Denial won't help us conquer AIDS

IN A COUNTRY where more than a million teen-agers become pregnant each year, it seems terribly sad that it has taken the tragedy of basketball star Earvin "Magic" Johnson to focus us on the absolutely necessary discussion of "safe" sex.

This single occurrence within the perpetually adolescent world of professional sports, with which so many young people identify, has exposed the blind eye our society turns upon the hazards of irresponsible sex in a way that generations of damaged young lives apparently have not.


In psychology we talk of a defense mechanism called denial. Denial is simply a mechanism for keeping out our awareness things that are patently true, a way of pretending that what we don't know can't hurt us. Denial allows us to take risks, for good or ill. The boy just learning to ride a bike believes that gravity won't prevail and that he won't fall. The adult smoker ignores overwhelming evidence of the health consequences of smoking.

Denial also allows us to believe in impossibly long odds. The boy spends endless days on the basketball court dreaming of being the next Michael Jordan or Larry Bird. The young girl practices thousands of backhands, serves and volleys with visions of herself as Steffi Graf or Jennifer Capriati.


But because the AIDS virus admits of no second chances, no opportunities to undo or make right the consequences of irresponsible behavior, denial is an untenable response when it comes to sexual behavior.

To say, "It can't happen to me," followed by, "All right, then, I'll marry her," or, "We'll get an abortion," or, "My mother will take care of the baby while I finish school" may be last-ditch options in the case of a pregnancy. But such belated acknowledgments cannot commute the death sentence that infection with the AIDS virus inevitably brings.

At least since the sexual revolution of the '60s gave American males relatively unrestricted access to condoms, unprotected sex has been irresponsible, unethical and potentially dangerous, particularly in regard to venereal diseases. For females, unprotected sex is similarly irresponsible and dangerous and carries the additional risk of unwanted pregnancy.

Presently, the probability for both men and women of contracting AIDS as a result of a single heterosexual encounter appears relatively low, except for the partners of IV drug abusers. Still, as the epidemic spreads the odds in this game of sexual roulette grow ever shorter. "Recreational sex" definitely has taken on a new dimension of risk.

Whether casual or committed, sex can be wonderfully satisfying. What it cannot be, given the risks posed by the current epidemic, is mindless and irresponsible. It may be terribly naive to believe that a 15-year-old is going insist that her boyfriend use a condom merely because a basketball superstar has tested HIV positive.

Yet if Mr. Johnson, in his new role as a spokesman for "safe" sex, can even begin to get the message across that "unsafe" sex is tantamount to playing Russian roulette with a gun that has two or three rounds in the chamber, he truly will have performed a feat worthy of his "Magic" sobriquet.

The writer practices clinical psychology in Columbia, Md.