Originally Published December 1991
This essay aroused intense controversy for hinting that AIDS was not a disease to which everyone was equally susceptible. That was forbidden to say in the eighties, and has remained so until very recently. (A Los Angeles ad campaign in 2007 suggesting gays "own" the disease brought renewed criticism.)
The engagement breaks up, the ring is returned, the relationship of three years comes to a close: tears, slammed doors, packing up clothes. And then, unexpectedly, on my own again; and unbidden comes the thought: it's not a good time to be playing the field.
I see my friend David at the gym. We ride the exercycles side by side. "How's it going with Beth?" he asks.
"We broke up last week."
"Jeez, I'm sorry. Is it really over?"
"Yeah. She moved out, David."
"Jeez. So, are you single again?"
"Yeah, single man, playing the field." I am forty-four and an unattached bachelor, something I never imagined would happen.
David shakes his head and says, "Not a good time to be playing the field."
On a business trip to New York, I have a date. My first date in three years. I'm a bit rusty with small talk. Over lunch we talk about the theater; her son's school; her impending divorce; her work; my work. She's attractive and lively. We have a clear rapport. The lunch is cleared and cappucino is brought and a silence falls, the sort of pause where somebody clears their throat and somebody else says, "Well, this has been fun," and perhaps another date is arranged, perhaps for that night, perhaps for tomorow night. A night date, with all that that implies. The pause at the table, and in that pause she says brightly: "So. What do you think about AIDS?"
I'm surprised at the question. It is only to clear that she's really saying, I am thinking about having sex with you and that makes me think of AIDS.
I say, "Not much."
"It's all my girlfriends talk about. My sister wants every man to have a blood test before she'll go to bed with them."
I think, I'm glad you're not your sister. "That seems a little extreme," I say.
"Well," she says, "you never know who other people have been to bed with." She is staring at me in a certain way, an appraising way. Like I'm a purchase she might make.
All I can think of is to say, "Are you asking if I'm bisexual?"
"No, no." She looks away, embarrassed. That is what she was asking.
"Heterosexuals can get it, too. They say a lot of prostitutes have it." Still looking at me, watching me.
"Well," I say, "I've been in an exclusive relationship for the last three years."
"All the newspaper and TV reports are so frightening."
"Yes," I say. "But so far the risk of heterosexual transmission is pretty small."
"So far," she says, finishing her cappucino. "But what about five years from now?"
Her insistent contradictions confuse me. I don't understand where it's leading. Are we having an argument? Is she deciding against me? Is this woman so frightened of AIDS that she's going to turn down a second date with me?
"Who knows about five years from now?" I say to her. "You could be dead from a car crash next week."
"True, true." She is nodding now, sudden agreement. "I had a friend, she was always so healthy, watched her diet, and she died in a car crash."
"You have to balance the risks," I say, nodding.
We are both nodding. Things are going much better.
"You really think the risk of AIDS is overstated?" she asks, resting her hand on my arm.
"I really do." I look into her eyes.
"Okay," she says. And she squeezes my arm.
So what is this? I wonder, as we stumble out of the restaurant into the afternoon sunlight. Verbal foreplay? Some kinky routine where I talk her out of her fear of AIDS before she'll go to bed with me? She must be weirder than I thought.
But it turned out she wasn't weird at all. She was simply my first date in three years. And I hadn't yet understood the reality of dating in the eighties: that everybody out there, men and women alike, is afraid of getting AIDS.
It's my friend Ellen, on the telephone. "You're a doctor. Aren't you worried about AIDS?"
"Not really," I say. "I'm not homosexual and I don't inject drugs and I don't have intimate friends who do. So no, I'm not worried.."
"How can you be sure? About your intimate friends."
"You can't be sure. You can only be careful."
"But there is heterosexual transmission."
"Yes," I say. "But right now, your risk as a heterosexual of catching AIDS is roughly the same as your risk of catching rabies."
She's confused. "Rabies? Who cares about rabies?"
That, of course, is my point.
Ellen presses on, unconvinced. "But what about Africa? Heterosexual transmission is common in Africa."
"We're in California, Ellen."
