It always struck me as a little off that Harmony Korine’s 1995 shrine to teenaged depravity, Kids, is remembered for being stylish and super-cool. Aside from its teen characters’ commitment to their own outsized swagger, it has the same alarming afterglow of a DARE ad. Watching it for the first time in a church basement, of all places, in the early 2000s, it felt less like a hip and gritty genre piece and more like body horror.
I was a 13-year-old growing up in the suburbs, hours away from Washington Square Park, enrolled in a sex-ed class molded by progressive Boomers to teach body positivity, though not exactly joy. The instructors had so far spent six weeks teaching us the power of sex with the dry, clinical precision only progressive northeastern Democrats can muster. We put condoms on bananas and learned about dental dams and watched slides of poorly lit naked people in various sexual positions. And then, on the last day of class, as a buffer against any notion we may have gotten than sex was anything short of deadly, they sat us down and turned on Kids. No explanation given.
Kids is a ‘90s period piece in that it perfectly encapsulates the AIDS nightmare of the time. Its only rigid throughline, the HIV virus, moves between the characters as they rapidly, coldly, unwittingly infect each other in between hopping turnstyles and talking shit. “Condoms don’t work,” Telly, the bucktoothed creeper who first spreads the virus, tells a roomful of friends. “They either break, or they slip off, or they make your dick shrink.”
But as the filmmakers noted years after Kids’ release, despite the cinema verite vibe and the characters modeled after their friends, the microcosmic AIDS crisis in Kids was scripted to give it, well, some sort of narrative. Director Larry Clark told Rolling Stone he got the idea seeing condom passed out in public schools; it was in the news, he shrugged. “The AIDS thing was like Jaws," Korine said. "It was a device that propelled it. We didn’t know anything about the disease other than that we didn’t want to get it.”
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HIV prevention in the United States—and its most ubiquitous means to an end, latex—has historically been propelled by a mix of extreme terror and medical fact, and for good reason. The year Kids came out, AIDs became the leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 25 and 44; between 1981 and 2013, more than 600,000 people died. That same year, thanks in part to aggressive pro-condom campaigns and the general sense of panic, an analysis from the Guttmacher Institute suggested the percentage of young men using condoms had risen to 69%. The CDC, in its Youth Risk Behavior survey the same year, found a little more than half of high school and college-aged kids were wrapping it up.
These days, it’s a begrudgingly accepted fact that fewer young people, straight and gay, are using condoms. The CDC estimates condom adoption among high school students peaked around 2003, when 63% of teens self-reported using condoms the last time they had sex. By 2015, the same methods revealed a 20% drop in that number. Among gay men it’s suggested condom usage has been in longterm decline since around 2005. The latest research to make the rounds earlier this month implied that when drinking was involved, a little over two-thirds of college-aged American women engaged in unprotected sex.
These findings are reiterated in the anecdotal, confessional fashion of the internet, when young professionals write about the pull-out method as an under-reported, if sort of shameful, phenomenon, or when a teen tells NPR that ditching the condoms is “engagement 2.0.”— the program, produced by a kid from Oakland, describes high schoolers getting tested and going in for birth control, hand-in-hand, as a symbol of commitment. “To have sex without a condom is to say, I trust you, I love you,” one girl says. (In Kids’ grotesque parallel universe, Telly tells a nervous girl, “Just trust me,” moments before they have condomless sex.)
Predictably, the NPR program inspired so much dissent they posted a follow-up: “Jesus,” wrote in one listener, “I listen to NPR for intelligent information not mindless hip-hop MTV soundbites … The notion that some kids humping without a condom is a grand sign of commitment, love, and responsibility is laughable.” Surely not every teen hitting it raw is doing so responsibly, but such generational (and kinda racist) finger-wagging can seem like an anachronistic holdover from an era before anti-retroviral drugs like PrEP; before HIV went from a death sentence to a chronic disease with effective treatments, if not a cure; before a wider, more accessible selection of birth control options, including the morning-after pill. “The most important thing, particularly when we’re dealing with young people, is to have options," says Uri Belkind, the medical director of Callen-Lorde, a New York City health center that primarily treats LGBTQ youth. So is access to education and care, a privilege that still isn't extended to everyone. Most recently, the numbers of gay men of color infected with HIV has been rising, even as nationwide numbers go down.
Still, the sudden equation of condomless sex with intimacy rather than irresponsibility and danger among certain populations is startling. Just a couple of decades ago, there was a pro-condom position for every sexual attitude, every neurosis: comic book characters (Condom-man); morbid, sexless warnings (a graveyard,) eroticized ads that purred, “Safe sex is hot sex.” The wrap-it-up message loomed large in the golden era of teen programming. TLC pinned condoms to their baggy neon outfits, then wrote a song about HIV with a visceral video to match in their 1995 Waterfalls video—”We’re making a social statement,” the artists said. Magic Johnson appeared in a town hall on Nickelodeon, of all places, with a number of HIV-positive kids; Real World San Francisco—the ultimate, canonical Real World—recruited Pedro Zamora, the show’s first HIV-positive member.
Many of the later, government-sponsored campaigns had a tendency to be weighted towards historically protected populations: As a reporter for the New York Times suggested, much of the $6 million CDC budget allocated to fight the AIDS crisis went towards some of the lowest-risk but most visible demographic, college students and heterosexual women among them. That trend has continued into the 2000s, where, perhaps sensing the impulse of the teens in the NPR story, campaigns have mocked the no-glove-equals-love logic; in 2006, MTV’s Staying Alive foundation produced a harrowing “short film” in which men pull handguns on women after their Harlequin-level, pointedly condom-free trysts.
