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Anti-Sex League*

November 7, 2011

The political polling blog Fivethirtyeight (now a part of the New York Times) unearths a seventeen year old research paper to mark the twentieth anniversary of basketball legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson’s announcement that he had HIV.

Johnson’s announcement transcends even his luminous career as an athlete. It changed the American conversation about HIV and AIDS. I watched the press conference live, standing in a packed lounge in a dorm twenty years ago. But I’ll let others rhapsodize about that day.

What I want to note is buried in the middle of a paragraph in the fivethirtyeight writeup:

In a 1994 article, he found that Mr. Johnson’s announcement changed the underpinnings of opinion. Although views of homosexuals were associated with opinion about AIDS — those with less favorable views of homosexuals were in turn less likely to support spending for AIDS treatment and research — Mr. Johnson’s announcement made attitudes toward heterosexual sex a more important underpinning of opinion about AIDS. In particular, those with more conservative values (in this case, those who believe premarital sex is always or almost always wrong) became slightly less supportive of spending to fight AIDS. But those who believed that premarital sex was only sometimes or never wrong became more supportive of AIDS spending — by 15 points, in fact. Mr. Johnson’s announcement had shifted the types of values that people drew on when forming opinions about AIDS.

(Emphasis mine.)  Think about that for a second.  This guy is writing about questions asked both before and in the immediate aftermath of Johnson’s announcement.  Among those who oppose premarital (not my term) sex, more of them opposed funding to find a cure after they found out that a famous and beloved, and het, sports star had contracted the disease.  Obviously that’s just sort of mean and inhuman.  But what’s underneath the meanness and inhumanity is the purposefulness. 

Back in Against Nature, I wrote at length about the thread connecting those who oppose abortion, contraception, and control of STIs:  that while they’re generally savvy enough not to say it, they treat these things as divine punishment for unapproved sexual activity; the wages of sin as it were.  These findings are consistent with that. 

In the study, which you can read here, this table relates the breakdown of responses to whether AIDS funding should be cut, left alone or increased by attitudes towards premarital heterosexual sex (again, not my terms):

                                                                  3-7 November                                    8-24 November

Funding should be                          Premarital sex                                     Premarital sex

                                                     Wrong                 Not Wrong                Wrong                      Not Wrong

Cut                                                 .07                            .08                            .09                                 .04

Left Alone                                  .28                             .29                             .31                                 .21

Increased                                   .65                             .63                             .60                                .75

     Number of cases                72                             155                            250                                 548

[p.437]  Take a look at the first date.  The respondents were asked, “If a man and woman have sex relations before marriage, it is always wrong, almost always wrong, only sometimes wrong or not wrong at all”.  There were few “almost always” answers and these respondents didn’t seem to differ from the “always” respondents, while the “sometimes” and “not wrong” respondents were also about the same, so the author collapsed the four-part scale to a binary.  Before Magic Johnson’s announcement, the AIDS funding policy position of respondents looks almost exactly the same for those with either view on the HETSEX variable (as the author named it.)  And even among the “premarital sex is wrong” people, a flat majority supported increased funding, and a single-digit minority wanted cuts.  But those asked after the announcement diverged substantially depending on their answer on the HETSEX question.  The proportion of people who thought premarital sex was wrong who wanted funding for AIDS research to be cut was more than double the rate among those  who didn’t think premarital sex was wrong; and there was a fifteen point gap in support for increasing funding depending on the respondent’s view on the HETSEX scale. 

(Real analysis of the data by someone with statistical chops that I don’t have might be more illuminating — the gaps are more an increase in support for funding among the pro-sex folks than a decrease in the antis.  Whether the drop in the “wrong” side alone is statistically significant, I don’t know; it’s possible it’s within the margin of error.)

The only reasoning by which one gets to less support for AIDS funding from Magic Johnson’s announcement is this: straight people can get it, too > this disease threatens not only people who have same sex partners, but the much greater number with opposite sex partners > great, more deterrence!  or more punishment, whatevs > now I’m really against spending money to find a cure!  Of course many people won’t say it that way and many or even most will not even go through that thought process consciously.  But being against funding to stop an epidemic is either a conscious or unconscious process of saying, literally, “hell with ‘em.”  In this case, some folks are more in favor of hell the more of ‘em there are.

So I reiterate what I said in Against Nature: the real animating value behind all these issues is a belief — and a hope! — that people who engage in certain kinds of sexual behavior get punished.  However the anti-sex league articulates their reasoning, the view that they support punishment for sin is the one that will have more explanatory power.

*Borrowing from Orwell.  One could do worse.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. November 8, 2011 12:50 pm

    My gut reaction is that it the change on the “wrong” side is within margin of error and basically not there. What is there is a big change on the “not-wrong” side. I think the story is that the announcement made people who don’t think it is wrong change their minds while the “wrong” crowd mostly stayed pat.

    As you say, it would be good to get someone with good scientific chops to jump in.

    • November 8, 2011 1:51 pm

      LC, you might be right. I’m not writing off the notion that the drop in support is sampling error, in which case it only means that the anti-sex people failed to be moved by news that made other people worry that a public health crisis could have much broader effects — but that alone is pretty telling.

  2. November 17, 2011 2:27 am

    I’ve taken the pre-announcement numbers and subtracted them from the post-announcement numbers. This chart shows how much each option increased or decreased in popularity:

    wrong not wrong
    cut +2 -4
    left the same +3 -8
    increased -5 +12

    Clearly, a much larger shift in the “not wrong” crowd.

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