Click here for the results of the CPNet Poll: Aids On Campus
AIDS. The black plague of the '90s. Sure to stop a conversation at any party. Or is it?
College students today are among the first generation to have grown up with AIDS and HIV as an accepted fact of life. And although it's still a heavy topic, it's nowhere near the taboo subject it was a few years ago.
Tom O'Neill, a sophomore at the University of Virginia, says AIDS is still in the back of students' minds. "I think the hysteria of AIDS has died off but not the fear," he says. "It's been around so long but people are still scared of it and recognize it as a danger."
Fellow University of Virginia sophomore Pichenda Bao has a grimmer perspective. The 19-year-old Bao sees her friends having unsafe sex and not always thinking about the consequences. "I definitely see people have lots of sex and not realize the risks they put themselves in," Bao says. "A lot of it deals with the fact that we're young, in college and we think we're invincible."
As for whose responsibility it is to carry the condom... O'Neill believes it should fall on both men and women. "You're basically trusting your life and health to the other person," he says. "This shouldn't be about sex roles in society, it's about self-preservation."
In a recent poll conducted by CPNet, 50 percent of those who responded say they "always" practice safe sex. On the other hand, those answering "never" or "sometimes" to the question make up almost 40 percent.
If 100 percent of students could honestly answer "always" to the question of safe sex, Alfred Giosa's job would be a lot easier. As the primary AIDS counselor at New York University in Manhattan, Giosa has tested and advised nearly 1,300 students of every race, gender and sexual persuasion over the last 18-months. Giosa himself has had friends die from AIDS, so he pulls no punches when telling students about the risks and consequences of the disease.
Where you live has a lot to do with your risk for contracting HIV. Students in New York have a higher chance of getting infected than say -- students in Columbus, Ohio. New York itself accounts for nearly 20 percent of the overall AIDS cases in the U.S. Five states combined - New York, California, Florida, Texas and New Jersey - house nearly 60 percent of the nations reported AIDS patients.
Still, students in high-risk areas aren't as exposed to people infected with AIDS as they once were, says Jane Bogart, NYU's director of the Center for Health Promotion. For this reason, she says, students don't feel the immediacy of the AIDS epidemic. "In New York you were hard pressed in the late '80s and early '90s to walk down the street and not see somebody with AIDS."
Students are more concerned about getting herpes, according to Bogart, because the symptoms can show up almost immediately and condoms can't protect them from being infected.
While he wouldn't say students have gotten cavalier in their attitudes towards AIDS, Giosa did say that many young people suffer from misinformation and a false sense of security. "Straight men believe it can't happen to them." He continues, "There's still the thought that, 'I'm white, I'm straight, I'm a man, it can't happen to me."
When former NBA star Magic Johnson announced that he was infected with HIV, the heterosexual population took notice. But since the virus still disproportionately affects gay men, educators are constantly fighting against stereotypes that say AIDS is a "gay disease."
San Francisco has long been regarded as the nation's most "gay friendly" town. The homosexual community there is outspoken and educated, but still has a higher-than-normal risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases.
For Harry Williamson, a 19-year-old freshman at San Francisco's Golden Gate University, HIV testing has become a late-'90s form of foreplay.
While testing may be more common for the gay community, O'Neill says he also sees heterosexual couples rushing into sex without getting tested first. "Intercourse usually gets consummated early in a relationship, but the trust factor comes much later. Anything goes in love and war, and rationality goes out the window."
School counselors like Giosa and Bogart are doing everything they can to make safe sex and AIDS awareness foremost on students' minds. NYU's safe sex programs aim to have fun with the issue and promote interaction. One recent campaign spoofed the recent popular "Austin Powers" movie with the motto "The Spy Who Safely Shagged Me."
In the end, what it all comes down to, says Giosa, is education and proper choices. He says students should feel free enough to talk about sex -- and encourages schools and families to address the fact that kids are going to have sex, regardless. In turn, they should give them the information they need to protect themselves.
"We all have sex," Giosa says. "There's nothing wrong with that. We just don't always make good decisions."