At my very small liberal arts college in the late ’80s/early ’90s, talk of safe sex had just begun, trailing the growing HIV/AIDS crisis as public education efforts often do.
They weren’t yet handing out condoms in the student union, but our resident advisors regularly counseled us to “be safe,” and we were given plenty of bananas on which to practice our condom unrolling skills.
Early commercials portrayed AIDS as a death sentence, and they were petrifying performances that had many of us reaching for condoms long before we had a sexual partner.
Fast forward two decades—the picture of HIV/AIDS has changed dramatically, both in terms of survivability and perceived risk of infection. While HIV infection rates continue to grow (approximately 56,000 new HIV infections occur each year in the U.S.), HIV infection has now become a chronic condition for many.
Today’s commercials are less scary, with ads like this one emphasizing making the right choice (using condoms) during sex:
Once people started surviving AIDS, safe sex lost its immediacy, with a character like the “safe sex angel” now signifying a switch to a lighter, breezier approach.
Also, the fact that condom use and other safer sex behaviors reduce one’s chance of infection with a life-altering STI like gonorrhea, chlamydia, herpes, or HPV is often barely acknowledged in public awareness campaigns, although it should be trumpeted loud and often. Safe sex isn’t just about HIV prevention.
The misperception that the AIDS crisis is past has allowed many people to back away from safer sex practices that could save their lives. Everywhere, there are indications that safe sex isn’t what it used to be. In Britain, an HIV+ pop star recently admitted to having unprotected sex. and a recent study found that many young gay men (a population at extreme risk for HIV infection) admitted to having unprotected sex with other men.
Studies show that at least 200,000 people are infected with HIV in the U.S. and don’t know it. According to news reports, those most likely to receive a late diagnosis of HIV and to die from AIDS are adults over 50.
HIV leads to AIDS and death, if left untreated. And there is no such thing as safe sex.
Don’t make the mistake of believing that safe sex is a thing of the past. You can protect yourself from needless infection and chronic health complications by following these simple steps. And as parents, we need to practice what we preach: