'It won't happen to me' mentality keeps many from using condoms regularly


January 02, 1992|By Susan Baer

An article in Thursday's Today section on AIDS prevention and the practice of safe sex suggested that Baltimore resident William Freeman was employed by the Pratt Library. In fact, Mr. Freeman is a free-lance artist who works on a computer housed at the Pratt Library's Pennsylvania Avenue branch, under a grant from Opus B, a non-profit outreach and educational organization.

* The Sun regrets the error.

She knows she should ask her partners more questions. She knows she should discuss with them their sexual history and health. She knows she should insist her partners use condoms.

But often she doesn't.

"It's really awkward," says this 37-year-old single woman, a highly educated, successful producer for a Washington

advertising agency. "Sometimes I'll say, 'Don't you think we should use protection?' implying that I'm worried about getting pregnant. But what's really on my mind is disease.


"I know people say women should buy condoms, but it makes me look like . . . A nice girl isn't supposed to be thinking of that. I know it's silly. Things aren't a whole lot different than they were when you were 18."

But, of course, things are a lot different. There is AIDS. And today, the epidemic of this untamable disease, once largely confined, at least in this country, to communities of IV-drug users and homosexual males, is making the rounds, more and more, through heterosexual contact.

Although heterosexual transmission accounts for only 6 percent of all adult AIDS cases in the United States -- the greatest number, 58 percent, still occurs among homosexual males -- it is increasing among heterosexuals at a faster rate than any other segment of the population, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

In Maryland, the incidence of AIDS among white males, the original high-risk population, is now surpassed by cases among black males and females, many associated with substance abuse, says Kathleen Edwards, director of AIDS administration for the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

"The gay community has apparently heard the message and is apparently practicing safer sex," she says.

But is anyone else? Superstar Magic Johnson, who nearly two months ago said he contracted the HIV virus through unprotected heterosexual sex, made it clear that, as he put it, "it can happen to anybody."

But people like William Kennedy Smith -- a doctor -- who was acquitted of rape but conceded he didn't use a condom when he had sex with a

woman he'd met hours before -- are making it clear that not everybody is all that worried.

"It's just not real yet for people," says Tracey Post, assistant director of education and training at Planned Parenthood of Maryland. "When you just don't think it's going to happen to you, you don't change your behavior."

Indeed, while contraceptives are distributed at some high school clinics, including some in Baltimore, while trendy condom boutiques are springing up in big cities -- the latest one "CondomRageous" in Washington -- and while education about AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases is beginning at the elementary school level, health care workers say that changing behavior among sexually active men and women is still a terrific challenge.

"Knowledge has gone up, but actual practice [of safe sex] hasn't gone up all that much," says University of Connecticut social psychologist Jeffrey D. Fisher, who has done a six-year study of undergraduates. "More people are experimenting and trying condoms, but there hasn't been an increase in people always using them. And that's what you need."

For his study, Dr. Fisher asked students what it would take to get them to consistently engage in safer sex. Their answer: "if a good friend died of AIDS."

University of Maryland senior Rachel Walder, 22, says her circle of friends still has a hard time relating to the AIDS crisis. "We know a lot of people who went over and fought in Desert Storm. We could feel the effects of that. But no one in our age group has had anyone close to them die of AIDS."

Angel Kemerer, 22, a senior and "peer educator" at the University of Maryland who speaks to and distributes condoms to fellow students, says she's observed little change in actual behavior on campus. "We go to dorms and sororities. They all know everything we're going to tell them. They now know all the answers. We say, 'It's such a simple thing, you put on a condom and you can prevent all these things.' They're like, 'Yeah, we know.' They think it and know it, but they're not doing it."

The university's health center was deluged with calls for HIV testing after Magic Johnson's announcement, says Margaret Bridwell, the center's director. But that flurry -- largely from those at very low risk -- has "died down now," she reports. "I don't think that kind of thing, over the long haul, changes behavior. It only has an effect for the short term."

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