AIDS

DEADLY ANXIETIES

NORA UNDERWOOD January 4 1988
AIDS

DEADLY ANXIETIES

NORA UNDERWOOD January 4 1988

DEADLY ANXIETIES

AIDS

Sandra Goulding has been separated from her husband for 16 months. Since the breakup the 25-year-old dog groomer from Grand Falls, Nfld., has been frequenting singles bars to meet men—but lately she has become much more cautious about who she goes home with. The reason: AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). Goulding, like many other respondents to The Maclean ’s/Decima Poll, says that she has changed her sexual habits because of her fear of contracting the deadly virus.

“My sex life is almost down to nothing,” said Goulding. “AIDS has almost scared me off completely. If I had time to look back, I would have stayed married.”

Goulding is among the one in four Canadians polled who said that they are “very concerned” about contracting AIDS. Another 28 per cent said that they are “somewhat concerned.” Those findings—a total of 53 per cent expressing concern—indicate a significant increase from the 46 per cent who expressed concern about the disease in the 1985 poll. There has been a similar increase in the number of people who said that they are changing their sexual habits— either by practising safer sex, by becoming less sexually active or by opting for a monogamous relationship. Fear about AIDS is also reflected in the fact that 36 per cent of the Canadians polled said that teachers infected with the virus

should be barred from the classroom.

The poll results clearly show that AIDS is having a growing impact on the attitudes and behavior of Canadians. In Canada alone, 1,405 people have contracted AIDS—almost four times as many as in 1985—and 730 of them have died. Officials at the Geneva, Switzerland-based World Health Organization estimate that more than

100,000 people worldwide have AIDS and another 10 million could be carriers of the virus. The numbers themselves are daunting, but what seems to create the greatest fear is that a vaccine for the virus, which cripples

the body’s immune system, may not be available for at least five years.

Among the respondents, homosexuals expressed the greatest concern about the virus. Of that group, 86 per cent claimed to be “somewhat” or “very concerned” about contracting AIDS, compared with 54 per cent of heterosexuals and 44 per cent of bisexuals. But that concern did not al-

ways translate into a change in sexual habits. While 86 per cent of homosexuals said that the fear of AIDS has affected their sexual behavior “somewhat” or “a great deal,” only 19 per cent of heterosexuals and 13 per cent of bisexuals reported similar change.

That disparity may be a result of the fact that 72 per cent of the poll respondents are or have been married. Of those, 86 per cent said that they have never had an extramarital affair. Said sociologist Merrijoy Kelner, a professor in the department of behavioral science at the University of Toronto who has been studying the impact of AIDS on society: “Sex habits are changing, but it is happening mainly in cohesive communities, like the gay community, where peer pressure can be put on people. The fear factor seems to be operating, but it takes a great deal to modify behavior.” Toronto’s Susan Johanson, who answers questions about sex on both a radio and cable TV show, says that AIDS is a big issue among her callers. But, she adds, concern about it has not filtered down to the younger callers. Declared Johanson: “Teenage females haven’t twigged to AIDS at all. They’re not taking precautions. They don’t have enough chutzpah to say to their partners, T want you to wear a condom.’ ”

Marital status seems to be another major factor in how Canadians feel. Of those respondents who have never been

married, 68 per cent said that they were “somewhat” or “very concerned” about contracting AIDS, compared to 49 per cent of married people. And 40 per cent of single respondents said that their sexual habits have been affected by AIDS, compared to 10 per cent of married respondents.

One man who has been personally affected by the threat of AIDS is poll

respondent Charles Martel. The 33year-old owner of an architectural firm in Chicoutimi, Que., is single and has known three people who died after contracting the virus. “Now I sleep with fewer women and use a condom, although I still have more than one partner,” said Martel in a follow-up interview to the poll. “Before, you met someone and you would sleep with them that night. Now, nothing is safe.”

Another single poll respondent, Alan

Harvey, a 28-year-old Calgary construction worker, said in an interview that he was so afraid of getting AIDS he broke up with his girlfriend because she was an intravenous drug user. “I used to have sex with my girlfriend every night, but that was a year ago,” said Harvey. “I told her to stop the drugs. She said, Tf I get AIDS, I get AIDS.’ So I told her I can’t see her. Now I live alone.”

At the same time, those respondents who potentially face a greater risk from AIDS in the future expressed a stronger sense of concern. They include people between the ages of 18 and 29 (roughly one in three). One notable difference from the responses to the 1985 poll is that while women and men are equally concerned about AIDS—53 per cent each, compared with 48 per cent and 42 per cent in 1985more men are saying that their sexual habits have been somewhat or greatly affected (21 per cent compared to 12 per cent in 1985).

But behavior patterns and attitudes about AIDS vary among provinces. Resi-

dents of British Columbia—the province with the third-highest rate of AIDS in Canada, after Ontario and Quebec— showed the least concern (49 per cent), while respondents from Atlantic Canada—where the incidence of AIDS is minimal—expressed the most (60 per cent). At the same time, 28 per cent of British Columbians polled said that diseases like AIDS have affected their sexual habits “somewhat” or “a great deal,” while only 15 per cent of easterners claimed to have changed their behavior.

The high level of concern expressed in Atlantic Canada may partly be the result of one community’s fight over the placement of an elementary teacher who had tested positive for the AIDS virus. Last winter Eric Smith, 30, a

homosexual, was reassigned to Cape Sable Island elementary school in a small fishing village on the southern tip of Nova Scotia. Parents mounted a campaign against Smith and pressured the school board into transferring him to a desk job.

Still, the majority of Canadians said that teachers with AIDS should be allowed to keep their jobs. That sentiment was expressed most strongly by those respondents still at school (78 per cent, compared to an average of 62 per cent); teachers and students (69 per cent); and women and francophones (both 68 per cent). Regionally, the differences were more extreme, with 67 per cent of Quebecers opposing a ban, compared to 53 per cent of Atlantic Canada respondents.

One respondent from Calgary, Iris Wheeler, 63, who says that she reads everything she can about AIDS, is opposed to taking any action against teachers who are carriers of the disease. “Every time I see children not allowed in schools because of AIDS, my hair stands up on the top of my head,” said the grandmother of seven. “My children are teaching their kids that AIDS is

a fact of life.”

Like Wheeler, some respondents say that in the absence of a vaccine or cure for AIDS, education should be a priority. Said Wheeler: “People are

panicking about this when

they should be educated. The only way people will feel comfortable and safe is if they understand about AIDS.” Respondent Douglass Grant, 41, a mathematics professor at the University College of Cape Breton in Nova Scotia, says that he is not impressed with Ottawa’s handling of the epidemic, adding, “The Conservatives have been far too reticent about using plain English and being honest about the disease.”

Still, for many people, panic has given way to an acceptance of the fact that even if a vaccine were developed in the near future, AIDS will continue to claim lives for many years. Canadians’ concern has grown significantly, and many of them are still fearful—sometimes irrationally—about contracting the disease. But more important is the increasing number of poll respondents who said that they are taking steps to help keep themselves safe—and the toll from the fatal virus down.

NORA UNDERWOOD in Toronto