She’s an auburn-haired doctor-next-door who happens to be HIV positive. He’s a handsome surgeon with a jawline to die for. But no, General Hospital sweethearts Robin Scorpio and Patrick Drake are not headed for a brief, tender marriage with Patrick at her bedside. The most talked-about couple in soaps this summer have sweaty sex and shoot each other lingering, dark-eyed looks. And daytime TV fans are loving it.

“Just because you have an illness doesn’t mean you should become a monk or a nun,” argues Lisa Sparks, a middle-school teacher from St. Louis who frequents an online Robin-and-Patrick fan forum called Scrubs. Adds Scrubs moderator Michelle Moore, “Robin’s treated as a grown-up!”

AIDS is no newcomer to the soaps, but this feels different. Ten years after Robin’s first stint on General Hospital as a teenager who got HIV from her boyfriend, she’s back in the fictional suburban wonderland of Port Charles with a feisty new love interest. “Robin didn’t know that she had much life left when she was first infected,” explains actress Kimberly McCullough, who plays her on the show. “What she found out was that she could have a life outside HIV.”

McCullough believes soap operas are an ideal forum for addressing complex issues like HIV because the daily format gives you the extra time and the real-life context to bring people around gradually. “There are a lot of steps you have to go through to explain how a person with HIV can have a sex life.”

And the sizzling afternoon seductions that audiences tune in for are great opportunities for sex ed. Though Patrick and Robin’s romance has been anything but smooth, their lovers’ quarrels are offset by responsible bedroom talk. Last spring’s lengthy lead-up to their first time in bed included conversations about precautions and risks. Now, condoms come up—or torn wrappers appear casually on the coffee table—every time they have sex.

Judging by the buzz in the supermarket mini-magazines that follow soap gossip and recap episodes, the story of Robin and Patrick has made the show more popular than ever., which tracks the Nielsen ratings, reports that General Hospital was tied with All My Children for fourth out of nine soaps on the air during the week of July 17—up from fifth the week before.

The actual influence of something like this is harder to measure (and some fans think HIV negative people on the soap should also make a show of using condoms). In-person feedback is rare, although at a recent General Hospital fan-club luncheon, an HIV positive woman flagged McCullough down to tell her about how she contracted the virus from an ex-boyfriend and about her happy marriage to an HIV negative man.

The hope is that teens are listening too, especially with so many more at home now during the summer months. “They don’t know anything about HIV, and the little they do know is wrong,” says Moore, who combs the Web and consults a doctor friend for reliable facts to post on Scrubs.

Soaps, of course, are full of surprises. And fans are bracing themselves for a couple of doozies. Patrick has been exposed to HIV while operating on a positive patient—and his test results aren’t back yet. Now, word is that Robin might have a baby.

“The show spawns questions, and people get educated,” says Scrubs member Amy Beard, adding that HIV and pregnancy would put General Hospital right there on the edge again, asking: “ ‘Can she do that?’ ‘Is that safe?’ ‘Should she do that?’ “