AIDS not a heterosexualepidemic, researcher says

by Sarah Kneece

The virus that causes AIDS does not pose an epidemic threat to the United States’ heterosexual population, a University of Chicago researcher told a group of University of Minnesota students and faculty members Friday.
“The larger population of heterosexuals are not infected due to the fact that they are not interacting with the highly infected subgroups,” Edward Laumann, a professor at the Chicago school, said, adding that the three most highly infected subgroups are needle users, spouses of needle users and homosexual men.
Laumann made his remarks at the seventh annual Academic Festival in Blegen Hall. A group of about 60 people heard the speech — sponsored by the Department of Sociology — which focused on the findings of Laumann’s National Health and Social Life Survey.
The survey, completed in 1993, examined behavioral practices of men and women age 18-59 that contribute to the spread of AIDS. The study found that the amount of exposure, choice of partners and types of sex acts are factors in contracting AIDS.
Laumann also found the percentage of the population that is homosexual to be much lower than the commonly accepted figure of 10 percent. His study determined that number to be around 5 percent. His findings have since become a point of controversy among gay rights supporters.
Laumann began his research in 1987 when the total number of AIDS cases in the United States was doubling every 10 months. The survey tried to find areas of the population where AIDS was most prevalent and study how the disease filtered into the mainstream. Laumann also said the study could serve as a tool to get people to engage in talking more openly about AIDS and sex in general.
“It’s amazing how interested we are in the topic of sex, but so inept to talk about it,” he said.
Laumann said he was slated to receive federal money for the study, but a conservative move in the Capitol in 1992 halted the funds.
“Jesse Helms stepped in and said the federal funding for the survey should be dropped and used for a ‘Say No to Sex Campaign,'” Laumann said.
When Helms’ legislation to cut funding for the survey found political backing, money for the study disappeared. But Laumann quickly found private investors, and in 1993 with his research completed, the results became the object of a media feeding frenzy.
The results appeared in almost every major daily newspaper and received substantial air time.
“I believe that all the media attention was due to the simple fact that people were shocked by the results,” Laumann said. “The results found that the heterosexual population was at little risk due to the low partner turnover, infrequent sex and partner choice.”
“When you have a low rate of exposure and a low rate of transmission, AIDS is hard to contract,” he said.
The day after the speech, Mark Hager, a graduate student at the University and a speaker at the conference, discussed with Laumann the possible implications of his survey.
“At the lunch break on Saturday, my colleagues and I asked if federal funding (for AIDS research) would be affected, due to the small contracting of AIDS in the heterosexual population,” Hager said.
Laumann told Hager that although the survey downplays the potential spread of AIDS, it probably won’t carry a lot of weight in Washington. Most politicians feel the idea of AIDS is scary and that the disease is easily spread, Laumann said, therefore funding for AIDS research will not be cut.
Laumann is currently the George Herbert Mead Distinguished Service Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago. He is the author of 11 books, and his most recent books are two on human sexuality: “The Social Organization of Sexuality” and “Sex in America.”
“It is the most renowned and comprehensive study on sexuality and behavior in the world,” Hager said. “I was really glad to see him and hear his research results.”