photo: NYT archives

The lies we tell ourselves about sex never change

By MEGHAN DAUMJAN. 21, 1996 (10 minute read)

January 21, 1996, Page 006032 Buy Reprints. The New York Times Archives This is a digitized version of an article from The Times’s print archive, before the start of online publication in 1996 and The Times does not alter, edit or update them.

I HAVE BEEN TESTED FOR H.I.V. THREE times. I’ve gone to clinics and stuck my arm out for those disposable needles, each time forgetting the fear and nausea that descend upon me before the results come back, those minutes spent in a publicly financed waiting room staring at a video loop about “living with” this thing that kills you. These tests have taken place over five years, and the results have always been negative — not surprisingly in retrospect, since I am not a member of a “high-risk group,” don’t sleep around and don’t take pity on heroin-addicted bass players by going to bed with them in the hopes of being thanked in the liner notes of their first major independent release. Still, getting tested always seemed like the thing to do. Despite my demographic profile, despite the fact that I grew up middle class, attended an elite college and do not personally know any women or straight men within that demographic profile who have the AIDS virus, I am terrified of this disease. I went to a college where condoms and dental dams lay in baskets in dormitory lobbies, where it seemed incumbent on health service counselors to give us the straight talk, to tell us never, ever to have sex without condoms unless we wanted to die; that’s right, die, shrivel overnight, vomit up our futures, pose a threat to others. (And they’d seen it happen, oh, yes, they had.) They gave us pamphlets, didn’t quite explain how to use dental dams, told us where we could get tested, threw us more fistfuls of condoms (even some glow-in-the-dark brands, just for variety). This can actually be fun, they said, if only we’d adopt a better attitude.

We’re told we can get this disease and we believe it and vow to protect ourselves, and intend (really, truly) to stick by this rule, until we don’t because we just can’t, because it’s just not fair, because our sense of entitlement exceeds our sense of vulnerability. So we blow off precaution again and again, and then we get scared and get tested, and when it comes out O.K., we run out of the clinic, pamphlets in hand, eyes cast upward, promising ourselves we’ll never be stupid again. But of course we are stupid, again and again. And the testing is always for the same reasons and with the same results, and soon it becomes more like fibbing about S.A.T. scores 10 years after the fact than lying about whether we practice unsafe sex, a lie that sounds like such a breach of contract with ourselves that we might as well be talking about putting a loaded gun under our pillow every night.

Still, I’ve gone into more than a few relationships with the safest of intentions and discarded them after the fourth or fifth encounter. Perhaps this is a shocking admission, but my hunch is that I’m not the only one doing it. My suspicion is, in fact, that very few of us — “us” being the demographic profile frequently charged with thinking we’re immortal, the population accused of being cynical and lazy and weak — have really responded to the AIDS crisis the way the Federal Government and the educational system would like us to believe. My guess is that we’re all but ignoring it and that almost anyone who claims otherwise is lying.

It seems there is a lot of lying going around. One of the main tenets of the safe-sex message is that ageless mantra “you don’t know where he’s been,” meaning that everyone is a potential threat, that we’re all either scoundrels or ignoramuses. “He didn’t tell me he was shooting drugs,” says an H.I.V.-positive woman on a public-service advertisement. Safe sex “documentaries” on MTV and call-in radio shows on pop stations give us woman after woman whose boyfriend “claimed he loved me but was sleeping around.” The message we receive is that trusting anyone is itself an irresponsible act, that having faith in an intimate partner, particularly women in relation to men, is a symptom of such profound naivete that we’re obviously not mature enough to be having sex anyway.

I find this reasoning almost more troubling than the disease itself. It flies in the face of the social order from which I, as someone born in 1970, was supposed to benefit. That this reasoning runs counter to almost any feminist ideology — the ideology that proclaimed, at least back in the 70’s, that women should feel free to ask men on dates and wear jeans and have orgasms — is an admission that no AIDS-concerned citizen is willing to make. Two decades after “The Joy of Sex” made sexual pleasure permissible for both sexes and three decades after the pill put a government-approved stamp on premarital sex, we’re still told not to trust each other. We’ve entered a period where mistrust equals responsibility, where fear signifies health.

Since I spent all of the 70’s under the age of 10, I’ve never known a significantly different sexual and social climate. Supposedly this makes it easier to live with the AIDS crisis. Health educators and AIDS activists like to think that people of my generation can be made to unlearn what we never knew, to break the reckless habits we didn’t actually form. But what we have learned thoroughly is how not to enjoy ourselves. Just like our mothers, whose adolescences were haunted by the abstract taboo against being “bad” girls, my contemporaries and I are discouraged from doing what feels good. As it did with our mothers, the onus falls largely on the women. We know that it’s much easier for women to contract H.I.V. from a man than the other way around. We know that an “unsafe” man generally means someone who has shot drugs or slept with other men, or possibly slept with prostitutes. We find ourselves wondering about these things over dinner dates. We look for any hints of homosexual tendencies, any references to a hypodermic moment. We try to catch him in the lie we’ve been told he’ll tell.