“In the culture [of America] we go through these cycles of morality and sexual health,” says Thuy DaoJensen, co-editor of the essay collection Culture and the Condom. She points out that condom use has always been tied to a narrow tightrope walk in a Puritanical society where to condone safety one must also implicitly condone sex. Until the ‘80s in America, these cycles ran predictably along the lines of policy and technology and whatever cultural restrictions on humans’ bodies were in vogue. After the ‘80s, when grassroots activists and public health officials colluded to project a single message—Wear a condom, every time—sales shot up 33% percent.
Such initiatives to educate the public about the virus and to culturally mandate condom use, at least among certain demographics, were clearly a success. They worked so well that one straight friend recounted to me that as a high schooler in late-‘90s New York, she and her first boyfriend used condoms and birth control from the time they took each other’s virginity to the time they broke up, and never slipped up once.
She, like nearly everyone I spoke to, credited AIDS’ lack of visibility these days for condoms’ waning popularity. As in: If you are under a certain age and the member of a certain social class, you are unlikely to have seen someone waste away and die. You might not even catch that the “three letters” in “Waterfalls” are H-I-V.
But for people my age, this cultural shift is jarring. A few months ago, a friend of a friend, a little older than me, disclosed that he had recently started taking PrEP as a precaution and was cataloging his experiences, keeping a captain's log of condomless sex. Decoupling the act of fucking raw and a deep sense of shame, he suggested, was such an emotionally extreme experience he had to record it. He’s trying to learn how not to intuitively panic when he makes what was for decades the most sexually unwise decision a person could make.
Speaking to medical professionals, there’s a candidness about the limits of condoms that simply wasn’t there before. “I don’t think anyone has ever liked condoms,” says Belkind, the clinical director. Let’s be real—it isn’t as if condoms feel like a natural or desirable part of sex, despite decades of public health campaigns and branding that hinges on “pleasure” for her or for him.
Sex unrubbered is still risky—as Belkind offers by way of example, there’s the potential for more aggressive strains of gonorrhea to crop up. We may not think of AIDS as sure and sudden death, but it still does kill (and, in many states, land you in jail if don’t disclose your status to a partner). Even if one has access to HIV treatment, having it is no picnic. And then there’s herpes, the butt of every Judd Apatow joke; as a virologist opined to the New York Times in a particularly overreaching moment, “Herpes has a stigma attached to it that even HIV doesn’t have anymore.” Yet over time, the one-size-fits-all method of safe sex has given way to a more realistic and conversational understanding of what constitutes safety, for whom—as long as you trust the people you’re with.
This new era, hinging on mutual disclosure and sexual literacy, has given us the space to admit that when it comes to sex, what’s right and what’s pleasurable don’t always align. Belkind told me, “We’ve had to convince ourselves and convince our patients that condoms are extremely important, and we’ve done that to such a degree that we’ve kind of demonized the thought of having sex without condoms.” He cites PrEP and long-term methods of birth control as contributing to the decrease in condom use, and describes kids who have a nuanced—if not entirely foolproof—understanding of their utility. Patients, he says, will use condoms with their casual partners but not their regular ones. They might make a partner wear a condom when they bottom but forgo it when they top. “When I used to see young [gay men] it was condoms, condoms, condoms,” he says. “It was such a horrible conversation. It’s like, ‘I’m offering you something that’s not palatable, and I’m not giving you any options.’"
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The culture surrounding prevention and condom use has been so altered that activists with ‘80s and ‘90s sensibilities can look terribly odd to us now. Their tactics strike us as bizarre in a country where the rate of HIV infection continues to fall for populations who have access to adequate health care, suggesting the problem isn’t condom use at all but the availability of preventative tools along the lines of race and class. People like Michael Weinstein, the head of the billion-dollar Aids Healthcare Foundation and architect of an upcoming California ballot measure that would further penalize performers for forgoing latex in porn, is either a symptom of today’s lack of condom use or a relic, depending on where you stand.
The proposed legislation he crafted gives monetary incentive to the public to report porn producers who don’t appear to use condoms in each and every case, including during oral sex; “We all pay the price,” reads the argument in favor of the bill, “because pornographers refuse to play by the rules.” And in part, yes, the Condoms in Pornographic Films initiative is an issue of public health, though a number of performers have argued in favor of their own comprehensive testing procedures. But it’s also part of an oft-revisited debate—in romance novels, on soap operas—about the role condoms should play in fantasy, which is another way of asking whether the only sex to have, even in your head, is sex involving latex.
In AHF’s San Francisco office, Weinstein’s staffers wear red T-shirts with the slogan “Condoms are cool” in bold font across the chest; “Love yourself, Love Condoms,” read the banners that accompany the 63-year-old to his various speaking gigs. An early AIDS activist, Weinstein was instrumental in shutting down a 1986 piece of legislation that would have “quarantined” the HIV-infected en masse.
Today his public profile is rather more divisive. He has pointed to “AIDS amnesia” as eroding “condom culture” and dismissed the PrEP pill as, in essence, “a party drug.” He’s not the only one to recoil at what, to older activists, must look like the crumbling of an entire generation’s legacy over the course of only a decade. Larry Kramer, the legendary writer of the play The Normal Heart, now in his late seventies, once referred to PrEP as a “poison” and a “cowardly” option. (He’s since come around, hesitantly.)
But, in the way generational divides tend to play out, Weinstein’s concern for today’s sexual health practices extends from individual preference and to the digital infrastructure propelling young people’s sex lives. Last year, AHF paid for billboards portraying Tinder and Grindr users making out with avatars personified as chlamydia and gonorrhea. “In many ways, location-based mobile dating apps are becoming a digital bathhouse for millennials wherein the next sexual encounter can literally just be a few feet away—as well as the next STD,” the AFH wrote in a statement. Tinder, by way of rebuttal, sent them a cease-and-desist.