Editor’s note: This piece by Margaret Liu McConnell appeared in the December 14, 1992, issue of National Review.
The outset, A Conversation with Magic seems the kind of show any parent would welcome. What a relief that Nickelodeon, home of Lassie and The Little. Koala, came up with this “special edition”– produced during the months Earvin “Magic” Johnson spent as a “spokesman for the AIDS virus”–to teach children about AIDS! And what better person than Magic to answer whatever questions a group of ordinary children might have on this difficult subject? Magic is adamantly heterosexual and has a religious grounding that allows him to talk easily about God. He was called a hero by President Bush and had been appointed to the National Commission on AIDS.
Johnson had been championed for the appointment by AIDS activists ostensibly because of his potential to reach city teenagers. But it was his appeal to more general audiences that was of most use to those intent on convincing the public that we are all at risk.
In the video’s opening moments, settled comfortably amidst a dozen children, with producer Linda Ellerbee practically at his feet, Magic talks of God giving him strength and about his love for his wife and their baby-on-the way. He conveys a natural respect for the children’s innocence with his gentle, delicate manner.
No wonder the video was so well received at its debut in March. After playing on Nickelodeon to high praise from the press, it was distributed to PBS stations across the country, which were equally enthusiastic.
But the show is not as sweet, or as safe, as it seems. Linda Ellerbee starts by telling parents that their children will be seeing an “unscripted, unrehearsed conversation” between a group of kids and Magic Johnson. In fact, because of her various interventions, the program assaults its young audience with frank discussion of sexual intercourse as though AIDS must claim childhood itself as its victim.
Consider the condom demonstration. Miss Ellerbee takes the children through a series of Socratic questions during which it emerges that “pretty much” the only ways one can get the virus are needle sharing, as a baby born to an HIV-infected mother, and from “unprotected sex.” Which leads to the obvious question from a very thoughtful little girl about what exactly “protected” sex is.
In response, Miss Ellerbee thrusts second and third fingers into the air and draws a condom down over them:
LE:… You roll it down the penis and that protects the man when his penis is inside the woman’s vagina. It protects him during sex. And it protects her. It’s not 100 per cent. The only 100 per cent way to protect yourself for safe sex [sic] is to not have sex.
MJ: That’s right. He seems uncomfortable, clearing his throat several times.] . . The safest sex is no sex and until you’re married or something you should be thinking about not having sex.
LE: . . . nobody is saying, Hey kids, now you know how to wear a condom you should rush right out and have sex. The truth is you shouldn’t …. What we’re saying is that there’s going to come a day, when you grow up some, and you may–if you choose to have sex then, then you should know you’re not immortal.
This is all spoken very sweetly, particularly Miss Ellerbee’s homey locution, “There’s going to come a day, when you grow up some.” The trouble is, the “some” is left entirely up to the children to decide. A good many adolescent boys would begin having sex the moment their hormones kick in. This obsession of young men is an age-old phenomenon, and its counterpart has been the age-old obsession of parents with ensuring their daughters’ safety. The condom theory would have it that a simple sheath of latex will change sexual intercourse into something no more consequential than a game of ping-pong.
But disease and pregnancy are not all one becomes vulnerable to through sexual activity. Girls especially are vulnerable to exploitation, to being hurt emotionally, to losing self-esteem before even having had the chance to build a sense of self. Now comes Linda Ellerbee telling children, “Remember you have a right to know the answers. You can ask your parents. You can ask the school nurse. You can call information and ask for the state department of health.”
But this offhand rejection of parents’ primary responsibility–and right–te instruct their own children in such matters is not the only harm this video does. At a critical point, Linda Ellerbee makes a major error: If you practice unsafe sex, you may get HIV, doesn’t matter who you are. If you share dirty needles, you may get HIV, doesn’t matter who you are. Any action that allows blood from one person to get inside another person’s body can transmit the virus. It’s not what group, it’s what behavior.
The children are then treated to a rap video by Scar.
Are these children to conclude that sex is some kind of bloody fracas? Miss Ellerbee’s statement is true but incomplete: the virus also travels in semen and vaginal fluids, and this is how it would most likely be passed during sexual intercourse.
But the children can’t fill in the missing information themselves: that HIV-infected white blood cells found in blood, semen, and vaginal fluids can be absorbed into the body through cuts or through mucous membranes, the spongy cells that line, inter alia, the mouth, the vagina, the opening at the tip of the penis, and the rectum, and which in the rectum are thin and prone to fissures. Do we really want to get into all this with eight- to twelve year-olds? Of course not. But without this information it cannot be understood just what the condora is doing, or why gay males are a high-risk group. The condom must seem to young children a magical shield.
It’s tempting to accept the proposition that, because children will probably start having sex earlier, we should simply give them condoms and hope they’ll be “safe.” But a better way to keep children safe is for parents to maintain high expectations of their children’s capacity for self-control, to give them access to information at appropriate ages, and to impress upon them that now more than ever it is better to wait. It is possible to teach teenagers in detail about how the HIV virus is spread, without giving them the sense that all of society expects them to start having sex before they finish school.
The emotional climax of the video is the revelation that two of the children in the group are HIV positive. Shaking, hardly able to look up, hardly able to get her breath, she’s so very scared, a lovely girl of about eleven reveals her secret to the world. Pressed by Miss Ellerbee to talk about her feelings, she says she’s afraid her friends won’t play with her any more or hold her hand. Next, a little girl who looks no more than six pleads, “I want people to know we’re just normal people,” then breaks down, wiping tears away with the back of a chubby hand. The cameras focus in on the little girl crying while Magic tries to comfort her.
The essential lie of the program is that because there are children who are HIV positive we must teach all children to protect themselves. But no quantity of condoms would have kept Rachel or Hydella “safe.” They were not exposed to the virus through unprotected sex.
The producers of the show might argue that this was not their intention at all. But why then, in this “unscripted, unrehearsed conversation,” is this heartbreaking catharsis immediately followed by this taped question over which the producers have total control: “Magic, what message would you give to people who think, “This could never happen to me?”
Well, my message to them, that it can happen to you and I’m a prime example of that… it happened because I had unprotected sex.
Children who are not born to HIV-positive mothers and who have not had blood transfusions are not at any significant risk for HIV until they become sexually active. Drilling into children the idea that they are at risk must only drill into them the idea that we fully expect them to become sexually active.
To use the suffering of two very scared children who are going to die, in order to instill in other children the idea that they have the “right” to autonomy from their parents, is surely one of the lowest points the liberal media have yet achieved.
Mrs. McConnell lives in New York City and has written for Commentary.
COPYRIGHT 1992 National Review, Inc.