Putting it to the test Along with romance, an HIV awareness

March 23, 1993|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Staff Writer

As the AIDS epidemic continues to spread, being tested for the human immunodeficiency virus that causes the disease has become an increasingly common rite of passage in modern relationships.

"I think now, my God, that was stupid," Kevin says of an affair he began with a woman several years ago before either was tested. "We were already into it -- it was a whirlwind thing -- when she brought it up."

They went together for HIV tests.

So did Heidi and her lover, Juliet. "We made it like a date," Heidi recalls. "We went to lunch before, and then we went to a movie after."

The middle part of the "date" was a trip to a clinic for an HIV test.

While both couples tested negative, the specter of acquired immune deficiency syndrome forced them to confront issues such as HIV status, the use of condoms and their sexual and drug-use histories. That's heady discussion matter for those in long-term relationships, much less couples just getting together.

It's difficult to know how many people are taking HIV tests today. Only publicly funded testing programs report their statistics, whilethe majority of tests are believed performed in private physicians' offices, clinics and HMOs. But health professionals believe the number is on the upswing as AIDS awareness grows.

"More people are getting tested these days," says Dr. Alfred Saah, an epidemiologist with the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, who has been working with National Basketball Association players in the aftermath of Magic Johnson's revelation that he is HIV-positive. "More and more physicians are recommending that their patients be tested, and people are becoming much less afraid of getting tested."

For some, AIDS has forced a new sense of responsibility in dating. Some singles say the threat of the disease has made them less likely to engage in casual sex.

"I do not want to be part of the transmission of this virus," says Scott, who has been tested twice, once before he was married and then again following a post-divorce bout of "promiscuity."

"I am sort of seeing several different people now, but the physicality definitely has its limits," the 27-year-old says. "It's terribly interesting, after having been through the laissez-faire of the late '70s and early '80s, to now have this to deal with. It's been an adjustment, but I'm finding it enjoyable to relate to people on a different level. If you're going to be more involved today, it entails more of a commitment. Sex -- that can wait."

But Scott (whose last name, like that of the other singles interviewed for the story, has been omitted) says he's found that heterosexuals seem less conscientious about testing than gays he knows.

Dr. Saah and other AIDS specialists agree. They say gays, the first group to contract the disease in large numbers, are several years ahead in their awareness of the need to be tested as well as how to avoid acquiring or transmitting HIV.

"Look at the teen-age pregnancy rate . . . If kids are out there getting pregnant, they're obviously not using condoms," Dr. Saah says. "We're not seeing dramatic drops in sexually transmitted diseases [among heterosexuals], which was one of the first things we saw in gay men after they started getting the message about AIDS."

Heidi, 28, who is a lesbian, had been seeing her partner for about a month when they made their "date" to be tested, mainly because her partner previously had been involved with a man who used intravenous drugs.

"Having an HIV test really sets you up for monogamy, for settling down with one person. I'm ready for that," says Heidi, who lives with her partner in East Baltimore. "I love my life a lot, I love my family. I've watched a great deal of my gay friends die from AIDS."

Kevin admits he hasn't always had protected sex in the past, although he's been increasingly careful in recent years.

"I have to think about this now," he says. "I'm not crazy. I want to live."

Ariana, 23, gets tested during regular physicals or exams even though she's been living with her boyfriend for about two years. She was more concerned about her HIV status than her boyfriend's when they first became involved.

"He's younger, and not as sexually active as I had been in the past she says of her 21-year-old boyfriend. "If he had been older, if I'd known he played the field, I would have been more concerned."

While she says the two of them felt fairly comfortable broaching the subject of HIV testing -- Ariana says they both come from families in the Foreign Service and thus routinely have been "poked and tested for all sorts of exotic diseases" -- that's not always the case with newly involved couples. Often, the problem is as much when as how to bring up the delicate matter.

"At the dinner table during the first date is probably premature. But if you're already under the covers and your clothes are off, it's probably too late," says Martha Bonds, an HIV counselor with the Baltimore County Health Department.

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