Image: AIDS dance-a-thon
Kevin Larkin  /  AP file
Remember the early 1990s, when condoms were a fashion accessory? Dancers bounce a condom balloon at an AIDS dance-a-thon in New York on Dec. 12, 1992.
By msnbc.com contributor
msnbc.com contributor
updated 6/4/2006 1:45:31 PM ET 2006-06-04T17:45:31

At first, AIDS appeared to be a disease of gay men. But by the time the virus responsible, HIV, had been identified a few years later, fear that sex, whether gay or straight, would kill millions of Americans shadowed every discussion of the topic.

America’s sex life seemed poised for a dramatic change.

But 25 years later, AIDS' true impact on the American sexual landscape has been muted, and, experts say, the changes that did occur were not always the ones we expected.

Perception of what the sexual atmosphere was like before AIDS often relies on a convenient metaphor, like, say, Studio 54. Fueled by sex, drugs and disco, the New York nightclub had a debauched three-year run as a hangout for movie stars, sports heroes and the fashion crowd before its two founders, Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, were thrown in jail in 1980 for tax evasion.

The next year, AIDS arrived (Rubell eventually died of it). But the story — first we partied, then we paid — is too tidy.

While Studio 54 achieved a kind of infamy, the vast majority of Americans could never pass beyond the velvet ropes. The vast majority were not having anonymous sex in nightspots, nor going to gay bathhouses, nor swinging in suburbia.

But AIDS, or, more accurately, talk about AIDS, was everywhere from national magazine covers to school board meetings in rural towns. Just 17 years before the first American AIDS patients checked into hospitals, comedian Lenny Bruce was prosecuted for referring in his stand-up routine to things that now appeared on nightly newscasts.

So the conversation about sex did change, at least for a while. Couples took sexual histories over second-date cocktails. Going to a medical lab for testing became a dating ritual. Condoms turned into fashion accessories.

The most important change in the conversation occurred in the nation’s schools. “Before AIDS we were debating whether to teach about sex,” recalls Martha Kempner,the vice president of education for the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS).”

AIDS won that argument.

Condoms in the classroom
According to government surveys, in 1982, about 47 percent of teenagers 15 to 19 years old had had intercourse. By 1990, 55 percent said they had. But it has since fallen back to 1982 levels, and the teens who do have sex are more likely to use condoms.

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But it's overall sex education, not fear of AIDS directly, that's responsible.

In fact, as time has passed and as drugs keep the HIV-infected alive for years (Magic Johnson was diagnosed back in 1992), the specter of AIDS is far less threatening to teens who were not alive for the original scare.

Slideshow: The face of AIDS “I think they are more concerned about other STDs,” says Douglas Kirby, senior research scientist for ETR Associates, a non-profit organization that creates sex education programs. When asked why they use condoms and why they don’t have sex, “roughly a third are concerned about pregnancy, a third other STDs, and roughly a third, HIV,” Kirby reports.

Experts speculate that education instituted after AIDS hit may also be responsible for a switch in the order of sexual practice among young people. It's possible, they say, that teens now start with oral sex rather than intercourse as a way to avoid all the STDs they learn about in school.

“Part of this is a reflection of the way we have been teaching,” suggests Debra Hauser, a vice president of Advocates for Youth, an educational group that develops health curriculum. “If you say it is high risk to have intercourse, and oral sex has a much lower risk, then if you are going to be sexually active, you pick the lower-risk behavior. And in schools with abstinence-only education, there is a high premium placed on virginity.”

Short-lived lessons
For adult America, the changes did not last.

Back in 1992, Edward Laumann, a University of Chicago demographer, led the last team to take a thorough and scientific survey of American sex. About 30 percent of people said they had taken some action in response to AIDS. Laumann thinks that number must be substantially lower today, as rates and fears have subsided.

“What we feared might happen did not happen ... the idea that lots and lots of people would get it from heterosexual activity has not been borne out," Kirby said. "The numbers, from a statistical standpoint, are relatively low.”

Experts hasten to add that some groups of people, especially poor minority women, men who have sex with men, and drug abusers, still face substantial risk. But even these groups have become inured to HIV.

A recent survey of young male prostitutes in San Francisco who use injection drugs showed that 12 percent were HIV positive. But 42 percent of those did not know it, and less than half the survey population used condoms consistently.

“I have been consulting with the California Department of Public Health, and they are worried,” Laumann says. “It looks like there is a resurgence of the epidemic in young people there … by and large the people who have been least responsive are the people at greatest risk.”

Methamphetamine use has also driven up HIV and other STD infections among both straight and gay users. “That is where you are finding some of the main new infections,” Eli Coleman, the director of the human sexuality program at the University of Minnesota, says. “It is such a powerful sexual-enhancing drug, the last thing people are thinking about when using it is safer sex.”

The AIDS epidemicAnd so, after a few years of intense worry, most Americans are acting about like they were before AIDS.

That should come as no surprise when you look to history. During both world wars, STDs were the leading cause of absence from military duties. The epidemic got so bad in the 1920s, that Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing made a radio address to the nation, asking citizens to use condoms and be tested. Fear of disease, it seems, cannot dampen the American sex drive for long.

Brian Alexander is a California-based writer who covers sex, relationships and health. He is a contributing editor at Glamour and the author of "Rapture: How Biotech Became the New Religion" (Basic Books).

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