PRACTICING SAFE SEX 'It won't happen to me' mentality keeps many from using condoms regularly

THE BALTIMORE SUN

An article in Thursday's Today section on AIDS prevention and the practice of safe sex suggested that Baltimore resident William Freeman was employed by the Pratt Library. In fact, Mr. Freeman is a free-lance artist who works on a computer housed at the Pratt Library's Pennsylvania Avenue branch, under a grant from Opus B, a non-profit outreach and educational organization.

* The Sun regrets the error.

She knows she should ask her partners more questions. She knows she should discuss with them their sexual history and health. She knows she should insist her partners use condoms.

But often she doesn't.

"It's really awkward," says this 37-year-old single woman, a highly educated, successful producer for a Washington

advertising agency. "Sometimes I'll say, 'Don't you think we should use protection?' implying that I'm worried about getting pregnant. But what's really on my mind is disease.

"I know people say women should buy condoms, but it makes me look like . . . A nice girl isn't supposed to be thinking of that. I know it's silly. Things aren't a whole lot different than they were when you were 18."

But, of course, things are a lot different. There is AIDS. And today, the epidemic of this untamable disease, once largely confined, at least in this country, to communities of IV-drug users and homosexual males, is making the rounds, more and more, through heterosexual contact.

Although heterosexual transmission accounts for only 6 percent of all adult AIDS cases in the United States -- the greatest number, 58 percent, still occurs among homosexual males -- it is increasing among heterosexuals at a faster rate than any other segment of the population, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

In Maryland, the incidence of AIDS among white males, the original high-risk population, is now surpassed by cases among black males and females, many associated with substance abuse, says Kathleen Edwards, director of AIDS administration for the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

"The gay community has apparently heard the message and is apparently practicing safer sex," she says.

But is anyone else? Superstar Magic Johnson, who nearly two months ago said he contracted the HIV virus through unprotected heterosexual sex, made it clear that, as he put it, "it can happen to anybody."

But people like William Kennedy Smith -- a doctor -- who was acquitted of rape but conceded he didn't use a condom when he had sex with a

woman he'd met hours before -- are making it clear that not everybody is all that worried.

"It's just not real yet for people," says Tracey Post, assistant director of education and training at Planned Parenthood of Maryland. "When you just don't think it's going to happen to you, you don't change your behavior."

Indeed, while contraceptives are distributed at some high school clinics, including some in Baltimore, while trendy condom boutiques are springing up in big cities -- the latest one "CondomRageous" in Washington -- and while education about AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases is beginning at the elementary school level, health care workers say that changing behavior among sexually active men and women is still a terrific challenge.

"Knowledge has gone up, but actual practice [of safe sex] hasn't gone up all that much," says University of Connecticut social psychologist Jeffrey D. Fisher, who has done a six-year study of undergraduates. "More people are experimenting and trying condoms, but there hasn't been an increase in people always using them. And that's what you need."

For his study, Dr. Fisher asked students what it would take to get them to consistently engage in safer sex. Their answer: "if a good friend died of AIDS."

University of Maryland senior Rachel Walder, 22, says her circle of friends still has a hard time relating to the AIDS crisis. "We know a lot of people who went over and fought in Desert Storm. We could feel the effects of that. But no one in our age group has had anyone close to them die of AIDS."

Angel Kemerer, 22, a senior and "peer educator" at the University of Maryland who speaks to and distributes condoms to fellow students, says she's observed little change in actual behavior on campus. "We go to dorms and sororities. They all know everything we're going to tell them. They now know all the answers. We say, 'It's such a simple thing, you put on a condom and you can prevent all these things.' They're like, 'Yeah, we know.' They think it and know it, but they're not doing it."

The university's health center was deluged with calls for HIV testing after Magic Johnson's announcement, says Margaret Bridwell, the center's director. But that flurry -- largely from those at very low risk -- has "died down now," she reports. "I don't think that kind of thing, over the long haul, changes behavior. It only has an effect for the short term."

Late adolescents and young adults such as those she sees on campus, she says, "still feel they're invulnerable, that nothing is ever going to happen to them." She believes only better and earlier sex education will make a difference.

Ironically, Dr. Fisher believes some of the safe sex lessons being preached have backfired. "We said, 'Know your partner.' What we really meant was know your partner's HIV status." Instead, he says, people feel if they know anything at all about their partner's background or lifestyle, "it's OK to have risky sex with them."

He further believes condom use still meets with resistance because it "conflicts with social norms," especially for teens and young adults. "Risky sex is the norm if you want to be 'in,' if you want to be cool. It's perceived as neurotic or uptight if somebody insists on condom use. What has to happen is the norms have to change so it's the expectation that people will use condoms."

Clearly, for some people it's become the expectation. "I know a lot of people who now say they wouldn't have sex without using a condom," says William Freeman, 20, a computer specialist at the Pratt Library. "Everybody is finding out a lot about sexually transmitted diseases."

Baltimore's recent decline in teen-age pregnancies is said to be linked, at least in part, to in-school distribution of condoms. And last year, 60 percent of the young men and women in Planned Parenthood of Maryland's AIDS prevention program said they'd feel comfortable using a condom or suggesting their partner use one. The 2-year-old program, aimed at urban black teens, relies heavily on peer educators and discussion groups.

Shaneisa Dennis, 16, a member of the program, says she now sticks with one boyfriend and insists on condom use. "I used to have a lot of boyfriends, but I started hearing too much, my girlfriends started getting too pregnant and getting too many diseases. I couldn't handle it," says the 10th grader at Walbrook Sr. High school in Baltimore.

But as militant as she's become, Shaneisa believes she may be the exception among her friends. "We talk about it when we sit around, but as far as using [condoms], I guess they don't. They say, 'Girl, that's not going to happen to me. I don't mess around with just anybody.' Everybody feels it's not going to happen to them."

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