Friday, March 11, 2005

For My Next Trick...

Misdirection is a tool that magicians use to focus the audience's attention on something irrelevant, so that the magician can secretly do something else. "There's nothing up my sleeve," the magician boasts, and while you're looking at his innocent forearms, the real action of the trick is going on somewhere else. Not, of course, that the use of misdirection is limited to magic.
The proposed 2006 budget that President Bush submitted to Congress this week calls for cutting funds for federal AIDS prevention and surveillance programs by $4 million, a development that drew sharp criticism from AIDS activists.

Activists said they were especially concerned that the proposed cuts came at the same time the president is calling for a $38 million increase in programs aimed at curtailing AIDS and teen pregnancy by promoting sexual abstinence until marriage.

“Programs which focus on abstinence as the sole means of preventing HIV/AIDS put our young people at tremendous risk,” said David Smith, an official with the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay political group that lobbies Congress on AIDS.
Raise your hand if your brain just went into a full-scale rant on the ineffective and dangerous nature of abstinence-only sex education for teenagers.

If your hand is raised, you just missed the palmed card. (Don't feel bad - so did David Smith of the HRC, apparently, and he should know better.)

Why? Because you've accepted "teenagers" as the implied proper target of HIV prevention services, and are only arguing about how best to serve them. Teenagers need HIV prevention education, of course. But the majority of American teenagers, like the majority of the general American population, are not at high risk of contracting HIV. Who's at high risk? Gay and bisexual men, especially young men and men of color. Drug addicts of all stripes - not just injection drug users, but anyone whose addiction might lead them to trade sex for money or drugs. Poor African-American and Latina women, especially in inner cities. Anyone low enough on the socioeconomic scale to engage in "survival sex" for food, money, protection, or a place to stay. Prisoners. Transgendered people. Homeless people. People with severe mental illnesses. Prostitutes. African, Latin American, and Caribbean immigrants - especially women, married or not.

"Abstinence-only HIV prevention" is not aimed at any of these high-risk populations. It reaches some of them incidentally - urban minority youth living in poverty, for example. But, for the most part, "we intend to concentrate HIV prevention dollars on abstinence-only programs" means "we intend to concentrate HIV prevention dollars on people who are at relatively low risk of infection." We should be arguing about the uselessness of abstinence programs, yes. But we shouldn't get so caught up in doing it that we forget to ask why funds for prevention among high-risk groups have been cut.

Well-meaning people on the left have contributed to the problem by universalizing HIV: "It's everyone's problem." "HIV doesn't discriminate." That's true, up to a point. But it's also undisputably true that HIV infection in the United States is largely concentrated among particular subpopulations. The Bush Administration is steadily bleeding money away from prevention services for those subpopulations, in favor of programs designed to encourage sixteen-year-old middle-class girls to stay virgins. That's the real scandal here.