Does AIDS education need another look?

Timeaidscover

The cover of Time, August 12, 1985.

I first saw the word “AIDS” on the cover of Time from August 12, 1985. I was eight years old and had no idea what AIDS was or what I was seeing in that cover photo, but it seemed important. A few months later, I’d see a story about Rock Hudson dying of the disease on Entertainment Tonight; again, I still didn’t know what it was but since the program about movie stars was taking the time to report about it, it seemed important. Three years later, I’d learn quite a bit more in my fifth grade class when my class took part in the first wave of AIDS education that was attached to the Family Life Curriculum that our district had introduced that year.

This Family Life Curriculum–which was basically a series of filmstrips featuring rather sterile-looking diagrams of human reproductive systems and dull narration about our growing bodies and how a baby is made punctuated by loud beeps that told us when to go to the next frame–was pretty controversial when it was introduced in my district, or at least that’s the impression I got in 1988. There were at least a few meetings that the district held to introduce the curriculum to parents, and I remember that my sister’s friend was not allowed to go to school on those days because her mother–a born-again Christian–would not allow her to take part in sex ed.

To be honest, the sex stuff was pretty tame and the only reason it really had an impact on me was that I would wind up studying human reproduction every year for the next three years courtesy of Family Life, then science and health classes. But the AIDS lesson had a little bit more of an impact. By the time I was in the fifth grade, the disease had received much more media coverage and there was a solid push for AIDS awareness to help stem the public health crisis. In fact, the education I received at the hands of my public school about AIDS was incredibly thorough–we even had an “AIDS Awareness Day” in school two years in a row. That was not without its share of drama (apparently one teacher decided to take 45 minutes to preach from the Bible and talk about the evils of homosexuals) or boredom (a presentation of pieces of the AIDS quilt is fascinating, but when it rolls on for more than an hour, you get a little restless), but I have to say that by the time I was a senior I had raised money for and participated in three LIAAC AIDS Walks, and really felt prepared for when I would start having sex (read: I bought the strongest condoms they made).

Then again, so did much of my generation, because AIDS was, like I said, the public health crisis of the time. I don’t hear it mentioned very much among the student body these days, and in fact when I wore a red ribbon last December 1, I had to explain to more than a few students what it meant (whereas a pink ribbon is very well-known). I’d say that part of that is because great strides have been made in fighting both HIV and AIDS (and there have been great strides), but I also wonder how much AIDS education really exists anymore, at least in the South. The <em>Washington Post</em> was sort of wondering this too, as it has been doing an extensive amount of reporting on AIDS in the last few days due to the fact that the World Conference on AIDS is taking place in D.C. this year. One particular article, “The South is the epicenter of new HIV infections in the United States” takes an extensive look at how and why HIV/AIDS cases have been on the rise in the South in the last decade or so.

It doesn’t mention education very much, but it does talk about how one of the reasons for the increase has been the still-prevalent stigma of AIDS being a “gay disease”:

The stigma surrounding AIDS is a key reason that the South is the epicenter of new HIV infections in the United States. Half of all new infections in the United States are in the South, although the region has only a little more than a third of the country’s population, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The South also has the highest death rate due to HIV. The disproportionate number of cases in the South has many causes: widespread poverty, a shortage of health care, a lack of HIV testing and education, a shortage of accessible medical specialists for the many who live in small rural areas and a persistent prejudice by many in the Bible Belt against homosexuals, the group most affected by HIV/AIDS.

Reading the article, I began to wonder what guidelines there are for AIDS education in Virginia, and there really isn’t much. The Family Life guidelines and standards posted on the Virginia Department of Education’s website mention HIV and AIDS once:

The student will become aware of the existence of sexually transmitted infection.

Descriptive Statement: Factual information regarding the nature of sexually transmitted infection, including human immuno-deficiency virus (HIV)/acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), is introduced. Other diseases referred to include but are not limited to Chlamydia, Genital Herpes, Gonorrhea, HPV, and Syphillis.

I wonder if the standards are purposely vague so as to not offend those who claim that public schools teaching sexual education is “going too far,” or to allow for abstinence-only education. And in all honesty, I have to plead ignorance a bit because my education about sex and AIDS was 20-25 years ago, on Long Island, so I’ve never actually taken sex ed in Virginia. Still, this begs the question: what is public education’s role in this health crisis? While I know that teachers do not have a monopoly on knowledge, we do have access to a fair amount of resources that are both thorough and accurate (there’s plenty of purposefully misleading sex-ed materials on the web) and those students who are in poor areas do often (though not always) have parents that are also relatively uneducated.

One of the reason AIDS awareness was so successful when I was a teenager–aside from its prevalence in popular culture (which is a whole other entry in itself, trust me)–was the willingness of public institutions like schools to be proactive in teaching about the disease in ways that went beyond simply making us aware of its existence. By the time I graduated high school, I knew about how the virus worked, how it was transmitted, why it was important to get tested, and what treatments were available (thankfully, that last part of knowledge is outdated in a good way because drug treatments have made living with HIV considerably more possible than in the 1980s), and how to prevent it (and it wasn’t just abstinence). However, would that float today, especially in an area that prides itself on being conservative, or would any attempt to give students a thorough education on HIV/AIDS be greeted with shouts of “Indoctrination!”? Has the constant politicizing of everything sexuality, especially when it concerns young adults and education actually hurt children more than it has helped them? And shouldn’t we change that?

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