Berman says it’s not only men who’ve become careless. “A lot of it is also on the woman’s part, because they’re allowing men to have unprotected sex with them,” he says. “I think they just don’t have the same fear instilled in them as they used to. There’s just a very relaxed attitude.” Patients who should know better have relaxed their standards as well. “I’ve seen intelligent businessmen, married for years, who go on a business trip and have unsafe sex with a hooker—whether it’s in Asia or Las Vegas—and come back with an STD,” Berman says. “Even people in the health-care profession. I saw a nurse recently who came back with gonorrhea because he had had unsafe sex.”
What the hell happened? There used to be rap songs about condoms (see “Protect Yourself/My Nuts,” by the Fat Boys, from Crushin’, 1987). They appeared on billboards. Fishbowls overflowed. Your friends used to talk about “double-wrapping”—and they did it. But the panic and dread that plagued the Reality Bites era went away—along with the bedroom protocol that once defined sex for our generation.
“Recently I went to a sex party. Watching the behavior of these guys, it was as if HIV didn’t exist. There was a bowl of condoms, but no one was using them.” This is how Dr. Jeffrey Fishberger, supervising psychiatrist at the Samuels Center for Comprehensive Care, a full-service HIV facility at Roosevelt Hospital in New York, opened a recent safe-sex lecture. The quote is his patient’s, not his, but he uses it to illustrate a point: Some people just can’t be bothered anymore. “Barebacking” parties are getting popular, like the one Fishberger’s patient attended, or the event in an East Harlem apartment this May that was announced (the third in a series) with an invitation that warned, “Anyone caught using jimmies will be asked to leave with no refund given!!” That soirée was called off after activists announced that they would protest outside the building, but others rage on. Some prohibit discussion of HIV altogether, some insist all participants be virus-free (not an easy thing to verify when collecting the cover charge), and a few are for the HIV-positive only—which, of course, leaves participants vulnerable to the whole gamut of other STDs.
“They think AIDS is not a big deal,” Fishberger says. “They look at it like a chronic, manageable disease—like diabetes.” And why shouldn’t they? Back in the eighties and early nineties, the disease claimed a 90 percent fatality rate as it slowly and cruelly reduced many of its victims to sarcoma-covered skeletons. But in March 1996, protease inhibitors hit the market—miracle drugs that attacked the virus’s ability to multiply. The number of deaths dropped 70 percent virtually overnight.
The culture of safe sex faded with the mortality rate, and one of the first losses was public education about AIDS and other STDs. Between 1987 and 1992, the federal government developed a series of public-service announcements called America Responds to AIDS, which ran more than 59,000 times. But months after the “cocktail” therapy was introduced, the campaign abruptly ended. People seriously debated whether a national media strategy on HIV/AIDS was needed at all, and the funding switched from national campaigns to local ads targeted at high-risk communities. Now even that modest goal has been scaled back; by 2003, the Centers for Disease Control had diverted $42 million in education funding away from people who were at risk of contracting the virus to those who already had it. The news media, which once beat a relentless tom-tom drum of panic, went silent as well, and the message heard by the general public was: All safe. Come out and play.