Twenty-four-year-old Lindsey is attractive, vivacious, flirtatious, and perennially single. She loves men and says that she really enjoys sex. Her stylishly shaggy hair looks freshly tugged, but despite appearances, Lindsey hasn’t gotten past second base in the past twelve months. Her fear of catching a sexually transmitted disease is so acute that she’s taking the only measure she believes will put her chances of contracting an STD closer to zero.
“When I was 20, I gave this one guy I liked a blow job—just once, and my pants stayed on,” explains Lindsey (all those who spoke about their sex lives for this story are identified by middle name). “A month later, I got a little red bump [points, whispers] down there, and based on what I’d read on the Internet, became convinced that he’d given me herpes.” Devastated and embarrassed, she began comparing the bump with pictorial examples on the Web. Confronted with the mass of statistical data on communicable conditions, she crunched numbers and tried to reconcile them with the 72-hour false prophet in her underpants—which eventually transpired to be nothing more than an ingrown hair. “I hardly slept a wink, and the percentages just kept whizzing around in my head. What I learned about STDs and how thinking I had herpes made me feel, well,” she pauses to self-medicate with a sip of her margarita, “I never, ever want to feel that way again.”
Having sex with a rotating cast of interesting characters is what twentysomething New Yorkers do. It’s practically in the job description. Yet Lindsey is one of a small but growing number of young, single, heterosexual Manhattanites so utterly spooked by the prospect of catching a sexually transmitted disease that engaging in “normal” sexual activity has simply become an unjustifiable risk. It’s an acute response to the culture of condoms and caution, a sexual dysfunction that’s grown out of the safe-sex campaign.
Anyone who came of age in the past twenty years can’t be blamed for equating sex with undesirable consequences. The aids epidemic was in full swing before this generation even started thinking about having sex. Freddie Mercury died, Magic Johnson announced he was HIV-positive, and an unusually grave Madonna laid out the case for condoms from a gritty high-school set in a public-service announcement. Then there were the warnings closer to home.
“We get people asking how much of their body they should cover in Saran Wrap. It’s an anxiety disorder.”
Anne, a 28-year-old writer who won’t have sexual contact with anyone unless he first submits to the full range of STD tests, says her stringency comes from her school’s self-preservation programs in the late eighties. “When my sixth-grade health teacher told us that smoking causes lung cancer, I decided right then that I would never put a cigarette to my lips,” she says. “When my seventh-grade health teacher told us that dropping LSD would cause us to hurl ourselves out of fifth-story windows believing we could fly, I vowed never to take acid as long as I lived. And when my eighth-grade health teacher told us about the horrors of HIV, I took extensive notes.”
The purpose of sex education was not to prevent people like Anne from having satisfying sex lives when they grew up; it was to encourage them to be “safe.” Condoms were the literal catchalls that facilitated business as usual in the eighties and nineties. But with recent data suggesting that condoms may not protect against the transmission of all STDs, safe sex has been rebranded with a disconcerting title: “safer” sex. No guarantees.
The rug pulled out from under them, single New Yorkers are reevaluating the risk-versus-reward of sex. For most people, this simply means more carefully considering the consequences of their actions; for Anne, it means no action. She rarely has sex at all these days—her strict requirements don’t allow for casual encounters, even with condoms. “I do wish every once in a while that I had the personality where I could just fuck whomever I wanted to at random and at whim,” she says. “But I never really bought into the whole idea—that some of my well-educated, worldly, sophisticated peers hold dear—that people like us don’t get sick.”
The new age of “safer” sex has its own sexual bogeymen: herpes and the human papilloma virus (HPV). Though they’re not life-threatening, these two diseases are transmitted by skin-to-skin contact, which makes them loom larger in the imagination than even HIV. And it doesn’t take much imagination to see every potential partner as a potential health hazard. Between a fifth and a quarter of all Americans have genital herpes, and the majority of Americans are carriers of the strain that causes cold sores, which can be transmitted to the genitals. HPV, the virus that causes genital warts and can lead to cervical cancer if left untreated, is even more common: Up to 75 percent of the reproductive-age population is infected. And as with herpes, those who have HPV might not ever know it. That’s a lot of secret Santas out there.
To make matters more frightening, most young people get their STD information from the Internet, where no more or less weight is given to a site produced by the Centers for Disease Control, an abstinence group, a drug company hawking a product, or a lowly blogger spinning a yarn about how he contracted pubic lice from his cousin’s dachshund. “It can be a double-edged sword, this information age,” says Evelyn Intondi, a nurse-midwife at Planned Parenthood of New York City. “If you are compulsively consulting Websites for this stuff, you can pretty quickly work yourself up. I mean, you can Google something, and there are thousands of Websites on this subject. Finding out about STDs in this way can be very scary.”
Finding out about any illness this way can be scary. Go online for information about moles, and it’s not hard to convince yourself you’ve got skin cancer. Out of breath after a workout? You can quickly match up your symptoms with adult-onset asthma. Feeling clumsy and uncoordinated? Better get checked for MS. The Internet is like oxygen to a hypochondriac’s fire, turning general anxiety into a full-blown, life-altering obsession. “People pick up fragmented information,” explains Zachary Bregman, an internist and assistant clinical professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. “There is an increasing degree of hypochondria among young people in general. If it was something I saw in 2 or 3 percent of people before, I’m seeing it in 6 percent now.” And most of the hypochondriacs, says Bregman, are fixated on STDs—diseases so personal and stigmatized that they lend themselves to private, panicky surf sessions. The millions of sexual-health sites, with their warnings and statistics and symptoms, are daunting even in a sober state of mind. But after a night of intoxicated sex and a burning sensation upon urination, a Web search can lead to an unqualified diagnosis, paranoia, and a sharp shift—temporary or permanent—in sexual behavior.