Then, in 2001, a new administration in Washington took direct aim at the “wrap it up” lessons most of us grew up with. The federal government has sunk hundreds of millions of dollars into abstinence education since Bush came into office, slashing prevention programs by a third to do it. The result? Last year, for the first time in 14 years, there was no increase in condom use among U.S. high-school students, according to the CDC.
“Abstinence education’s taken away a substantial amount of resources from programs that have been known to work,” says Dr. Jeffrey D. Klausner, medical director of the STD Prevention and Control Services at the San Francisco Department of Public Health. The federal government now spends twice as much on abstinence programs as it does on the Division of STD Prevention at the CDC—the department that managed to quell outbreaks of gonorrhea and syphilis among soldiers after the Second World War. “By displacing those funds to abstinence programs that don’t work, you actually put young adults at more risk for STDs when they become sexually active,” Klausner says. “It’s a complete horror story.”
Dr. Judy Kuriansky, a sex therapist and radio host, believes that larger cultural forces have chased safe sex from our national dialogue, too. “STDs just aren’t in the public consciousness anymore,” she says. “War has taken that over. This is another thing I hear: Well, we’re going to die tomorrow anyway. The world’s going to end. I hear that all the time. It’s denial and nihilism. It’s depressing. People don’t do the due diligence: ‘Have you ever had herpes?’ Nobody asks that question anymore.”
Even more alarming, Kuriansky says, is the emergence of a kind of magical thinking that rivals anything Washington’s faith-based apostles of abstinence could come up with. “I cannot tell you how many times I hear people now saying things like ‘Well, I just won’t allow things like that in my life,’” Kuriansky says. “People are getting more spiritual and they feel like they’re more empowered—that they can will it not to enter their lives.”
The shifting messages in the media no doubt helped persuade the average guy to move condoms from his back pocket to his bottom drawer. But in retrospect, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that what killed safe sex was our sneaking suspicion that all that vigilance over HIV was a bit excessive in the first place—especially for straight men. That’s what Mike, the pharmaceuticals manager from the Gansevoort, ultimately decided.
“Back in the eighties, it was all over television, and you just never knew who was going to get it,” he says. But Mike started noticing something: None of his friends were getting sick. Nobody he knew was dying. He got a little careless about slipping on the protection—and pretty soon he found that he was just fine with that. “By the end of the nineties, I was fairly convinced that the whole AIDS thing for straight people was overblown, and that it was pretty horrifically low odds that it would ever happen to me. Now, shit—I’m very convinced of that.”