Education about AIDS crucial to our survival

Editor’s Note: The following column is reprinted with permission from the Spring 1987 issue of Helix, the quarterly magazine of the University of Virginia Medical Center.

How many of our young people will have to be infected by the AIDS virus before we know we have to work with them—not against them—to prevent the further spread of AIDS? Will we decide that death is worse than embarrassment in time to save our children—and perhaps ourselves?

We face years of waiting for a safe, effective vaccine that cures AIDS. We must anticipate long delays in the arrival of predictably efficacious therapies to destroy or inactivate the virus and to restore the potency of the immune system. And yet the promise of substantial intervention to reduce the future numbers of those infected, sick and dying exists even today.

Good, clever, explicit, easily accessible education is our best response to the crime of AIDS. To be effective, information about risk reduction must be direct; it must teach by word and picture, not by euphemism and implication. It must speak to its audience in their language, using their terms, accepting their definition.

No one understands what “don’t exchange body fluids” means. Does that mean sweat? In a society where “sweat” is more palatable as “perspiration,” where matters physical and sexual are comfortably distanced by the cleansing power of less offensive words, we had better learn—and quickly—to say what we mean.

It is not enough to talk about sex as a family affair. It is not enough to talk about heterosexual sex or vaginal sex or masterbation or contraception. It is also necessary to talk about homosexuality anal and oral sex and other sexual practices that are much more common in America’s straight and gay bedrooms than in polite conversation.

And we must talk about these things to our kids. They face an incredible challenge. As adolescents, their normal development process dictates curiosity about sexuality. We can suggest they “just say no” to sexual activity, but most these days choose otherwise. And who can be surprised? Advertising, peer pressure, parental example and America’s quest for easy gratification all commonly emphasize the importance of sexuality, attractiveness and “fitting in.” We teach them that sex matters. Why can’t we teach them how to be careful?

We must separate the issues of contraception and disease prevention. Writing or talking about condoms as barriers to the transmission of sexually transmitted infections is not a moral issue. We also somehow need to separate the issues of morality and safety enough to talk plainly about the latter. The AIDS virus is not a moral agent.

Our schools are our most obvious resource in this dilemma. We must unleash our teachers. We must have sex education, not just “family life.” Our classrooms must become workshops for risk reduction—places where the discomforts and embarrassments that stand between parents and children will not interfere with passing along life-saving information. Back home, we can teach values at school, let us recognize that lots of different value systems exist.

Some of our children will “just say no” to sex. Most will no more be able to do that than to “just say no” to adolescence, maturation and psychological development. But we can teach them to “just say no” to AIDS. We can teach them that self-respect and self-esteem are important, that respect for one’s partners is important and that those who are sexually active need to know certain risk reduction skills.

These days, you might call those survival skills. Teaching them will be embarrassing at times. Some of the terminology will offend. Some of the concepts will startle. But the stakes in AIDS education are high indeed. No amount of anyone’s sense of decorum is worth the unnecessary loss of one life. Some of our sons and daughters will be infected by the AIDS virus while we are paying too much attention to our scruples. Their survival is more important than our sensibility.

For more information about AIDS or other heath issues contact Health Enhancement Services at 753-9745.