by John Lauritsen
Events have gone beyond satire. On June 1, an American company, Hemodynamics, Inc., announced that it would soon receive the first shipment of a total of 18 million latex gloves from a Malaysian corporation with which it had formed a joint venture. Hemodynamics attributed the demand for the latex gloves to concern over the “AIDS virus” and its impact on the health care profession. Hemodynamics expects that the Malaysian latex venture will add 10 million dollars to its revenues. 1
As much as anything, the so-called “AIDS epidemic” is an epidemic of fear. The AIDS delusional system continues to expand, and discourse becomes ever more irrational. And the people who ought to provide rational leadership — public health officials and the medical establishment — are themselves beating the drums for mass hysteria.
I am fascinated by the role of latex in the AIDS plague. There are, of course, legitimate medical uses for latex gloves. But why now? Why should concern over the “AIDS virus” engender such an urgently felt need for latex gloves?
A few weeks ago I visited a prisoner in the Special Medical Unit of Trenton State Reformatory, a maximum security prison. (The Special Medical Unit was established to house prisoners who have been diagnosed as having AIDS, but are not in need of immediate hospitalization.) After we had talked for a couple of hours, time was up, and a guard knocked on the door of the Visiting Room. As we walked out, the first thing I noticed were the hands of the guard. He was wearing latex gloves. He looked scared. But of what?
Latex gloves have acquired talismanic properties; they symbolize protection against the evil virus — akin to such medieval charms as garlic flowers, crucifixes, amulets, or magic gestures (the sign of the cross, the gesture to avert the evil eye, etc.) Firemen and policemen have demanded that they be issued latex gloves, in case they might, in the line of duty, be required to touch a person with AIDS (PWA). Courtroom workers recently demanded latex gloves in a case where a PWA was scheduled to appear as a witness. Dentists and their assistants have become obsessed with AIDS and latex gloves, although no dentist has ever developed AIDS from working on a PWA.
Fear is not necessarily irrational. One may be faced with a horrible reality. Yet a characteristic of irrational fear is that it resists being articulated, resists being thought through. To evaluate the rationality of AIDS fear among the general population, and the appropriateness of latex gloves as a preventive measure, it is necessary to address two issues: Is AIDS truly an epidemic and is AIDS truly contagious?
Is AIDS truly an epidemic?
In terms of numbers, AIDS does not qualify as an epidemic. In a decade, from 1978 to the present, there have been only 35,188 deaths in the United States from AIDS, out of a population of 250 million. In a true epidemic, such as the influenza epidemic of 1918, more people than that died in a day. In the bubonic plague, one-third of the population of the entire world died within the space of five years.
For further perspective, consider that, according to James Mason of the Centers for Disease Control, about 1000 people in the U.S. die every day from lung cancer, emphysema and other illnesses acquired as a result of cigarette smoking. As many people die from cigarette smoking in five weeks as have died from AIDS in a decade. In a decade in the U.S. there are, on the average, nearly ten million deaths from heart disease, and nearly five million from cancer.
AIDS also fails to qualify as an epidemic because it does not affect most of the population. AIDS is compartmentalized. This is the central epidemiological puzzle, to which every hypothesis on the cause of AIDS must address itself. Why, year after year, has AIDS in the U.S. confined itself almost entirely to two main “risk groups”: homosexual/bisexual men and intravenous drug users? Why hasn’t AIDS begun to fan out into non-IV-drug-using women and straight men? (Early last year Surgeon General C. Everett Koop predicted that within a few months AIDS would “explode” into the heterosexual population. The explosion fizzled. Public health officials then had to admit that for the foreseeable future, AIDS would remain in the same risk group categories.)
Is AIDS truly contagious?
Of course a truly communicable disease does not remain compartmentalized. The Kinsey studies established the fact that a lot of bisexual activity takes place in the U.S.; if AIDS were really a sexually transmitted disease, it would long ago have spread beyond the gay male population.
The official line is that AIDS is an infectious disease, caused by a retrovirus (HIV) which is spread from one person to another through blood or semen. Gay men are said to become “infected” through anal intercourse, and IV-drug users, through the practice of sharing needles.
However, a compelling argument against the infectiousness of AIDS is afforded by studies of needle-stick injuries. There are now well over a thousand well-documented cases of health care workers who accidentally stuck themselves with syringes that had been used on AIDS patients. In no case has AIDS resulted from one of these accidental inoculations, which are equivalent to the “shared needles” blamed for causing AIDS in IV drug users. (Actually, there is no evidence that all, or even most, of the IV drug users with AIDS ever did share needles.)
Many tens of thousands of health care workers have had contact with AIDS patients, and not a single one has developed AIDS as a result of such contact. There is not a single documented case of a household member who developed AIDS from living with a PWA. And there are tens of thousands of sexual partners of PWAs, who themselves remain perfectly healthy. In short, AIDS is minimally contagious, if at all. Whatever legitimate reasons there might be for wearing latex gloves, protection from AIDS is not one of them.
Another form of latex, the condom, is being promoted as the panacea for AIDS prevention, as the premier symbol of “Safe Sex”. AIDS groups, “gay leaders”, church groups, public health departments, colleges, and Surgeon General Koop have all joined in the chorus of praise for condoms.
At Dartmouth, an official student group, RAID (Responsible AIDS Information at Dartmouth), put on an exhibition of safe sex, in which a male student held a plunger between his legs and a female student slid a condom over the handle. Then students did timed contests to see who could place condoms on dildoes the fastest. RAID handed out Safe Sex kits to entering first-year students and prepared its own Valentine gift package, a piece of chocolate and a condom. This provoked Dartmouth journalist, W.R. Grace, to comment: “I wouldn’t advise purchasing a RAID Valentine gift pack for your one true love. It’s difficult to tell a woman that you love her and then give her a condom so that you don’t catch her diseases.” 2 To which I would add that, in selecting the women they want to be their wives and the mothers of their children, most men don’t look for proficiency in putting on condoms.
It’s easy to make fun of such heterosexual foibles. But what really bothers me about the condom mania in the gay community is the suspension of logic. Consider the following propositions, the first representing the prevailing viewpoint (from which I dissent), and the second, simple fact:
– AIDS is caused by a deadly virus, a single exposure to which can result in infection leading to inevitable death.
– Condoms, even when used conventionally (i.e., vaginal intercourse) have a failure rate of about 10%. When used for anal intercourse, they can break as often as 50% of the time.
If both propositions be true, having anal intercourse with a condom is rather like Russian roulette, isn’t it?
I am not saying that it is all right to have unsafe sex. On the contrary, since from a scientific standpoint the cause or causes of AIDS are unknown, it would be best to live in a healthy and sensible way. This means avoiding promiscuity and forms of sexual activity that are likely to transmit disease. Even more important, it means eating well, getting enough rest and sleep, getting enough exercise, and avoiding the use of “recreational drugs” (including poppers, MDA, quaaludes, Eve, Ecstasy, ethyl chloride, heroin, crack, cocaine, barbiturates, amphetamines, and PCP).
As gay men, we have good reason to fear the fears of others. We are in greater danger now from the political, than from the biological manifestations of AIDS.
1. Reuter dispatch of June 1, 1988.
2. W.R. Grace, “Dr. Sloane, Dartmouth’s AIDS Messiah”, The Dartmouth Review, February 17, 1988.