AIDS, U.S. authorities told reporters and policy forums surrounding July’s World AIDS Conference in Barcelona, is just another teenage attitude problem.
“HIV is an epidemic driven by youth,” declared Kaiser Family Foundation Director Drew Altman. Syracuse professor Alejandro Garcia blamed HIV’s spread on delusions of “invincibility among adolescents, the idea that ‘I won’t catch it’” and a lack of “precaution” when “hormones are running wild.” Naomi Rutenberg of the Population Council said adolescents “place themselves at risk” because “they think sex workers, not ‘normal’ teens, get HIV.”
Two decades into a deadly epidemic claiming rising millions, and experts insist it’s just dumb, horny kids? Youth-bashing by smug authorities has crossed the line from disgusting to criminal. Do they just not “get it” that 14-year-old orphans abandoned in Nairobi, indentured child prostitutes
in Bangkok, and 16-year-old Hollywood runaways fleeing violent families don’t enjoy experts’ luxury to ignore crushing poverty, rape, family violence, parental abandonment and street survival?
Sure, Kaiser’s report back-pages these evils. But nobody (certainly not journalists and politicians) reads full reports. Summaries are the show. In these, Kaiser soothingly blames “youth” for the spread of HIV and recommends “educating” kids about “increased condom use” and “reductions in the number of partners.”
Fine. Let’s do these things. But AIDS education can’t cure family disintegration, orphanhood, oppression of women and children, rampant youth poverty. Condoms and abstinence lectures don’t fix sexual violence, rape and older men plying throwaway youngsters forced to survive in back-alley economies. Authorities condescendingly brand adolescents as reckless and immature, then criticize them for not controlling sex with adults.
In Asia, Africa, and Latin America, destitute youths typically are infected by adult men averaging 10 to 20 years older. Much-older partners (or victimizers) also cause nearly all HIV infections in U.S. teens. Teenage runaways and prostitutes forced into “survival sex” are thousands of times more at risk than heterosexual, non-drug-injecting youths, whose infection rate is near zero. Very few HIV infections result from “normal” (whatever the Population Council means by that) high schoolers drunkenly boffing peers.
Among Americans under age 25, blacks account for six in 10 new HIV infections, including seven in 10 among women. Middle-class teens and young adults have lower HIV rates than poorer 50-somethings. HIV infection has been falling among U.S. youth but skyrocketing among middle-agers. Ten years ago, the Centers for Disease Control’s HIV/AIDS Surveillance found 44 percent of HIV infectees were between 13 and 29 years old. In 2001, that proportion dropped to 36 percent, and for new infections, to just 30 percent. Meanwhile, adults 35 and older comprised one-third of HIV cases a decade ago, rising to 41 percent today. The real figure is probably higher, given studies showing that older infectees delay getting tested longer than younger ones.
Claims that Americans under 25 generate half of new HIV cases are wildly exaggerated. HIV is getting older, and older men are infecting younger people.
What makes AIDS experts so reluctant to bluntly state such obvious facts? Surely, experts are well aware that AIDS is not “driven by young people” any more than slavery was “driven by Negroes.” But leading experts also know that really fighting HIV requires politically risky frontal assaults on powerful elites who profit from the vast maldistribution of global resources, who deny basic rights and health care to the poor, female and young – and who fund and legitimize properly subservient experts.
Authorities’ sycophancy creates its own self-fulfilling prophecy: It is more realistic to expect teenage street prostitutes to say no to 40-year-old johns than to expect today’s academic and institutional whores to say no to official funding and approving politicians. In a time when so many “experts” suffer poor impulse control, think only of their immediate pleasure, are desensitized to others’ suffering, and say only what makes the powerful, the press and themselves feel good, we have to rely on the real experts.
Sao Paulo street kids, gay Mission runaways, Dhaka child brides, the shoestring programs serving them – those are the ones with something to say. They should be running AIDS conferences.
Mike Males, author and former youth worker, teaches sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.