"Yes, but — "
" — Tuberculosis is common in Africa, too. You don't spend your time worrying about tuberculosis."
Ellen sighs, exasperated. "I don't see how you can be so casual," she says. "The rest of the world is terrified and you talk like it's nothing at all."
"I'm not casual. I'm very aware AIDS is a tragic affliction for certain groups. But at this point, it's not prevalent among heterosexuals."
"Not prevalent? They're saying it's a plague," Ellen says.
"Everybody. The papers. The news."
A mass media society offers its citizens many advantages but accurate understanding of risk is not among them. The media must sell themselves, and they do so by overstatement. This is hardly news.
"A plague," Ellen is repeating fiercely. "An epidemic. That place in Atlanta says so. And I heard somebody, a doctor, called it a scourge. How do you answer that?"
I am getting tired of this conversation. It's like a political argument: it has no end, no possible way to persuade the other person. Ellen wants to be frightened. She is much more comfortable being frightened than she is being reassured.
Why, I wonder, is that?
A phone call to my office. Someone wants me to speak at a medical convention on "AIDS: the modern day Andromeda Strain." I get invitations like this every few weeks.
"No," I say to the caller. "I won't do that."
"You'd be performing a public service..."
"No I wouldn't. Because AIDS is not the Andromeda Strain. And people don't need to be made more fearful right now."
For the last year, the rumors have been flying. The AIDS virus was manufactured by the CIA. (It unquestionably wasn't.) Mosquitoes can infect you with the AIDS virus. (Unproven, and unlikely.) Doctors who care for AIDS patients are getting the disease (none has, except those in a known risk group.) One hundred percent of the population of Zaire now has AIDS. (Wrong.)
So I am not going to add to the rumors in any way. I refuse to speak.
"I don't know," the caller says. "There's a lot of interest out there about the whole subject of AIDS."
That, I think, is putting it mildly.
Marilyn says, "I was going to hire Jim, but at the last minute I changed my mind, and hired someone else."
"Well. He's gay."
"So I have a small office, and there's only one bathroom. Everybody in the office uses the same bathroom."
"You're kidding," I say, thinking, You wouldn't hire a gay guy because you didn't want him using the same bathroom as you?
"I just don't want to take the chance," Marilyn says.
"But you can't get AIDS from using the same bathroom."
"I just don't want to take the chance."
My friend Barry, who is gay, announces that he hasn't given up anal intercourse. "I don't see why I should change my habits," he says. "Illness is all in the mind, anyway."
"That's fine, Barry. But illness is also in the virus. I'd stop having anal intercourse, if I were you."
"I won't use rubbers, either. I hate them. I just don't see why I should."
"One reason," I say, "is that I don't want to go to your funeral."
But I am thinking, Shit, what is the matter with you, Barry? You've got several friends who are already dead and more who are dying. What's it going to take to make you wake up? This isn't a matter of personal preference, pal.
I feel angry with Barry, because he is my friend, and he is threatening me with the possibility of his death. I resent his behavior the way I'd resent any friend who told me he was going to commit suicide.
"I can do what I want," Barry says. "It's a free country."
I think, the only thing worse than blind panic is blind denial.
By now it is several months since the end of my relationship, and I don't wake up feeling sad any more, and I am dating lots of women. And I am becoming accustomed to these inevitable, and seemingly interminable, conversations about AIDS. It seems to be a feature of every new relationship, something that has to be talked about.
The panicky women blurt it out over the first dinner salad; the cooler ones wait until the second date or the third; but nobody gets into bed without a thorough conversation first.
And even then, the discussion doesn't stop. The first conversation is a kind of statement of position — I'm afraid or I'm not afraid, I insist on condoms or I don't. The later conversations are different in character: probing, exploring and intimate, with lots of looking deeply into the eyes. The topic may be clinical, but the context is romantic. And the subtext is: I like you, but how much of a risk are you? How many people are you screwing? How many people have you been screwing in the past five years? How afraid of you should I be?
