The White Woman's Myth - by Whitney Wright '90

Last fall, I spoke to a white attorney in his early thirties at a party on Manhattan's Upper East Side. After talking about the Jasper Johnses and Frank Stellas lining the apartment, he asked me what I did for a living. No sooner had I given him my cocktail-party answer than he scrunched up his face, wiped his hand, and gave a sarcastic "Eeew!" Needless to say, our pleasant conversation ended quite abruptly. However funny he was trying to be, I realized I represented people he never wanted to touch, and as far as he was concerned, I'm the closest he would ever get to AIDS. He's wrong.

People don't want to talk about AIDS because they don't believe it can happen to them. And no matter how many conversations I have, no matter how much evidence there is to the contrary, many straight, upper-middle-class, well-educated men and women have convinced themselves that they belong to a class privileged by more than money: they think they can't be affected by AIDS. Indeed, it has taken on the power of a myth, this belief that one's social status can stave off the transmission of HIV. It's a myth that recent AIDS statistics have begun to debunk.

In my work with Teams Linking Care Project (TLC), a national research project designed to decrease risk behavior and increase health-maintenance behavior among young men and women living with HIV and AIDS, I am faced with living proof of this myth every day. The women I work with come from across the socioeconomic spectrum and have been infected almost exclusively through heterosexual contact. Here in New York -- as in Boston, San Francisco, and Lewiston -- women are testing positive for the AIDS virus in ever-increasing numbers.

When people hear that I work with young women living with HIV, they always ask, "How'd they get it?" Maybe they're hoping to hear some dark tales of sexual escapades, but the answer I give always seems to let them down: "Through sex with men."

For a long time, AIDS statistics erroneously excluded many of the women infected with HIV. They were not diagnosed with AIDS, but rather were considered to have died of illnesses such as cervical cancer, which in fact resulted from their AIDS-impaired immune systems. This perpetuated the long-standing belief that HIV was a virus afflicting only gay men. Powerful first impressions, like those antiquated early-eighties photos of the "AIDS patient" -- always a frail gay man with IV tubes or purple skin blotches, a symptom of Kaposi's sarcoma -- were hard to shake off. But when it emerged that the numbers of AIDS cases in women were rising more rapidly than in any other group, women were forced to rethink their part in the epidemic.

Today, AIDS is the fourth-leading cause of death in the United States for women ages twenty-five to forty-four. It's the leading cause of death among this age group in thirteen U.S. cities. The number of women with AIDS is doubling every one to two years, with heterosexual contact as the fastest-growing transmission category among women.

Despite the common knowledge that heterosexual women are getting AIDS, many still don't identify themselves as a population at risk. Since AIDS has disproportionately affected women of color and the poor, the elite -- upper-middle-class white men and women -- have eagerly accepted the notion that AIDS is a disease that affects someone else.

The national media have done little to disprove the myth of upper-middle-class immunity to AIDS. Last January, in her New York Times Magazine essay, "Safe Sex Lies," Meghan Daum wrote, "Until more people appear on television, look into the camera and tell me that they contracted HIV through heterosexual sex with someone who had no risk factors, I will continue to disregard the message."

Perhaps Daum, who says she's a straight woman in her twenties, is waiting to see Melrose Place's Amanda Woodward break a nail opening a condom wrapper before she decides to protect herself. Unfortunately, Daum's attitude is not unusual. Many women would agree with her when, for example, she says that safer-sex messages place an unnecessarily harsh light on modern life. Daum believes that safer-sex messages create "a corrosion of the soul, a chronic dishonesty and fear that will most likely damage us more than the disease itself." But what Daum fails to realize is that protection is not an onus that tears at your spirit, your creativity, or your fantasies. It is a way to exercise self respect and personal power. And with AIDS, there is no such thing as "them." It's us.

More than any other demographic group, upper-middle-class women have access to good health care and are more likely to have had a thorough education in HIV and AIDS. As Bates students, we had our condoms subsidized at the health center. So why, then, are some of us still not protecting ourselves? The problem has little to do with classroom education and condom distribution.

When women sleep with men, they not only depend on safe-sex schooling regarding condom use, they must also convince their partner to use it. Condom negotiation is one of the most basic and yet most difficult components of safer sex. "Men don't want to protect themselves. They don't want to face up to the truth," says one TLC participant, a graduate student living with AIDS. "They think that if they don't use a condom it will go away. But if we tell them to use it, we get rejected."

Too often, the choice is not between safer sex and no sex, but between unsafe sex and the arduous task of demanding a condom or a safer form of sexual intimacy than intercourse -- a demand that may go unsatisfied or even result in reprisal or violence. "I stayed with my boyfriend for a while and we really trusted each other. He never thought dealing with it was necessary and I never pushed it, " said one twenty-five-year-old New York woman who tested positive for HIV a year ago. "He didn't seem like he could have HIV -- I mean, he was just so normal. I'm sure he doesn't even know. We think it can't happen to us. And look, see,it can."

Particularly for a group of women empowered by women's studies classes and Madonna -- women now in law school or working as financial analysts -- we should all be able to take control in the bedroom. Mature sexuality means protecting yourself. It means feeling in control of your sexual experience so you can enjoy it and participate in it without feeling compromised or embarrassed.

Many women now living with HIV once considered their social status ample protection from AIDS. They look back at the bother of staying negative as an inconceivable luxury. Now they cope with more difficult decisions than how to get him to put it on.


Whitney Wright '90 is the project coordinator for Teams Linking Care (TLC) in New York City.

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