more developments in the world of HIV and sex education

Four different articles on related topics came across my inbox today.

First, according to, 3% of Washington DC residents are living with HIV or AIDS. As if that weren’t appalling enough, “almost 1 in 10 residents between ages 40 and 49 are living with HIV, and black men had the highest infection rate at almost 7 percent.”  Another article reports that older folks (50+) are increasingly at risk for HIV, both because erectile dysfunction drugs increase the numbers of people having intercourse and because there’s a lower rate of safer sex practices. To make matters even worse, older women are especially susceptible since the vaginal lining gets thinner with age, and older HIV-positive people have a shorter time from diagnosis to the onset of AIDS, probably due to less resilient immune systems.

The question of safer sex information for older people has been something I’ve been aware of for a while. When I was working in the store, I would regularly talk with people who were back on the dating scene for the first time in decades, whether because of divorce or death of a partner. And they consistently reported that most or all of the safer sex information they could find was written for the 16-25 year old crowd, making it less accessible or relevant for them. For example, lots of safer sex education for young adults focuses on decision making skills or communication & negotiation. But by the time you’re 50, either you have those skills or a website/pamphlet isn’t likely to be a lot of help.

Meanwhile, the pope has said that condoms are not the way to stop AIDS in Africa- abstinence is the way to go. Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence that condoms do, in fact, work well and that they are the most effective way to reduce HIV transmission.

But some good news, finally. Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA) are about to introduce a bill that will authorize federal funding for comprehensive sex education. The Responsible Education About Life (REAL) Act will “provide federal money to support responsible sex education in schools. This education would include science-based, medically accurate, and age appropriate public health information about both abstinence and contraception.” Here’s some more info about the proposed bill (taken from the Advocates for Youth website).

The REAL Act would fund programs with important characteristics, including:

  • Being age-appropriate and medically accurate;
  • Not teaching or promoting religion;
  • Teaching that abstinence is the only certain way to avoid pregnancy or sexual transmission of diseases;
  • Stressing the value of abstinence while not ignoring young people who have had or are having sex;
  • Providing accurate information about the health benefits and side effects of all contraceptives and barrier methods as a means to prevent pregnancy;
  • Providing information about the health benefits of condoms and other barrier methods as a means to reduce the risk of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV;
  • Encouraging family communication about sexuality;
  • Teaching skills for making responsible decisions about sex, including how to avoid unwanted verbal, physical, and sexual advances and how not to make unwanted verbal, physical, and sexual advances; and
  • Teaching that alcohol and drug use can affect the ability to make responsible decisions.

How about that? A sex education program that’s based on actual research instead of ideology, offers comprehensive information about risk reduction AND abstinence, helps youth develop the decision making and communication skills they need, and makes it easier to communicate with family members about sexuality.

Clearly, there’s a long way to go in the work to end HIV, and this is a big step in the right direction. If you feel moved to send an email to your congresspeople about this bill, you can go to the Advocates for Youth website. There’s a link at the bottom of the page.

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