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Where's the Magic?
Sally Jenkins
November 25, 1991
To many women, Earvin Johnson's behavior was simply irresponsible
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November 25, 1991

Where's The Magic?

To many women, Earvin Johnson's behavior was simply irresponsible

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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.

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.

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