While everyone agrees that preventing AIDS is imperative, why do so many object to telling kids about abstinence?

“Because of the HIV virus I have obtained, I will have to retire from the Lakers today.” Those words, coming from the mouth of basketball superstar Earvin “Magic” Johnson, have probably done more during the past two months to raise awareness of AIDS than years of lectures by public-health officials. In the days that followed Johnson’s announcement, AIDS information lines were jammed with callers. Requests for AIDS tests doubled and tripled at some clinics. Even sports-talk radio programs featured doctors dispensing AIDS facts.

But as welcome as all that consciousness-raising has been, it has often fallen short of telling the whole life-and-death story of Magic Johnson, and of AIDS.

Johnson himself handled his shocking announcement with the same poise, courage, and spirit that pushed him to the peak of his sport. His desire to turn his personal tragedy into good for others is inspiring. But the message “safe sex is the way to go” does not say enough.

The 32-year-old athlete’s initial statements skirted the issue of how he contracted the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that leads to AIDS. Before long, however, the rest of the story came out: In Johnson’s own words, he never lacked for female companionship. In other words, he was sexually promiscuous.

Safer, But Not Safe

Some commentators have argued that how Johnson contracted HIV doesn’t matter. Nothing could be further from the point. His life story is the only thing that can give substance to his message. How he became infected is important, not for the sake of condemning the man, but for the sake of educating others against the disease. AIDS is spread by behavior—most commonly through sexual contact with an infected person or sharing needles after intravenous drug use.

“Safe sex” is a misnomer. “Safer sex” is more accurate. Either version, in common parlance, has come to mean “use a condom.” Yet again, that phrase doesn’t tell the whole story.

The truth is, condoms don’t work all the time. When used for contraception, they fail as much as 10 to 15 percent of the time. Some studies suggest they are even less effective in preventing infection with sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, which can occur more easily than impregnation. Defects, breakage, and improper use all render condoms less than complete protection. “You just can’t tell people it’s all right to do whatever you want so long as you wear a condom,” says Harold Jaffe, chief of epidemiology for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). “It’s just too dangerous a disease to say that.”

Article continues below

What does work—all the time—is abstinence. One would expect that any preventive measure would be welcomed in the fight against an unfailingly fatal disease. Vice-president Dan Quayle tried to offer that line of advice following Johnson’s revelation. “If there is something that I can personally do to encourage young people,” Quayle said, “I would not say ‘safe sex.’ I would talk about abstinence.”

Quayle’s message, however, was scoffed at by some, including Randy Shilts, author of And the Band Played On, a best-selling chronicle of the AIDS epidemic. Writing in the November issue of Sports Illustrated that featured Johnson’s story, Shilts said, “Hardly any health expert believes that a message of ‘just say no’ to sex will do anything to stop the spread of AIDS. Young people are going to have sex.… Quayle’s unrealistic proposal is not born of public health expertise but is part of the political agenda of the far right, which maintains that nobody should have sex at all except … on the matrimonial bed.”


Aside from Shilts’s blurred moral vision, he is flat wrong about health experts. Former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, who watched the ruthless rise of AIDS during the eighties, said that the best way by far to prevent AIDS is to abstain from sex until adulthood and to restrict sexual activity to a faithful, monogomous relationship. “If you are so foolish as to ignore that advice,” he said, “the next best thing … is to use a condom.” A recent bulletin from the CDC puts it just as succinctly: “Abstinence and sexual intercouse with one mutually faithful uninfected partner are the only totally effective prevention strategies.”

Second, Shilts accuses Quayle of making a political football of AIDS prevention. But he is the one playing political games with abstinence. And he is not alone.

Less than two weeks before Johnson’s announcement, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was taking its latest legal shots at abstinence as a solution for disease and teen pregnancy. The ACLU has waged a long-running battle against Title XX of the Adolescent Family Life Act of 1981, which funds high-school programs that encourage abstinence and adoption as an alternative to abortion. At first the ACLU tried to argue that the whole notion of abstinence was a religious value and therefore constitutionally ineligible for government money. Failing that, the group now charges that some programs open the door to religious values and is again seeking to drive them from the schools, in spite of the positive results they have produced across the country.

Article continues below

Last spring Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Col.) led an unsuccessful attempt to cut the $7.8 million of Title XX funds from the Health and Human Services budget. By comparison, $162 million goes to contraceptive programs under other entitlement programs.

Critics of abstinence label it a “naïve,” “unrealistic,” even “dangerous” approach to AIDS education. But the real danger lies in offering an incomplete solution (while excluding a promising one) to a killer disease. There are, in fact, several studies that suggest that among teenagers, easy availability of contraceptives actually increases sexual activity.

Fortunately, the abstinence message has apparently gotten through to Johnson. “The safest sex is no sex,” he said two weeks after his announcement, “and that really is the most responsible choice.” Unfortunately, his recent advice did not get as much media attention as his previous “safe sex” line.

Magic Johnson’s story highlights the need for understanding of AIDS and compassion for its victims, whoever they are. But it also exposes sexual promiscuity for what it is: the major contributor to the spread of AIDS, as well as venereal disease and unwanted pregnancies. Promiscuity need not be accepted as a “given” in our society. Changing behaviors is a difficult task indeed, but it can be done—if we are willing to speak, and hear, the whole story.

By Ken Sidey.

That we should value the diversity of races, cultures, and points of view among us is a good, even noble, idea. Yet the debate over “multiculturalism” (carried on mostly through books, articles, and op-ed pieces) has degenerated into another excuse for liberals to yell at conservatives and vice versa. A laudable goal has become a cacophony about victims and oppressors.

In all the polemics, the church and the faith it proclaims have either been pilloried as the source of all Western exploitation, oppression, and intolerance, or praised as the source of all that makes Western culture so successful and dominant today. We think the Christian faith offers some valuable and surprising insights on multiculturalism and points a way between the extremes.

First, our biblically defined hope and vision are at their core multicultural. Every Christian looks forward to the day when “every nation, tribe, people and language” (Rev. 7:9) will stand before the throne of God. In fact, it is not until the gospel has gone out to “the whole world as a testimony to all nations” (Matt. 24:14) that the end will come and the multicultural feast will begin. The church is incomplete until it reflects all the cultures and peoples Christ came to save. (This is why the twisted theology of apartheid and white supremacy is so odious.) Thus the church should be, and often is, at the forefront in welcoming and learning from diversity.

Article continues below

Second, no tradition or institution on earth has had more experience or more success in dealing with multiculturalism than the church. While the church must shoulder the blame for her insensitivities and imperial errors of the past and present, we must step back and look at the bigger picture. The bride of Christ is alive and well today because of her amazing ability to bridge cultures and languages with the gospel. The New Testament, in fact, documents how a small, Jewish sect quickly and successfully mixed with the diversity of Mediterranean cultures. This dynamic continues as the gospel races forward throughout Africa, Asia, and South America. Instead of dismissing the church, advocates of multiculturalism should be in awe that she survives today in so many flavors, cultures, and tongues.

Third, the church has learned that tolerance works best when it is subsumed under concerns for truth, justice, and compassion. Tolerance without truth results in a Babel of voices with no means of discernment. Tolerance without justice results in license and victimization. Tolerance without love results in apathy and isolation. Only in the context of a larger framework, like the Christian faith, can tolerance be a virtue that respects human dignity. Thus the church can model for others how best to preserve the old while appreciating the new.

The church cannot be reduced to being either the villain or hero of Western culture. Our perspective is much wider; we look to the person who is the hope for the whole world.

By Michael G. Maudlin.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.