Despite the campaign stressing safe sex, parents continue to lose children to AIDS

April 14, 1996|By SUSAN REIMER

On a recent afternoon, "The Oprah Winfrey Show" featured the only kind of talk-show sex talk that would not provoke Bill Bennett to call a press conference.

Titled "Scared Straight Out of Having Sex," the show attempted to do just that to the latch-key crowd we think watches too much of this kind of television after school.

Young teens who have been carelessly sexual were introduced to the devastating consequences of that behavior. They met, not drug addicts or gay men or prostitutes, but middle-class high school kids just like themselves.

Ms. Winfrey introduced her young audience to boys and girls with AIDS, some of whom were dead before their interviews were even broadcast; to girls with babies, whose idea of a fun weekend was catching up on sleep; and to a girl who had sex with any guy who asked and whose reproductive organs are as scarred as her heart.

And the most devastating introduction of all: to a young mother who contracted AIDs from a former boyfriend who was dying of the disease and did not tell her, and to her 3-year-old daughter, who does not walk or speak well because she contracted the virus before birth.

lTC "She has to go to the doctor every month, to have tons of blood drawn. She screams," said Amber's mother, Sandy.

At the beginning of the broadcast, Ms. Winfrey's audience felt very sure unprotected sex held no danger for "nice" kids like themselves. At its conclusion, their faces were streaked with tears or blank with shock. Many who had protested that condoms were just too much of a bother promised never to be so stupid again.

Whether that promise holds up under the influence of a couple of beers or the pressure of a popular boy is as much a question now as it was before the broadcast, I think. My own suspicion is that teens will continue to believe they are immortal no matter what kind of death we threaten them with.

The unintended impact of this show might be on parents.

We know kids are having sex younger. Nine out of 10 have sex before they graduate from high school, Ms. Winfrey told her audience. One out of nine 12-year-olds has had sex at least once.

We know that AIDS has found its way into the high school population. It is spreading fastest among girls ages 13 to 19.

And we know that the fevered mating of teens will cause a pregnancy -- if not this month, then next.

Parents know all these things. What Ms. Winfrey showed us was this: These kids are beyond careless. They are stupid.

And they look just like our kids.

Said one of Ms. Winfrey's female guests: "I try to forget about it and hope everything turns out OK."

"I thought it only happens to people who are gay," said a girl, one of the guests who is HIV positive now.

"If I have sex with a stranger . . . I'll try to use a condom, but I figure my odds are pretty good and I don't worry about it too much," said a college girl, interviewed on spring break in Florida.

"I don't use a condom because I don't like it. It doesn't feel right. I use them once in a great while. It depends what mood I'm in," said a high school girl.

Ms. Winfrey not only introduced the young people in her audience to the physical horrors of AIDS -- Jeanettea Wright is legally blind and so weak she must be carried from place to place and does little but listen to television all day. But the talk show host also let her guests hear these dying youngsters talk about the dreams they once had.

"I was an honor student. I was captain of the cross-country team. I used to run six or 10 miles a day. I used to be president of the science club. And I think most people looked at me and said, 'Oh, it could never happen to him,' " said Pedro.

He wanted to be a doctor. He contracted AIDS at 14. He died before the broadcast.

The Winfrey show illustrated how impervious children think they are to AIDS, how careless they are with the lives we cherish so, how much these kids look like our own.

But it illustrated something else, too. We could pass out condoms with their vitamins in the morning and kids would not use them. The "safe sex" message is not working.

We have to try something else.

Pub Date: 4/14/96

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