WASHINGTON. — Washington -- Only a few days ago, the press was full of stories about the former basketball great Wilt Chamberlain, who claims he has slept with 20,000 women. The boast was treated with the usual rhetorical winks and smirks that accompany such things.
Now comes news that Earvin ''Magic'' Johnson has the HIV virus, and the sexual encounter that apparently put him at risk suddenly isn't so funny.
We have been kidding ourselves that the sexual promiscuity of the last 30 years was without cost. ''Free love'' -- open marriages, swingers, no-fault divorce, adultery, condoms in the schools -- turned out not to be free at all. We know the consequences of violating the physical laws of the universe, but we thought we could escape the consequences of violating its moral laws.
Mr. Johnson, as gifted an athlete and as beautiful a human being as there ever has been, says he will devote his life to telling young people that ''safe sex is the way to go.'' That is the wrong message. If he uses his even greater visibility and influence to teach it, Mr. Johnson will be misleading young and old alike into a false sense of security.
If he means that one can continue to engage in what used to be known as ''illicit sex'' and take precautions to avoid its unwanted consequences, this is simply not true. Condoms are no guarantee against disease or pregnancy and many men refuse to use them no matter how many warnings they receive. In addition, sex of this kind has its own set of emotional, relational and spiritual costs unrelated to the physical consequences.
The only ''safe sex'' is that practiced within a marital bond in which both partners are committed to each other. Truly safe sex zTC means remaining chaste until marriage. The role model should not be the rock star Madonna. It should be the original Madonna.
Our culture oozes the message of promiscuity, calling people who advocate sexual restraint ''puritanical.'' The Puritans had their problems, but AIDS wasn't one of them.
How wonderful it would have been had Magic Johnson stood before the press and the watching world and said, ''avoid sexual looseness like the plague. Every other sin that a man commits is done outside his own body, but this is an offense against his own body.''
That's from the Bible, America's most banned book. Ask yourself why condoms are now distributed in the public schools, but the Bible and the principles it contains are banned, and you will have a clue as to why our cultural fabric is unraveling. Its truths, however, ring with a new clarity in the age of AIDS.
Senate chaplain Richard Halverson has written of the moral state of our union: ''We demand freedom without restraint -- rights without responsibility -- choice without consequences -- pleasure without pain. In our narcissistic, hedonistic, masochistic, valueless preoccupation, we are becoming a people dominated by lust, avarice and greed.''
Since the '60s, we have treated sex like a recreational sport. We stripped sex of its intimacy, and, like so much else in our culture, focused on the gloss, the veneer, the external. Sex is more than the physical act. It is thoughtfulness, tenderness, courtesy, gentleness, kindness, selflessness and commitment. It is caring, sharing, learning about another, giving of one's self fully to another and knowing a person in the deepest possible way.
Promiscuous sex is the opposite. It is degradation, disappointment, delusion. It is, in fact, dehumanizing. Anyone who watches someone die of AIDS must conclude that the disease is, above all, anti-human.
Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist.