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AIDS epidemic makes puppy love dangerous

Though many of South Africa's young teens think of AIDS as a disease only among the poor, they are learning the hard way that everyone is at risk.

Workmen erect a giant symbolic red ribbon at the XIII International AIDS Conference in Durban in 2000. (Juda Ngwenya/Reuters)

PRETORIA, South Africa — Oh, to be 18 again. Fresh skin, first kiss, first love …

Frankly, I don’t want to. I live in South Africa, which has the world’s largest population of HIV-positive people — 5.7 million.

Nine neighboring countries have the world’s highest HIV prevalence, with more than 15 percent of adults infected. The region accounts for 2 percent of the world’s population and 35 percent of all HIV infections. I live in the global epicenter of AIDS.

Here, sex, flirting and romance are never wholly free of the long shadow cast by AIDS. When do I bring up condoms? When do I suggest getting tested? With whom has he or she slept before? When do we stop using condoms? Who can I trust?

One of the saddest things about the AIDS epidemic in Africa is that a generation of young people cannot discover and enjoy sex as freely as their parents.

And if they do, we parents panic, and rightly so. By nature, teenagers ignore risk: They are reluctant to wear seat belts, helmets and condoms. And do they listen to their parents?

I have made a career of writing about sex, gender and AIDS. These topics are frequently discussed at home. My friends are as passionate about AIDS as I am because AIDS is fascinating: It illuminates every fault line of society.

So you can imagine my shock when I realized that my 18-year-old daughter and her girlfriends worry more about becoming pregnant than getting infected. The pill is more important to them than a condom.

I probed. It turns out that students at their affluent high school perceive AIDS as a disease of the poor, the black, the foreigners — the others. Not them.

The school did a good information job around rape, Rohypnol (the “date rape drug” used to spike drinks) and hard drugs. Useful, for South Africa’s twin epidemics are AIDS and rape.

But the school dwelt more on how to avoid forced sex than how to have safe sex.