AIDS is a tragic disease. 40 million people around the world are living with it, and most of those people do not make enough money to afford effective treatment (a daily cocktail of expensive medications that must be taken for life). Many who are infected do not get tested and do not see or feel symptoms for years – years that they continue to have sex like a healthy person. The picture is particularly tragic for non-whites – 25% of women in the United States are black or Hispanic, but according to NIH those same women make up 82% of the American women living with HIV/AIDS.
In acknowledgement of this terrible situation, December 1 has been declared “World AIDS Day,” a day to talk about prevention, cure, and treatment. A day to talk about relationships, respect, abstinence, and condoms.
Thank goodness for condoms – they provide some levity in a discussion that is often somber and frightening. This year’s World AIDS Day commemoration was held in Richard Harris Terrace, and at 10:30am Debbie Parker was setting up two model penises and a model vagina. She laid out both male and female condoms, along with information on how to use everything.
“Come here,” she said to passers-by. Without a hint of embarrassment or trepidation, she grabbed hands and showed her audience what to do. “This is the cervix,” she said, “and this is the end of the female condom that is inserted against the cervix – it’s the smaller end. If you’re using a male condom, make sure it looks like a sombrero before you unroll it,” she held up a condom with the edges rolled out, “and leave a reservoir, semen spills out during the entire event.”
Male and female students stood at a distance initially, grinning with eyes wide, but Ms Parker’s comfort with the subject and task at hand drew them in. Soon 6 foot, 200-pound men were learning from her without a hint of bravado – the exchange was vulnerable and open. The students responded to a genuine discussion of issues that face them everyday with a genuineness of their own.
Three women from the Women’s Institute/Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) sat at an adjacent table. “They’ll teach you how to put a condom on with your mouth,” someone whispered. And sure enough. On model penises like Ms Parker’s, the women demonstrated how to incorporate safer sex into foreplay by putting condoms on by mouth.
Earlier a guest speaker had asked the students why people have unsafe sex in spite of all the information available about sexually transmitted diseases. “It interrupts the moment,” one person said. Several students agreed that stopping to put condom on was unromantic and mechanical. The demonstrations were designed to address this very real phenomenon that is costing people their health and lives. “You can put a female condom in before beginning foreplay,” Ms Parker told students. And oral condom application is hardly sterile and mechanical.
The goal of World AIDS Day is to increase public awareness of HIV/AIDS and the behaviors that affect risk. The goal is to combat the numb complacence that has come of living in a world with AIDS for almost 25 years now. The hope is that women will take greater responsibility for acting on what they know to protect their bodies, and that sexually active men will use condoms willingly every time. The hope is to decrease new cases of this horrible, preventable disease.