ness spends a lot more time than most people in dealing with the health crisis caused by AIDS, acquired immune deficiency syndrome. But, personally, as a single heterosexual, Van Ness has the same concerns and fears as do her peers across the nation.
A Flood of Questions
Of late, single straight people everywhere--in bars and restaurants, singles groups, at Monday Night Football games and church gatherings--are asking questions. Some even call AIDS hot lines, querying:
--What is my risk of getting this deadly disease?
--How do I know, since the incubation period for AIDS can be five years or longer, who already has been exposed?
--Is AIDS so frightening that I should change my life style and sexual habits?
--Where do we go from here, from the casual sex of the '60s and '70s to no sex in the '80s?
They are questions similar to those that the homosexual community began asking four years ago when the AIDS epidemic zeroed in on gays and began a killing swath across the large gay populations of the country, particularly in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
There are no easy answers.
It was June, 1981, when the first five cases of AIDS were discovered among homosexual males in Los Angeles. Today, more than 14,000 people have contracted it in the United States; more than half of those have died. Scientists estimate 1.2 million to 2 million people in the United States already have been exposed to the AIDS virus.
73% of Victims Homosexuals
The majority of AIDS cases still is confined to what scientists and physicians call high-risk groups--73% are centered among the country's gay population; 17% among heterosexual drug users, 3% among hemophiliacs or persons infected from blood transfusions.
Only 1% of heterosexuals not considered high risk have come down with AIDS, and most of those are women, who presumably contracted it through sexual contact with an infected male.
The other 6% of the diagnosed AIDS cases do not fit into any other risk groups.
But AIDS remains a puzzle: Will it continue confining itself mainly to gays, probably passed on through the common practice of anal intercourse? Or will cases in the heterosexual population begin to rise as the disease spreads, nearly doubling every year?
AIDS researchers across the country debate the issue almost weekly. Some say it will infect more and more non-high-risk heterosexuals as AIDS seems to have done in Africa; some say it won't.
One of the major problems scientists have in trying to track AIDS is that they don't have enough history of the disease yet, and they don't know how to predict what course AIDS may take because of the long incubation period between the time of infection and when the symptoms of the disease show up. Some researchers even are speculating AIDS may lie dormant in a infected person for up to 14 years.
It is the unknowns of AIDS that bring the dread.
"To me, the freakiest thing about AIDS is that someone can have it for a year or five years and not know about it," said Diane Kirkland, a 26-year-old Los Angeles fashion designer. "If that's the case, you might as well just throw in the towel. What are you supposed to do, stop seeing people sexually forever?"
On this recent evening, Kirkland had come to meet some single girlfriends for drinks and dinner at Merlin McFly's in Santa Monica. She goes there regularly, knows many of the customers and most of the employees.
"People have been talking about AIDS," she said. "They're scared, confused and don't know what to do. I suppose the only safe sex is abstinence. But don't you see the futility of the situation? If you let it throw so much fear into you, you'll be a hermit. How long can you live like that? That's not living. And we're all here to live and be happy. You could be going with someone now, and then they come down with it on the five-year plan. What then?
"I don't think people are as flagrant about sex as they were in the '60s," added Kirkland. "We've had venereal diseases before, syphilis, gonorrhea, and then herpes. Herpes scared everybody. But then, you do die from AIDS. Having sex is a risk now; let's face it. Of course, you can be more careful. But you have to decide if the risk is worth it."
Kirkland said she has one girlfriend that she has talked with about the dangers of AIDS and having a lot of sexual partners, but her friend refuses to change her promiscuous life style.