Not risky behaviour - just a bit of harmless promiscuity

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The Independent Culture
WHEN I WANT to have a good time, I like to go and do something really safe. I don't go in for all that dangerous stuff like hang-gliding or windsurfing or sailing. I don't drive fast. I just go out and have unprotected sex with random women. Because it's really safe. It's practically the safest thing you can do. I believe it actually entails more danger going to buy a condom, say in a gents' lavatory, than taking the normal, healthy risk you'd be taking without one. Well, have you ever seen some of these gents' lavatories?

You think I'm joking, don't you? Well, just look at the statistics. Medical experts say that if you have unprotected sex with somebody, you're running something like a one in 250 chance of catching Aids - if they carry Aids. And what's the chance that they carry Aids? Well, medical experts say they estimate that 50,000 Britons carry the virus. More men than women, by a factor of 75 per cent. Fifty thousand's just an estimate, of course. It may be way out. The truth may be much worse - or much better. But assume it's correct. That means that roughly one in every 2,000 women carries the virus. Work it out. Now multiply the two figures: the chance of infection times the chance of transmission. Two thousand multiplied by 250. One in 500,000. Half a million. And now switch the radio on and listen to the traffic news. Now do you see my point?

I'm joking, of course. Or am I? Well, I feel uneasy about saying it. So I'll turn it into a joke. It could be a send-up of illiberal attitudes, couldn't it? But why illiberal? Why is it nasty and right-wing to analyse statistics?

I once asked a woman from the Health Education Authority to go through the statistics with me, so that we could work out the probability of catching Aids from a single encounter. And then I could compare it with other things - driving 50 miles, going on holiday, swimming in the sea. Of course, I realised that none of the statistics was guaranteed to be accurate, but I thought that we could at least infer a high figure and a low figure, at least get somewhere.

She told me that we really ought not to be getting into this kind of thinking. Of course, I knew that. I could sense it was the wrong thing to be doing. But why? Well, she said, it's bad to start people thinking about personal risk in this way - it was far better to encourage them to assume that everybody was at risk. So you try to make your sex life safer, whatever the situation. And it goes without saying that, even if nearly everybody is safe, you can't go round telling them that, because pretty soon they won't be. You have to keep them in the dark, but for a good reason. Trying to get at the truth might hurt people more than it helps them. Which sounds pretty illiberal to me, but there you go.

So what's the liberal view on Aids, then? The liberal view is that everybody can get it.

It doesn't matter who you are; you should still be scared of it. And what's the conservative view? The conservative view is that it's very hard to catch, that not many people have it, that it does matter who you are. Under the liberal view, we're heading for an explosion of death. Under the conservative view, life will go on pretty much as normal, with the margins of society bearing the brunt of the hardship. The more time that goes by without the explosion of death, the more likely it is that the conservative view will prevail - unless, of course, we're hit in 10 years' time with an epidemic of late-incubating disease. And we know nothing about this.

And that's the point - we know nothing. So what have we been doing? We've been substituting our beliefs for knowledge. Liberals don't like to see people on the margins of society being hit with even more hardships. So they do something about it - they believe things which, if true, would make people more equal. And it has some effect. For instance, just by believing that loads of heterosexuals are about to drop dead of Aids, I would be helping to create a society in which people will be treated more equally. I don't have to have any facts. My belief alone, and my encouragement to others to believe, has its own little effect. And the opposite is true. If I believe that it's really hard to get Aids, that it's only a disease of junkies and queers, I'm casting a drop into the ocean of their pain. With no hard facts, faith is the next best thing.

Just look at the newspapers. On Sunday, the liberal Observer asked the question: how can Roy Cornes, the alleged Birmingham Aids-spreader, have infected so many women so easily, if heterosexual sex is such a poor vector for the disease? The question they failed to ask is: did he sodomise the women? But how can you expect them to? It would be like asking a priest to ask awkward questions in church. The same day, the conservative News Of The World revealed a face-saving new rumour - Cornes, apparently, possibly had sodomised the women. It looked like the newspaper's editors were revelling in this 'unnatural sex'. Well, what do you expect? They had found a fact which appeared to shore up their beliefs. On Monday, the liberal Independent hit a return shot: they had found a doctor to cast doubt on the notion that sodomy is far more dangerous than normal sex. What's coming next? A revelation that Cornes minces when he walks?

Anyway, I'm going to be careful out there. This is a disease that anybody can catch. It's what you do, not who you do it with. Well, of course it does matter a bit who you do it with, but let's not think about that one too much. I mean, when you sleep with someone, you're sleeping with everybody they've slept with, and so on . . . just think of how the figures mount up. But you mustn't get too worried. Panic only hurts victims - I mean people who have been unlucky - in the end. So I'm not going to make a fuss about sharing cups and bathrooms and so on. That would be playing right into their hands. It's time we grew up about this. So I'll just go out and have one more random unprotected encounter, and then I'll turn over a new leaf.