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AIDS AT 25

From free love to safe sex

June 05, 2006|Susan Brink | Times Staff Writer

In hindsight, the news reported on June 5, 1981, was the first cold slap of a new reality. The Centers for Disease Control announced that five homosexual men in Los Angeles had been stricken with Pneumocystis carinii, a rare form of pneumonia. Within a month, 26 cases of Kaposi's sarcoma, another rare disease that was soon to be known as "gay men's cancer," were reported in New York and California.

No one yet had put the name AIDS to these puzzling cases, no one knew the diseases were caused by HIV, and no one could stop the quick progression from disease to death that made the next 15 years look, in some communities, like a massacre.

What followed those early reports was a roller coaster of fear and apathy, as the epidemic first ravaged gay men, IV drug users and -- until testing made the blood supply safe -- hemophiliacs and transfusion recipients. The epidemic made its way increasingly to heterosexuals, particularly in poor and rural communities. It now afflicts 1 million Americans, and 40,000 new cases of HIV infection are expected this year, according to the CDC.

For a quarter of a century, Americans have had to face the uncomfortable knowledge that, with one false sexual move, AIDS could happen to anyone.

Lovers now know that they are sleeping not only with their partners, but with the entire cast of characters making up their partners' sexual histories. That reality is perhaps most ingrained in the generations that have come to sexual maturity during the age of AIDS.

The epidemic, by infusing careless sexual encounters with the penalty of death, has added a heavy dose of fear to the joy of sex.

Those CDC reports were the first step in bringing to a close an era that some would recall as a sexual playground of free love and others would condemn as a moral free-fall. AIDS emerged a scant 21 years after approval of the birth control pill sexually liberated a generation. Less than a decade after the Pill, the Summer of Love and then Woodstock tested the limits of the sexual revolution, and the Stonewall riots of June 27, 1969, in Greenwich Village launched the gay rights movement.

Sex, so recently seen as natural and liberating, began to get a bad rap.

Today, adolescents have known about AIDS from the first conversation about the birds and the bees. "If you can find me a 15-year-old who doesn't know that AIDS is a deadly disease, I'd be shocked," says Julie Downs, director of the Center for Risk Perception and Communication at Carnegie Mellon University. "They know this."

The information has no doubt contributed to what has been a bit of a cold shower. The percentage of students who say they've had intercourse declined to 46.7% in 2003 from 54.1% in 1991, according to the CDC. And the number of both boys and girls who have had sex before the age of 13 has dropped to 7.4% in 2003 from 10.2% in 1991.

Health class lectures, once just an embarrassing source of giggles and red faces, have fueled this attitude change with information that can only be called urgent.

At the age of 12, in the mid-1980s, sex education was sobering for Martha Kempner, 34, vice president for communication for the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S. She was a seventh grader then, and sex education class remains a crystal clear memory. "It was straightforward and honest," she says. "The message was that this was something we could prevent. It wasn't meant to make us scared. But it made us scared because it was straightforward and honest."

Despite a dose of fear, teens are still a bundle of raging hormones, developing bodies and immature minds. And they still do what they've always done, if just a bit later.

"If you thought [AIDS] was affecting their attitudes about sex, you'd expect a rapid decline in the number of 17- and 18-year-olds having intercourse," says Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, professor of child development at Columbia University. "We're not seeing that." Today, the median age for first intercourse is 16.9 years for boys and 17.4 years for girls -- not much different from 1979, when boys started having sex at 15.7 years old and girls at 16.2 years old. By high school graduation, 46.7% of students have had sex.

But teens and young adults have incorporated a measured dose of safety. "Worrying about sex, and using condoms as a way to protect themselves -- that's what young people have known from the beginning," Downs says. In 1970, only 22% of women had their partner use a condom the first time they had sex; by 2002, that number was up to 67%, according to the CDC.

There seems to be a generational divide on condom use, Kempner says. "We were the generation where condom use was the norm," she says. "For people even just a few years older, condom use was something that had to be negotiated."

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