AIDS and Cultural Change: Lessons from Plagues of the Past

By Thornton, M K; Thornton, R L | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

AIDS and Cultural Change: Lessons from Plagues of the Past


Thornton, M K, Thornton, R L, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


Human culture is a change-resistant, yet resilient part of the world's environment; it resists change strongly, yet adjusts to human needs when true crises occur. Culture provides the institutions and the behavior patterns by which man protects himself from disaster. Crises caused by war, famine or pestilence put pressures on a culture which force it to evolve protectively. The disease AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) has driven us to examine the impact of a pestilence.

The subject is timely, for the appearance of AIDS will demand a protective change in culture to cope with the new threat. Such a protective change had been made earlier in modern history to deal with another disease, poliomyelitis. Thus, back in the 1940s, parents were taking strong steps to protect their children from polio, the terror of the young. For families with young children, the beaches were forbidden. Summers were spent in near isolation. Church-going, attending family picnics and swimming in pools became acts of immorality for parents; to permit their children to participate with groups of other children was asking for crippling or death. Little Leagues risked a fearsome denouement as the star catcher became a permanent cripple (Paul 376-78). Dr. Salk's announcement of a successful vaccine for polio in 1954 led to a world-wide sigh of relief: parents could now discard such extreme protective constraints (McNeil 288). Threats from new diseases have always been with us. For example, syphilis, when it appeared in epidemic form in the Western World in the sixteenth century, was a culturechanging pestilence. Here the cultural changes used were to isolate women, to restrict their movements, to require chaperones, to enlist all the moral forces of religion in favor of lifetime monogamy in order to prevent the spread of the killer.

Growth of an Epidemic

So, too, AIDS, since it has now acquired heterosexual transmission, will create a horde of social constraints and will change cultural mores dramatically. Our purpose here is to provide a more extensive analysis of the power of pestilence to destroy a culture and to recreate it in a new form.

What causes a disastrous plague? What causes a disease to be species threatening? Why should a previously healthy population suddenly become prey to a murderous sickness? Obviously, medical people have done much work on the problem and have found some answers. Let us look at the requirements for an epidemic to occur (Rosen 50 and Bratton 68-69).

First, an epidemic requires that the method of transmission of the disease be unknown or uncontrollable, and permits exposure to the disease by most of the population. In the case of AIDS, the methods of transmission are known, but its association with man's most uncontrollable need (the need to reproduce) could be catastrophic. (This paper is concerned only with the sexual aspect of AIDS. Man can keep his needles clean, his dental drills sterilized, his blood supply uncontaminated. But his sexual needs he will not control through fear alone.) Although the methods of transmission are known, the disease hides itself from its victim for as many as ten years-a period during which the infected person may have passed the disease to several unknowing sexual partners and to innocent children.

Second, an epidemic, to be truly dangerous to a society, must be of a highly lethal disease (Jackson 175). AIDS kills all its victims, but slowly, thus providing an even longer period for the disease to be passed on.

Third, an epidemic is indescribably more devastating when the population involved has never before been exposed to the organism which causes the syndrome (Paul 17). Even measles, reaching the Pacific Islands for the first time, immediately killed 25% of the population (Styler 87). As Martin Delaney, Executive Director, Project Inform, points out:

The cause of AIDS was identified as a sexually transmissible virus only in 1984 and the first blood test for diagnosis became available in 1985. …

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