IT’s a ten-minute break in a three-hour class at NYU and I’m conversing with the three other members of my group, all young women in their early twenties. We’re studying Globalization amongst a dynamic group of young students. I’m telling a story about my disappointment in a visiting Professor from last semester. One of my major qualms with the Professor is that he had brought some of the common HIV myths into our classroom. One day he had mentioned, while moving quickly from one subject to another, that condoms don’t prevent HIV transmission. I got shivers when I heard him say this, and again as I retold it to the girls in my class. All three of them looked at me, dark brown, blue and green eyes wide. Blue eyes looks at me and says, ‘That’s right.’ In a very factual tone, ‘Condoms don’t prevent against HIV.’ Green eyes blinked again and spoke in a soft tone, ‘I grew up in a really small town.’ She said, shrugging. Blue eyes continued, ‘it even says it on the package, does not prevent hiv infection, only against STD’s’ I looked at her, and took a deep breath, reminding myself that all three of them are proclaimed Christians and they have probably received their sexual education infused with fundamental doctrine, which teaches abstinence as the only way. Blue eyes could feel that I was about to refute her argument, which she was so used to executing in the classroom, and so she went on, ‘Like, in my junior high sex ed, our teacher told us that the HIV microbes are way smaller than other STD’s, and so they can, like, pass through the condom.’ Brown eyes chimed in, ‘yeah, and condom’s aren’t 100% protection anyway.’
In 2000 I lived in Tanzania and taught sexual reproductive health to high school students, as their peer. This was precisely one of the myths that we were working to eradicate during the two years I spent in Tanzania. It seemed there were generally two main problems, the first being the silence that still surrounds sexuality and STI’s and second, the Church’s damnation of Sex and Protective Education. I looked mainly at blue eyes, who had been telling me her learned truth as though it were fact. And I spoke as gently as I could, ‘HIV is a virus, and a sexually transmitted infection; it’s carried in semen and vaginal fluid. Condoms are effective against HIV and STDs. No it’s not 100%, but it’s your best chance if used correctly.’ I wanted to keep going, but I could tell that blue eyes was no longer listening, she had become uncomfortable and had reopened the newspaper to read. Green eyes had folded her legs close to her chest. Brown eyes checked the time on her portable. I looked around the room for someone to share my fear and frustration with. I wondered how many more of my peers at this prestigious school have been miseducated about the virus that causes AIDS. I balked at the fact that none of us had received sexual education since our debut as mere 13 year olds. What scared me the most is that when they went silent, so did I, class started again and blue eyes continued discussion in the same factual style. I didn’t tell them that women our age, 18-24 are at the highest risk of infection. I didn’t say that they have been victims to the false information, with no support in scientific findings that is still so common. I didn’t tell them that they can pick up condoms in the health center, durex, in purple package, our school color, and that if they read the back it would say Effective against pregnancy, HIV (AIDS) and STD’s. As my fear for our generation and the pandemic we face, I closed my eyes and prayed to God that their ignorance was safely cradled in virginity.