I begin to notice certain recurring features. The first is that everybody seems to be responding to the constant media focus on AIDS, rather than to any specific information. Nobody ever quotes statistics. People are chiefly disturbed by the fact that "AIDS is always on the news, it's everywhere you turn."
Ellen calls again. "You who think AIDS isn't such a big deal. I clipped an article from the New York Times and sent it to you."
"I got it." Standard stuff, no new information. A long filler in the Metro section.
"Did you read the article, Ellen?"
"I skimmed it. It didn't frighten you?"
I try to explain about risk. Because I have recently noticed how few people really understand the risks they face. I watch people keep guns in their houses, drive without seatbelts, eat artery-clogging French food, and smoke cigarettes, yet they never worry about these things. Instead they worry about AIDS. It's kind of crazy.
"Ellen. Do you worry about dying in a car crash?"
"Worry about getting murdered?"
"Well, you're much more likely to die in a car accident, or be murdered by a stranger, than to get AIDS."
"Thanks a lot," Ellen says. She sounds annoyed. "I'm so glad I called you. You're really reassuring, Michael."
Now we are in the realms of philosophy. Life is inherently risky. Everything you do carries a risk. You walk across the street, you take a chance. You eat in a restaurant, you might die of food poisoning. You go jogging, you could drop dead of a heart attack. You make love, you could catch a disease and die.
Through all of human history, sex has carried the risk of death. Even in this century, prominent statesmen and artists died of syphilis. It is only in the last decade that the combination of contraceptives and antibiotics led people to think that sexual intercourse was without risk. Now people are offended and angry, because risk-free sex has been taken away from them. And they are overreacting.
I see Tom at the gym. He's sweating on the Nautilus machines, his body looks good, but he leans over and says, "To tell you the truth, these days I'd just as soon not make it with anybody at all."
It takes a moment to remember that all the great lovers of history, from Casanova to Sarah Bernhardt to Erroll Flynn, carried off their amours at the risk of death from incurable disease. That didn't stop them. And it won't stop us, either. We're just in a period of adjustment.
Her apartment, late at night. I've never been here before. She is on the phone in the next room with her ex-husband, who has called unexpectedly. I am in the living room, trying not to listen. I set down my wine glass next to hers, get up off the couch, walk around the room, touching things, looking.
I don't know this woman well; she is an artist and sometime model; bright, quick, and full of contradictions. I know little about her background, but she is a terrific woman now.
I come to the bookcase, scan titles of books on art, on Italian literature, photography...She has lots of photography books. Idly, I open a couple. Some of them have themes of bondage: male bodies in narcissistic poses, hard lighting, studded leather. The imagery is homosexual, though some women appear here, too.
On one page, a picture of her. Among all the male bodies. She's nude and she's very beautiful. But she's among all these male leather-strapped bodies. And I think, Uh oh.
I have a vision of the photographer's studio, all these people walking around, in states of undress, talking, mingling. I have a vision of her bohemian artist's avant-garde background stretching back over the years. In my mind's eye, her life starts to look different to me. This woman isn't exciting and exotic any more. She's dangerous.
Now I'm looking through the front of the book, trying to find the publication date. How long ago were these shenanigans? 1981. Doesn't tell me much.
She comes back into the room, blowing hair out of her face, exasperated. "Sorry about that."
She drops onto the couch next to me. "I've told him not to call late. I think he does it because he knows I have people over."
I'm thinking, how often do you have people over? How many? Any bisexuals? Any of these guys in the pictures? I dislike myself for these thoughts, but I have them.
"Were you able to amuse yourself?" she asks me, sipping her wine. "Oh, I see you found the books."
"I don't look like that any more," she says. "Those pictures were taken years before they were published. They were all done in 1975 or so."
Whew, I think.
"Really," she says. "I have to warn you. I don't look like that any more."
"That's okay," I say. "That's really fine."
Andrea says, "Did you hear about the guy who had a one night stand with a girl, and when he woke up and the girl had gone, and scrawled in lipstick on his mirror was, 'Welcome to the World of AIDS.'"
"Where did you hear this story?" I say.
"Bob told me about it. It happened in San Francisco."
