The Observer

What is safe sex?

Who in this day and age would willingly submit to a lecture on safe sex? (Actually, abstinence is the only safe sex.) That was last year. Students, in particular, with the attention span of hummingbirds, must roll their eyes at the mere thought of such an ordeal. And yet over 40 gay and lesbian graduate students crammed MIT's Rainbow Lounge on a cold night recently to hear Dr. Howard Heller of the university's medical department review the bidding on the subject. They may be brilliant in the lab but these tyros got humbled by the good doctor.

(Quick, name the five bodily fluids that, with rare exceptions, transmit HIV.)

Lured by mounds of Thai food before Heller's presentation, I chatted with Agit Dash, 32, an Indian with a medical degree in clinical pharmacology who is getting a PhD in biological engineering. What's he going to do with it? Return to India?

Doubtful. "The antisodomy law is still on the books there," he says. "It's improving in the big cities, but India is still in a state of denial. Ask the average Indian about homosexuality, and he'll say it's a `Western concept.' "

A friend, Parmesh Shahani, materializes. "Look! An endangered species," Dash deadpans. "A gay Indian."

Shahani, 27, is a master's candidate in comparative media studies. He is organizing Boston's first gay South Asian film festival in April. It will feature 25 flicks, and Shahani plans to bring people from Bombay, L.A., and New York to discuss the subject.

So how does Boston stack up among cities for gays, I ask Dash. Good, he says, but not in the same league with New York or San Francisco.

"The visibility of the gay and lesbian community seems low," he concludes after two years here. "A friendly kiss by same-sex couples -- I've never seen that happen at MIT or the surrounding area. The brochure I received in India from MIT said there was no discrimination based on sexual orientation, and I expected that ideal. Except for pockets like the South End and Davis Square, maybe Coolidge Corner, I don't see that openness around here."

Understood, but remember, Agit, this town has frowned on all public demonstration of affection among all groups, including straights like me, since Cotton Mather called the shots.

Heller mercifully comes with no didactic spiel. Instead, he transmits information through an ingenious "Jeopardy"-like game flashed on a wall, complete with subjects and dollar categories. Heller has used this device in similar sessions with straight kids and advisers across campus, but this is the first time with the gay and lesbian community.

He divides the assembled group, most of whom are male, into three teams: the Raging Hormones, the Love Bugs, and the Gay Blades. As in "Jeopardy," each picks topics, digests the written answers, then comes up with the correct questions.

Love Bugs start: "Condoms for $200." The answer appears on the wall specifying how to make sure a condom functions properly. (Always check the expiration date, for starters, and make sure the air is out of it.)

Next come the Gay Blades: "Name That Bug For $500." We see a written description of a disease that turns out to be syphilis. Heller mentions the increase in syphilis rates among gay men in the last couple of years and notes that one source was traced to an AOL chatroom in San Francisco.

Then the Raging Hormones: "Safer Sex for $400." Wow. Here's where I learn the names of various piercing techniques - Prince Albert, Ampallang and Apadrayva. One student volunteers where to find condoms to accommodate them.

What happens, asks another, to someone with HIV who is in jail and doesn't get his meds for a week? Trouble, replies Heller, who notes that missing even two doses a month at the prescribed times can raise the body's resistance to them. According to one study, he adds, 40 percent of people infected with the virus in New York in 2002 were resistant to at least one of the antiretroviral drugs.

So how does MIT fare in the much-publicized rise in unprotected sex among gay men over the past few years?

"My sense is that MIT is an exact cross-section of the general population on this issue," Heller tells me later. "Brains have nothing to do with it. In general, young people take risks. We ask a routine question at checkups: `Do you wear a bike helmet?' We hear kids say, no, it's too uncomfortable."

That said, Brett Mattingly, the president of the MIT bisexual, gay and lesbian alumni group, BGALA, definitely sees this troubling increase. "I don't know anyone who has oral sex with a condom," he says, "And there has been an uptick in unprotected anal sex. When you start serious dating, condoms fall by the wayside."

"Gay men in their early 20s don't know people who have died of AIDS," he adds. "AIDS Action Committee isn't in the foreground anymore."

The good news, says Heller, is that a majority of 18- to 24-year-olds in this country have been tested for HIV. The bad news is the immutable answer to the question that stumped everyone: What organic compound is the number one reason for condom failure?


Sam Allis can be reached at

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