Why Risk a Young Life for Sex?

ByABC News
July 11, 2002, 2:35 PM

July 12 -- Gone are the red ribbons on every lapel. The AIDS quilt tours amid less fanfare. HIV-positive magazine covers show smiling, healthy faces.

For sure, the face of AIDS has changed as new drug therapies help many HIV-positive individuals prolong and enhance their lives. But medical researchers are concerned that young Americans, who did not come of age in the scary, early days of AIDS, are not taking warnings about the deadly disease to heart.

In a study presented this week at a world AIDS conference in Barcelona, Spain, U.S. researchers said three-quarters of young gay urban men infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, are unaware they are infected. More than half of the men, ages 15 to 29, said they considered their risk of infection to be low, and half had engaged in unprotected sex in the previous six months, said the researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Despite their risky behavior, most young gay men were able to rattle off safe-sex guidelines as if they authored the pamphlets, said Douglas Shehan, a research scientist at the University of Texas' Southwestern Medical Center who headed the CDC study in Dallas.

"The problem isn't knowledge," Shehan said. "It's translating knowledge into behavior change."

Many factors, including level of intimacy, connection, trust and whether the relationship was long-term or a fling, seem to contribute to risky behavior among young gay men, Shehan said. Many young men think only older guys have HIV, he said.

"A decision whether to have safe sex doesn't happen in a vacuum," Shehan said.

Do Real Men Wear Condoms?

Risky behavior is not unique to young gay men, of course. Young women comprise 58 percent of new HIV infections among teens.

People under 25, gay and straight, are estimated to make up half of all new HIV infections in the United States, and many infected teens do not know it, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. While many teens take precautions, one out of three admits to not using a condom "all of the time."