Later, I am on the phone with a director who is shooting a picture in Florida. "Everybody's talking about the case in Fort Lauderdale. A guy picks up a girl, goes to bed with her, and in the morning she's written on his mirror in lipstick, 'Welcome to the World of AIDS.'"
Pretty soon my housekeeper tells me the same story in broken English about a man in San Diego. So it's just a story, a fable. But it has a clear point: no casual sex.
Welcome to the World of AIDS.
In the face of all the fear and the tension, it's possible to overlook some advantages to the new situation of the 1980's.
After the age of 30, I lost my taste for swift conquest. I began to have other goals, other reasons for spending time with a woman. And by then I had learned certain facts, such as the fact that if you really liked a woman, you shouldn't jump into bed with her right away. Not out of some old-fashioned idea of respect for her — out of respect for the relationship you hoped to have, because there was something about the sex act that tended to halt a relationship in its tracks, at least for a while. You stopped becoming friends, and you became lovers, which was something else. So if you wanted a good relationship, an interesting and complex relationship based on friendship, you were better off postponing sex for a while.
On the other hand, if you didn't care about a woman, go right ahead. Shake hands and go. Quick sex was, in fact, a way to get rid of people that you were only marginally attracted to, a way to burn it out fast and efficiently, and get on to other things.
So in my view, quick sex had become the very opposite of what the sexual revolution had promised. Quick sex was not a way to increase intimacy and communication, but rather a way to avoid it. Quick sex objectified the other person, made them into a thing. A sex object.
But quick sex was the order of the day, and in the frantic seventies most women expected it. I knew women who would say, "Listen, I meet a guy I like, I want to fuck him before dinner, so I can get that tension out of the way, you know, so I can really enjoy my food..."
Back in those days, if you weren't interested in quick sex, you had a bit of a problem. It was necessary as a man to state your intentions. I learned, from another man, a joke to signal my intentions. I'd say to women, "I don't put out on the first date."
The women would laugh, but they'd get the point. Usually they seemed relieved. A few wouldn't see me again. But in those days, it was necessary to shift gears explicitly, to power down from the frantic erotic pace of the day.
That's no longer a problem.
These days, nobody's in a hurry to get into bed. It makes relationships more leisurely and more serious. To me, that's all to the good.
There's a time in a man's life when he only wants to get laid and he doesn't care about love at all, and if he says he does, he's lying, because in truth he's always on the prowl. He can profess undying love to a woman as he crawls out of her bed, and by the time he gets to his car and puts his key in the ignition, he's already thinking of someone new. It's nothing personal, it's just the effect of raging hormones.
But after that time passes, other priorities take over. For me, love is the most important thing in my life. To me that means a feeling of closeness, of being understood, of sharing ordinary things. My goals for a relationship are more modest now and in a way more ambitious.
But I know you can't feel love if your life is like a train station, with lots of people coming and going. You can only feel active and busy — so busy, you have no time to feel. I've done that for periods in my life. I know how it works. I'm not interested in doing it again.
I want the best that life has to offer me, and I sense the best lies in fewer, deeper relationships. In fact, I want only one relationship. This is may be a difficult and frustrating path to choose, but it's what I want.
Not because of AIDS, but simply with age, I find I have less interest in exploring the field for its own sake. By now I've been around, I know what I want, and I would prefer to get on with it. The purposefulness to relationships is mirrored by a purposefulness to other aspects of my life. My writing and my free time are all spent with closer attention to outcome. I don't want to waste my time. At forty-four, I don't worry about impending death. But I don't want to waste my time.
As the months passed, I began to notice something else. Amid all the compulsive AIDS talk, there were some men and women who didn't talk mention AIDS at all.
Lunch with Bill, a lawyer, at an outdoor cafe frequented by women. Like me, he has recently ended a long relationship.
"How's it going?" he says. "Meeting anybody?"
"Not really, not yet...There's a lot of AIDS panic out there, a lot of frantic conversation."
"I haven't run into much of that," Bill says, shrugging. And our conversation moves on.
Bill doesn't need to talk about AIDS.
And Carol, whom I have been seeing occasionally for several weeks, never brings it up until finally one night, having a late snack in the kitchen, I say to her, "Do you ever think about AIDS?"
