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Dangerous Liaisons : Young Gay Men Know All About AIDS and HIV, Yet They Persist In Having Unprotected Sex. Here, Some of Them Say Why.

July 25, 1993|ROBERT A. JONES | Robert A. Jones is a Times columnist on leave to write a book on postwar Los Angeles and the invention of the modern world. His last article for this magazine was "California's Bitter Season," about the state budget crisis

Gabe, at 18, represents a kind of mystery. Not that Gabe, if you met him, would seem particularly mysterious. He lives at home with his parents, makes medium grades in high school, earns gas money bagging groceries at Safeway. On the surface, Gabe appears almost too ordinary to contain any sort of mystery.

But the questions arise when Gabe describes his recent past. For two years, Gabe has slipped into his car on weekend nights, and some school nights, to escape his parents' suburban world. Still nothing unusual about that, except that Gabe happens to be gay. On his forays from home, he heads for bars, parks, coffee shops, anywhere he can meet older men. And have sex.

In fairness, Gabe sees himself as searching for something besides sex; love perhaps, or, as he puts it, "a relationship where people fall for each other and then stay together." But what he finds is sex. Gabe has had sex hundreds of times with dozens of men. Many dozens. And here's the mystery: During the two years in which Gabe has committed virtually every variety of sexual coupling with different men on different nights, he has never introduced the subject of safe sex with any of his older lovers. Nor, except on rare occasions, have they with him. In his search for love, Gabe can hardly remember stumbling across a condom.

Gabe knows about AIDS. He knew about it when he began his active sexual life at 16. He lives in a town on the San Francisco peninsula where AIDS is hardly kept a secret. Nor is Gabe mired in the kind of family that would create a kid bent on self-destruction. He views his life with good humor and often makes fine distinctions on points of personal behavior.

Yet he voluntarily and repeatedly engaged in unprotected sex with men whose chances of having HIV could be conservatively estimated at one in three. Gabe does not claim that his lovers forced him or even pressured him to forgo precautions. He just did it, willingly, and never thought about it afterward. In his words, "I didn't think about it."

What to make of Gabe? His behavior could be seen as an attempt at some subtle suicide, but Gabe does not believe it to be so. He enjoys life too much, he says, and has his own explanations that will be presented later. In truth, Gabe's behavior largely remains a puzzle.

For reasons that no one really understands, a generation of young gay men--not even men, really, but kids about to become men--seem to have turned away from the fundamentals of safe sex. They, like Gabe, appear to have abandoned caution, acting as if a decade of sexual education about AIDS had never taken place.

For several years, researchers have suspected that this rejection of safe sex was occurring. Then, a study by the San Francisco Department of Public Health in 1991 confirmed their fears. The study found that gay men between the ages of 17 and 25 consistently engaged in high-risk sex. And the younger the men, the riskier the behavior.

Among the men aged 23 to 25 in the survey, nearly 30% said they recently had unprotected anal intercourse. Among the men 17 to 19 years of age, the rate rose to roughly 43%. As for unprotected oral sex, about 82% of the older group said they had taken part, and the figure went up to a little more than 90% for the younger crowd.

Finally, the study showed that the rejection of safe sex was taking its toll. In the 23-to-25 crowd, 10.4% turned up HIV positive. Among the 17- to-19-year-olds, the HIV rate jumped to 14.3%. In other words, the younger kids, who had less time to get infected, produced an HIV rate almost 40% higher than their older counterparts.

That study, which focused on young gay men in San Francisco, may reflect what's happening on the national front. Last month, in its final report, the National Commission on AIDS underscored the problem, stating that "while HIV transmission among older men who have sex with men is sharply reduced from the early '80s, transmission continues at high levels in younger gay men."

As of March, a total of 978 AIDS cases have been reported to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control among men age 13 to 24 who have sex with men. While this may not be a number of epidemic proportions, officials are concerned that the number of cases will take off.

AIDS researchers have offered several explanations for the increase in unsafe sex. The young, they say, often see themselves as immortal and take terrible risks with their lives. And many have not developed the confidence or social skills to introduce the subject of safe sex with their partners.

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