OK, how do you get infected with HIV?” I ask, staring at a sea of blankfaces. I’ve been touring high schools and colleges across the countrysince September, and as the academic year ends, the first class of kidsschooled over the past four years in Bush’s useless “prevention”tactics will soon enter the real world. My safe-sex show began 12 yearsago as an informal rap session; it’s morphed into an interactive,scripted production, teaching negotiation and communication skills andhow alcohol and drugs can muck ’em all up. Today’s victims: a couplehundred college freshmen in Iowa. (And that’s all I’ll reveal.)“C’mon!” I bark. “The first one with the right answer wins thisfabulous T-shirt!” I wave a garment blaring the campus logo. When I’dasked when the school was founded, three kids ran up for the prize. Andwhen I got more on-message, asking, “Who masturbated today?” The onebrave kid rushed forth, to thunderous applause. But now I repeat: “Howdo you get infected with HIV?” A hand finally rises, and a girl yells:“Saliva!” Is she serious? This can’t be happening.

I’ve seenignorance before, but nothing like this. Could the Bush abstinence-onlydogma, mandated in so many states, have finally done its job? I waspretty sure of it when the next kid informed me I could get infectedfrom “all the holes in condoms.” I felt that I’d been swept back to atime before schools offered aggressive safer-sex ed. That little windowduring the ’90s when people felt that HIV was a real threat andprevention could save our lives.

“OK, folks, I know howconfusing this all can seem. But we don’t have a winner yet. Anyoneelse?” A studious-looking girl said, “Bodily fluids?” Ah, bodilyfluids. That’s where the confusion truly starts. What does she—what dothey—mean by “bodily fluids”? Poo-poo, pee-pee, woo-woo, wee-wee,toothbrushes? I decide to clear that up right away.

I rattle offthe big guns: semen, vaginal secretions, blood and/or breast milkentering the bloodstream through the rectum, vagina or mouth. Iapproach a girl in the front row and ask, “OK, if I slash my arm andstart spraying you with blood, can you get infected?” (They know I amHIV positive.) She recoils, as if I were holding a blade, but shakesher head. “No?” I say. “Good. OK, what if I cut myself, and then I cutyou, and we rub our cuts together. Can you get it now?” I get atentative yes.

 “You get a T-shirt!”

The lecturesnakes on, from infection to prevention. I’m really working it and feelthe sweat dripping down my back. One kid asks, “How risky is breastmilk in the rectum?” This is not a joke. In fact, nobody here is havingany fun.

Afterward, unlike past lectures, no one comes up andtalks to me. I feel like I’ve failed. Have I lost my touch? I have feltso blessed to do this work. Having learned to educate while makingpeople laugh, I can better face my own HIV issues. But now I feeldisconnected, like I’m starting from scratch. And I’m tired. All theholes in condoms? Even from colleges, I’ve had more requests this yearto talk only about abstinence. I don’t know if I can do that.

Indeed,I’ve begun to feel like an AIDS freak show again and am wondering whatelse I can do with my life. Pharmaceutical rep? I know everything aboutthe drugs. But now I realize the kids need me more than ever. I amheading to Chicago today with a revamped lecture. It might not be asexplicit or as funny as I’d like—but I hope it will connect me to theconservative and less knowledgeable among my
audience. Just by adding things like “When you get married and want to have anal intercourse….” 

Meet River Huston—writer, poet, performance educator, sex goddess extraordinaire—at www.riverhuston.com.