What could be sadder? We’re not allowed to believe anyone anymore. And the reason we’re not isn’t so much because of AIDS but because of the anxiety that ripples around the disease. The information about AIDS that is supposed to produce “awareness” has been subsumed into the aura of style. AIDS awareness has become so much a part of the pop culture that not only is it barely noticeable, it is largely ineffectual. MTV runs programs about safe sex that are barely distinguishable from documentaries about Madonna. A print advertisement for Benetton features a collage of hundreds of tiny photographs of young people, some of whom are shaded with the word AIDS written across their faces. Many are white and blond and have the tousled, moneyed look common to more traditional fashion spreads or even yearbooks from colleges like the one I attended. There is no text other than the company’s slogan. There is no explanation of how these faces were chosen, no public statement of whether these people actually have the disease or not. I called Benetton for clarification and was told that the photographs were supposed to represent people from all over the world and that no one was known to be H.I.V.-positive — just as I suspected. The advertisement was a work of art, which meant I could interpret the image any way I liked. This is how the deliverers of the safe-sex message shoot themselves in the foot. Confronted with arty effects instead of actual information, people like me are going to believe what we want to believe, which, of course, is whatever isn’t too scary. So we turn the page.

Since I am pretty sure I do not sleep with bisexual men or IV drug users, my main personal concern about AIDS is that men can get the virus from women and subsequently pass it on to other women. According to the Centers for Disease Control’s National AIDS clearinghouse surveillance report, less than three-quarters of 1 percent of white non-Hispanic men with H.I.V. infection contracted the virus through heterosexual sex with a non-IV drug-using woman. (Interestingly, the C.D.C. labels this category as “risk not specified.”) But this statistic seems too dry for MTV and campus health brochures, whose eye-catching “sex kills” rhetoric tells us nothing other than to ignore what we don’t feel like thinking about. Obviously, there are still too many cases of H.I.V.; there is a deadly risk in certain kinds of sexual behavior and therefore reason to take precautions. But until more people appear on television, look into the camera and tell me that they contracted H.I.V. through heterosexual sex with someone who had no risk factors, I will continue to disregard the message.

Besides, the very sophistication that allows people like me to filter out much of the hype behind music videos, fashion magazines and television talk shows is what we use to block out the safe-sex message. We are not a population that makes personal decisions based on the public service work of a rock star. We’re not going to sacrifice the thing we believe we deserve, the experiences we waited for, because Levi Strauss is a major sponsor of MTV’s coverage of World AIDS Day.

So the inconsistent behavior continues, as do the confessions among friends and the lies to health care providers during routine exams — because we just can’t bear the terrifying lectures that ensue when we confess to not always protecting ourselves. Life in your 20’s is fraught not only with financial and professional uncertainty, but also with a specter of death that floats above the pursuit of a sex life. And there is no solution, only the conclusion that invariably finishes the hushed conversations: the whole thing simply “sucks.” It’s a bummer on a grand scale.

Heterosexuals are receiving vague signals. We’re told that if we are sufficiently vigilant, we will probably be all right. We’re being told to assume the worst and to not invite disaster by hoping for the best. We’re being encouraged to keep our fantasies on a tight rein, otherwise we’ll lose control of the whole buggy, and no one can say we weren’t warned. So for us AIDS remains a private hell, smoldering beneath intimate conversations among friends and surfacing on those occasional sleepless nights when it occurs to us to wonder about it, upon which that dark hysteria sets in, and those catalogues of whom we’ve done it with and whom they might have done it with and oh-my-God-I’ll-surely-die seem to project themselves onto the ceiling, the way fanged monsters did when we were children. But we fall asleep and then we wake up. And nothing has changed except our willingness to forget about it, which has become the ultimate survival mechanism. What my peers and I are left with is a generalized anxiety, a low-grade fear and anger that resides at the core of everything we do. Our attitudes have been affected by the disease by leaving us scared, but our behavior has stayed largely the same. One result is a corrosion of the soul, a chronic dishonesty and fear that will most likely damage us more than the disease itself. In this world, peace of mind is a utopian concept.

A version of this article appears in print on January 21, 1996, on Page 6006032 of the National edition with the headline: Safe-Sex Lies.

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