"Isn't it awful?" she says. "My roommate's hairdresser has it, and she's real upset. Poor guy, it must be awful for gays." And then she changes the subject.
Carol doesn't need to talk about it, either.
Carol is direct, comfortable with intimacy, at ease with her own sexuality. As I think it over, it seems to me that Bill and Carol and the others who aren't wound up about AIDS are all people who are comfortable with intimacy.
From my experience, I'd say very few people are comfortable in intimate situations. In fact, most people are actively looking for ways to avoid intimacy, because even the thought of getting close to somebody puts them in a cold sweat. So they get very busy with their jobs ("sure, let's have lunch the middle of next month, that's my first opening...Gee, I couldn't have dinner until May of next year, sorry...") or they get very busy with their families ("Eddie has a sore throat so I can't go out for the next six months"), or they get very picky about their partners ("I really had to stop seeing him because he was always five minutes late.") These are old maneuvers. Now there's a new one: they can panic about AIDS. ("I really don't want to go out with anybody because it's just too dangerous, too dangerous.")
This puts the heterosexual AIDS panic in a new light. AIDS is a serious problem, but many heterosexuals accept the bad news almost eagerly, exaggerating the threat for their own ends. Because in the end, it's easier to blame AIDS for the way you live your life than it is to face the uncomfortable truth that you're terrified of the very intimacy you say you desire.
As a writer identified with the future I'm sometimes asked, "What do you think will happen with AIDS in the next few years?"
I hesitate to answer. Because despite all the media attention, despite all the panic, I don't think people have really acknowledged how bad this disease might become.
My friend Linda works with AIDS patients now, and she is full of what she considers horror stories. People with AIDS being ostracized, fired from their jobs, abandoned by their friends and families, having warnings spray-painted on their apartment doors. She tells these stories with a great sense of human tragedy. The unfairness of it all. The inhumanity of man to man.
And my friend Wendy, a Washington lobbyist, talks about the "terrible prejudice against people with AIDS," as if it were similar to racial prejudice, without foundation.
The media still talks about AIDS as if it were a civil rights problem, not a public health problem. But AIDS is a public health problem of massive and growing proportions. There is not only the problem of AIDS spreading, there is also the enormous cost of caring for what will soon be hundreds of thousands of dying patients.
Studies have shown that it is very difficult to motivate anybody to use a condom, either to prevent disease or to prevent pregnancy. Studies have also shown that people with AIDS--people who know they are dying, and who know they can infect others — do not abstain from sex, and frequently do not use condoms, either.
This means we have a difficult problem. How can we prevent people who already have AIDS from spreading their disease, since it seems to be difficult to get them to act responsibly on their own? What will we as a nation do to prevent the spread of this lethal disease? How far will we go? Forced quarantine? Incarceration? Internment camps for AIDS patients? Mercy killing? Roadblocks to do random spot-checks for AIDS? A black market in falsified AIDS test documents?
No one is yet willing to consider the full implications of this situation. But every time I hear some newscaster or group spokesman refer to AIDS as a plague, I think, you don't know what a plague is. And you better hope that AIDS doesn't become a plague for our society as a whole, because civil rights will go right out the window if people become frightened enough. You think it's bad now, a few thousand people getting fired from work, a few kids being forced out of school? This is nothing, compared to what may be to come.
Unless we are very, very careful. Each one of us, acting as individuals. We must all, gay and straight alike, proceed with great clarity of purpose, and with the most accurate information we can obtain. It's time to be compassionate but tough-minded, sensible but firm. Harsh realities must be faced. The disease must be stopped from spreading. Everybody's lifestyle must change in response to this threat. This is not the time to misunderstand issues of life and death by casting them in the 60's mold of civil rights, or in the 70's mold of sexual freedom. We're in the 80's, and AIDS is forcing us to change our thinking and our conduct, whether we like it or not.
But blind panic and unreasoning terror won't help us make this change. It is time to drop the panic, to inform ourselves about the facts and the health issues, and to transform our own lives appropriately and wisely.
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