Nicole Taylor lost her cousin to AIDS. Deanna Medof's close friend has herpes.
Taylor cried. Medof consoled. And now, through a new class at Pierce College, these two students are learning about the subject that has caused their grief.
In the past, acquired immune deficiency syndrome, syphilis and herpes have been taboo subjects, or have been squeezed into larger biology classes, rarely making students aware of the ramifications of unsafe sex. Pierce, alone among community colleges in the San Fernando Valley, is devoting an entire class to sexually transmitted diseases. Other community colleges, as well as Cal State Northridge, teach the material in health courses.
"I knew about herpes," said Medof, 25, "but I didn't know about the details. I want to know."
And instructor Bernardine Pregerson is willing to teach. A microbiologist, Pregerson has assumed a new role for this challenge: social scientist. By making them understand the consequences of unsafe sex, Pregerson hopes to teach students how to become more responsible.
"But how do I do that?" Pregerson asked. "There are no easy answers. I'll just have to learn from them."
During the class, which meets for three hours on Thursday nights, Pregerson plans to show students the nature of the viral and bacterial agents causing the diseases and how they are treated. What do they look like? And how do they operate in the body?
For reading material, Pregerson plans to introduce medical texts, articles and newspaper clippings. She said there are no textbooks dealing solely with sexually transmitted diseases.
Pregerson will also bring in guest lecturers who have contracted the diseases.
Most of the 30 or so students in the class have no science background. They are taking the class to fulfill a natural-science requirement. Some are taking it for a letter grade, others simply for credit. To reach her non-science students, Pregerson has had to simplify things, which has been the least of her obstacles.
She is more worried about dispelling the age-old misconceptions about sexually transmitted diseases, like the one that says a person can contract them simply by not being clean.
"A recent survey said that some students believe washing their genitals after sex will prevent the HIV," Pregerson said. "There's a lot of ignorance and shame and embarrassment of discussing sexually transmitted diseases. You can't separate society's value system from these diseases."
When Ellen Rappaport enrolled in the class, she got a firsthand look at embarrassment and then at ignorance. Her friends teased her incessantly. "They would say, 'Oh, there goes Ellen to her sex class,' " Rappaport said.
But in ensuing weeks, her friends began to question her about the class. And when she posed a question from a class quiz, their answers weren't very impressive.
"I asked them, 'What is the name of the head of the penis?' And not one of them could answer it," she said. "The answer is glans."
Rappaport, 45, was no expert when she started the class. When her granddaughter was born eight weeks premature, the infant needed transfusions. Rappaport was surprised to learn that a donor with the same blood type wasn't accepted because he had been exposed to HIV, the virus believed to cause AIDS-related diseases.
"I had heard of the virus," Rappaport said, "but I didn't pay any attention to it." Furthermore, lacking sufficient knowledge, she felt that she really couldn't empathize with those afflicted with the virus. "And now I'm beginning to."
Jill Bartlett, 21, is looking forward to the discussions about sex.
"In high school, this stuff was treated like a joke," Bartlett said. "They aren't frank about it. You can't talk straight about it, like you do with your friends."
The class, which started Feb. 7, has been a longtime goal for Pregerson. She remembers first thinking about it during an AIDS seminar at school several years ago. After returning from a sabbatical, she discovered that the physical education department was planning to offer a course on sexually transmitted diseases. Pregerson quickly intervened.
"I felt it was more appropriate that it be taught by someone in life science who would have more knowledge," said Pregerson, who has taught microbiology for 18 years, first at Cal State Northridge, then at Pierce.
At Pierce, some responses startled her.
She said a faculty member from another department "asked me, 'What kind of pornographic class are you teaching?' And I'm trying to tell this person that this is the real world."
Taylor, 20, found out about the real world when her cousin died two years ago.
"I had been so naive," she said. She never believed that someone she knew would get AIDS.
Medof wants more than knowledge. She wants to help her friend cope with having herpes.
"Maybe I can help her find a way to tell her boyfriend," Medof said, "without her worrying that he'll run away."