This is about sex, death and the differences between men and women—subjects that produce fits, innuendos false and true, heartbreak and an absence of reasonable discussion. This is about Earvin Johnson.
The reaction of women to the news about Johnson is more complicated than that of men. Just eavesdrop on a gathering of women in a restaurant or stop a few on the street. Johnson's disclosures about his having contracted the AIDS virus and having had sex with countless women provoke a response that wanders between rue and anger. Johnson has not been a hero to women. He has been a hazard. If indeed he was infected with HIV through heterosexual contact, he has been their victim and, potentially, their victimize.
Earvin Johnson can't pinpoint the time or the place or, regrettably, the woman who infected him. He simply says, as Warren Beatty did in the movie Shampoo, that he did them all. One of them made him a victim. The number of those who could become victims grows exponentially from there.
I do not pretend to reason on this subject. It defies that. I can only ruminate.
November 25, 1991
Johnson made sport of women.
Women gave him the AIDS virus.
There is no female equivalent to Johnson, because women generally don't display the blind devotion to role models that men do. What possible parallel could there be? Something dreadful befalling Jane Pauley? Perhaps the closest to Johnson would be Chris Evert, who during her tennis career seemed never to have said or done the wrong thing.
It is a fact that a woman's sexual adventures and accomplishments are not viewed by either gender as a matter for congratulations. If she's had a lot of sexual partners, it's viewed as a matter for counseling. If Jackie Joyner-Kersee announced that she had had sex with more men than she could count and had contracted HIV from one of them, she would not be regarded as a heroine. She would be regarded as a tramp. Yet the pervasive feeling among men about Johnson seems to be that he was entitled to be promiscuous and that his bravery in the face of his affliction has made him even more of a larger-than-life figure than he was before.
I think there is a lot to admire about Johnson. I found his athleticism sublime, and I view what has happened to him as a tragedy of the highest order. That is why I feel sorrow as well as rue and anger. But if I had a daughter who had dated him, my sense of tragedy would be far more acute.
To me, Johnson is no model of courage, considering the scores of women he slept with. I suspect that all but a very few of them regard having had sex with him as a deadly error in judgment, just as he now regards his having had sex with them.
I don't doubt that a lot of the women Johnson slept with were as much seducers as victims. But perhaps he should have thought better of them than they thought of themselves. Often, this is what constitutes a gentleman.
Instead, Johnson says he did his best to "accommodate" as many women as possible. Given that female-to-male transmission of the AIDS virus is still relatively rare, Johnson hit long odds when he was stricken by the virus through heterosexual contact, but his promiscuity was such that his chances of coming into contact with an infected woman rose considerably. He now implies that women arc something like radiation: A little bit is O.K., but overexposure can kill you. "It doesn't matter how beautiful the woman might be or how tempting she might sound on the telephone," he wrote in last week's SI. "I know that we are pursued by women so much that it is easy to be weak. Maybe by getting the virus I'll make it easier for you guys to be strong."
I do not hear enough concern for his sexual partners in Johnson's statement, particularly given that AIDS is transmitted far more frequently from males to females than from females to males. I do not hear Johnson admit that he may have done considerable pursuing himself. I do not hear a pronounced enough sense of responsibility.
I have a friend, Nancy, who lives in Los Angeles. She is tolerant about sexual matters, as might be expected of one who was young and single in the 1970s and '80s. She read that Wilt Chamberlain had slept with, by his approximation, 20,000 women. "He ought to be in jail," she said.
In the age of AIDS, even if a man had unsafe sex with "only" 2,000 women, the numbers grow astonishingly. Let's say those 2,000 women each slept with five men afterward. The number of those exposed to the possibility of infection begins with a group large enough to populate a zip code, then grows to a state-sized one, then to one the size of a small nation. That is truly what is meant when it is said that, these days, you do not just sleep with one person, you sleep with everybody that person ever slept with.
Women must deal with Johnson's irresponsibility in other, less obvious ways. Another of my friends, Rachel, lives in Florida with her husband and three children, one of them a nine-year-old boy. She provides sexual information to her children on what she laughingly calls a "need-to-know" basis. The other day she had to explain to her son that Johnson is probably doomed, and then she had to stumble through an explanation of how a condom is used.
"How does this affect women?" she is asked. She answers, her voice wandering between rue and anger, "Well, we're the ones who have to explain it to the kids."