Pat Triggs investigates.
The government-sponsored advertising campaign with its tombstone and lilies imagery and its slogan, ‘Don’t die of ignorance . . .’, has added words like ‘Aids’ and ‘condom’ to everyday vocabulary. Questions from six and seven-year-olds find us unprepared and floundering, taking refuge in half truths and evasion. Most of us are no better prepared when it comes to young people ten years older than these infants. While we grapple with the issue of what and how to tell the younger children, what have information books to offer teenagers?
Very few of the currently available sex education books for this age-group contain even a brief mention of AIDS – even those first published or revised in 1986. What information is available is partial and selective: warnings against promiscuity, recommendations to abstinence or fidelity with a single partner, identification of gay men as ‘high risk’. There is little reference to concepts of ‘safer sex’, to affected heterosexuals, to assessment of conflicting views among the experts, to specific information about the disease.
Make it Happy (Penguin, 0 14 00.5427 8, £2.95), past winner of the TES Senior Information Award and front runner among all sex education books (though still under attack from some quarters), was revised by Jane Cousins last year. The current edition explains what AIDS is, how you get it and what the symptoms are. Readers are advised to avoid sex with ‘anyone in a high risk group’.
AIDS, written by Nigel Hawkes, Diplomatic Correspondent of the Observer, in the Issues series from Franklin Watts (0 86313 628 1, £5.25 hbk; 0 86313 632 X, £2.50 pbk) is the first book from the UK to deal exclusively with AIDS. I discussed it with Peter Aggleton, co-director of the Learning About AIDS project.
Accurate and unbiased knowledge is essential for dealing with this subject and Dr Aggleton was concerned at some factual inaccuracies. ‘The book states “It is a contagious disease.” AIDS is not a contagious disease – that is one spread by touch, proximity, airborne droplets; it is infectious and can only be spread by a number of very specific routes. It goes on to say “Anyone can catch AIDS.” People do not catch AIDS. They catch HIV infection, one of whose consequences can be AIDS.’ People do not catch AIDS. They catch HIV infection, one of whose consequences can be AIDS.’
Finding an appropriate tone and style for young readers (and the adults looking over their shoulders) is not easy. In this case the choice leads to a lack of precision in language. Ambiguity and misinformation follow. Dr Aggleton explained:
‘The phrase “sexual contact” or even “intimate sexual contact” which this writer uses can be interpreted in very different ways: touching, kissing, penetration, masturbation, etc. Some of these activities are safer than others. Mutual masturbation with no exchange of body fluids, for example (which could be termed “intimate sexual contact”), poses no risk. In another section he writes “. . . the more partners the bigger the risk of coming into contact with someone who carries the virus.” This confuses several issues. “Coming into contact” (in the usual sense of this phrase) is not a means of spreading the virus. It is the nature of the contact that matters. Moreover it is not the number of partners per se which puts a person at risk but the nature of the sexual act that takes place between them. In the same way to claim that “casual or promiscuous sex is very risky, especially between homosexuals” is just not true. Casual (whatever that means) safer sex with no exchange of body fluids is not “very risky” – at least as far as HIV infection is concerned. It may be risky psychologically, or morally or … or … but that is a different matter.
Many people, some prominent and influential, have tried to present AIDS as a dreadful retribution, a punishment for past and present ‘sins’. Does this book manage to sustain a detached and neutral stance? ‘It presents children with AIDS as somehow more tragic than adults. This implication that there are ‘innocent’ and ‘guilty’ victims is not helpful. In the same way reference (with photographs) to “bath houses” as places where some homosexuals (I presume the text means male homosexuals – it doesn’t say) “find sexual partners” is dangerous and unhelpful stereotyping. I wonder how heterosexuals would feel with the claim that “rugby and cricket club discos are places where some heterosexuals find sexual partners.
The emphasis in the book on the horrors of AIDS, especially in the selection of pictures (the word ‘terrifying’ captions many of them) makes the book seem at times like a bogeyman to frighten the children. AIDS is serious and mustn’t be ignored, but Dr Aggleton says ‘There is hope around, and challenge although you’d never believe it from this gloomy book.’
The only other book available (as far as we know), written specifically for the (older?) teenage reader, is an American publication, AIDS: Deadly Threat by Alvin and Virginia Silverstein (Enslow Publishers, 0 89490 128 1, £9.95). In contrast with the full colour, highly visual style of the Issues series, the plain cover and 96 pages of text (unrelieved except by medical-style diagrams and a sprinkling of black and white photographs) of this book is not likely to grab the casual reader. The narrative is written almost exclusively from an American viewpoint and – perhaps because one of the authors is a professor of biology – there is a great deal of technical (and historical) detail about immunology and AIDS research. Sexual practices are dealt with in plain unambiguous language (there is also a glossary) but there is very little discussion of safer sex. The price is unlikely to make this one first choice for the library.
By contrast AIDS in the Issues series looks good. It does contain useful information and (particularly if it is possible to mitigate against the drawbacks by discussion) could answer a need until something better comes along. More titles, we hear, are due in the autumn.