Sixteen-year-old Alicia Younger wasn't interested in hearing her friend boast about his sexual exploits; she just wanted him to answer one essential question: Did he use a condom?
"He was, like, 'Please. Takes the feeling away.' So, I began to do a little outreach," said Alicia, a graduate of an Urban League program for girls called Outreach-to-Outreach.
That conversation was the type of interplay experts believe is key to helping teen-agers understand the dangers of sex without contraception or protection. All else seems to have had little effect. Years of sex education classes, hundreds of public service messages, ethnocentric brochures, comic books about Captain Condom and Lady Latex, even news stories such as the retirement of basketball's Earvin "Magic" Johnson and the death of rock 'n' roll's Freddie Mercury have barely dented the collective teen-age psyche.
Statistics bear this out. The national Centers for Disease Control Atlanta said that in the last five years AIDS cases among teen-agers rose from 127 to 789 nationwide. Three years ago, AIDS became the sixth-leading cause of death for people between the ages of 15 and 24.
In Baltimore, nine teen-agers have AIDS. Because infection rates aren't reported in Maryland, health officials don't know how many teens are HIV-positive. However, this much is known: AIDS can be dormant for up to 10 years. Many people with AIDS become infected during their teens. For that reason, much attention is being given to increasing AIDS awareness among teen-agers, particularly black teen-agers who are especially vulnerable because of the prevalence of intravenous drug use in their community.
"A lot of people talk about it, but they don't think it can happen to them," said Cherron Adams, a 17-year-old mother and veteran of Outreach-to-Outreach. "A lot of people don't care. They care more about a two-minute feeling."
Bernette Jones, who oversees Outreach-to-Outreach, said part of the problem is getting teens to talk about and understand their own sexuality.
She says many teen-agers think that almost everyone else is having sex, even if that is an illusion. Ms. Jones said that girls often become sexually active for all the wrong reasons -- they are angry at their parents or they are enticed by gifts and promises of affection. All too often, they don't think about what's best for them.
Before entering the Urban League's program, Alicia said, she didn't really think about that danger. "I had the same attitude as ++ everybody else," she said. "Condom or no condom. It didn't matter."
Surveys around the country find much the same: Barely a third of the sexually active junior high school boys in one study said they always used condoms; in another survey, 42 percent of the sexually active high school students said they'd have sex even if they didn't have a condom.
"The whole thing gets back down to responsibility in relationships," said Chris, a gay man in his 30s who is HIV-positive and a volunteer for the Health Education Resource Organization (HERO). "You have to think beyond the passion of the moment."
But some simply take their chances. "They say, 'All right, just this one time,' and then one time turns into two and they just get used to it," said Kameel Holmes, 15. "They say: 'Hey, it hasn't hit me yet.' "
While teens are advised to practice safe sex, they are also being encouraged -- by public health experts, parents, church leaders and rap groups -- to postpone having sex until adulthood.
Many teen-agers are reluctant to follow that tack. After Magic Johnson's announcement, Eric King, a minister who teaches high school physical education, held a class discussion. Some of his students didn't like hearing that they could get AIDS through heterosexual intercourse.
"They did not want to face the reality that the only 100 percent way of not getting pregnant or getting infected is abstinence," said Mr. King. "They really wanted to skate around that."
The message of abstinence hasn't been lost on Corey Brown, a 13-year-old who participated in a University of Maryland program about teen-age sexuality last summer. Corey knows what the big boys are doing and said it's not for him.
"The older teen-agers I know, 18 or 19, they have kids and they aren't ready for them, don't know how to handle them, just making them for the sake of having a girl or saying: 'Yeah, I have a baby,' " he said. "Since I'm just beginning and I'm not sexually active, that's telling me, well, don't start because if I do I won't grow up to be a Magic Johnson or a Michael Jordan because you can die from this, and it ain't no joke."