A decade ago, the connection between sex and death was virtually nonexistent. Hepatitis, syphilis, gonorrhea and herpes were perceived as the only true enemies of the sexually active, and they were easily treated, if not cured. Then came AIDS. The sexual revolution died along with that virus' first victim.

In the wake of the virus' identification came the hysteria. Now that the hysteria is slowly being replaced by acceptance comes the only cure available -- education. And even that -- as any person who has dived into the pools of "safe sex" information can tell you -- is confusing and many times conflicting.

Very conflicting. "Wet kissing is absolutely fine," said a Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC) AIDS hot line counselor based in New York recently. "We don't recommend it at all," said a Whitman-Walker hot line representative minutes later.

And sometimes very vague. "Acts of a distinct homosexual nature should be avoided to avoid the AIDS virus," said a widely distributed pamphlet about AIDS, leaving readers to wonder: What exactly is a distinctly homosexual act?

And often very controversial. "What in the hell," asked Patrick Merla, editor of the New York Native, "is {Secretary of Education} William Bennett doing talking about morality as opposed to education? Where in the hell did he get his health degree?" The Native is widely recognized as the first publication to promote safe-sex guidelines.

But the subject is as topical as it is gauzy. The AIDS hot line at the GMHC fields approximately 14,000 calls per month, compared to 7,000 per month the same time last year. Workshops at Whitman-Walker now are offered to combat misinformation surrounding safe-sex procedures. And the press has jumped on the education bandwagon. A safe-sex cover story and guide in The Village Voice, for example, made it that magazine's best-selling issue in 3 1/2 years.

"That figure," said Voice writer Robert Massa, the guide's author, "shows me that people in this country are absolutely desperate for information."

And for definites, which for now are unavailable. The first case of acquired immune deficiency syndrome was identified only in 1981, and a blood test to detect antibodies to the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is only 2 years old. "There is new literature going out all the time, new epidemiology papers on the topic of prevention being released constantly, and of course differing opinions, so people are going absolutely crazy," said Dr. Bruce Voeller, AIDS research scientist based in Topango, Calif. "Also, a lot of these people craving distinct information on what to do and what not to do are going overboard. They want a fail-safe prevention, a guarantee, and we're having to tell them there just isn't one."

Although all safe-sex experts agree no one practice -- homosexual or heterosexual -- could be called danger-free, they agree there is a hierarchy of danger. Sexual intercourse is cited as the act most likely to cause infection from AIDS or any other sexually transmitted disease, followed by fellatio and cunnilingus, followed by wet kissing. The hierarchy is almost always broken down further: "possibly safe" (oral sex), "probably safe" (kissing) and "not safe" (intercourse) categories. Exactly how much the danger varies apparently never has been measured.

The confusion as to what is safe and what is not in this age of AIDS often is linked with initial case reporting -- the question-and-answer banter between doctor and AIDS patient. Misinformation here many times runs rampant, according to Voeller, because of the stigma and shame attached to AIDS.

"A doctor will ask his patient about the probable route of transmission, and the guy will say he had committed only oral sex and no other sex act because he's scared or embarrassed, even though in actuality he frequently had anal intercourse. Then, the doctor can only report what he was told and that is where the cycle of bad information begins."

Because individuals often practice a variety of sexual activities, it is impossible to say for certain how the virus was transmitted in a particular case. For that reason, Voeller says, no activity -- even kissing -- can be exonerated. Still, the federal Centers for Disease Control report that there are no documented cases where the virus has been spread through kissing or oral sex.

So who to believe with your life on the line?

"Absolutely no one," says Raymond Jacobs, coordinator of AIDS prevention programs for the Gay Men's Health Crisis organization. "You can't approach anyone in this area of education and say 'Okay, now I'm counting on you, just tell me what to do.' With safer sex, you ingest the information we have at this time and then make a choice. And that choice is always very personal."

According to Jacobs, one of the biggest problems with this country's safe-sex campaign revolves around counselors and literature that glaze the information with a "How you can be safe" coating.

This upsets him, he said, "because the only way to stop this is through a 'How we can be safe' approach.'"

Massa agrees with Jacobs that many of the safe-sex guidelines available skip over some very important facts and perhaps play up other information rooted more in fear than reality. "You really can't win if you put a guideline together," he says, "because people have such definite ideas. You're either a conservative or a liberal and an alarmist."

Massa said the moral, medical and emotional questions that arise when putting together an educational article addressing two very emotional issues -- sex and death -- can be a difficult, sometimes devastating task. If people reading the guides are having problems understanding them, then so are those putting them together.

Massa said he is aware that portions of his guide could be called alarmist, but, he said, all education material dealing with AIDS has to be, to a degree. "It's a life-and-death situation," he said. "Even if there is a 1 percent chance that you could get it from some practice, you have to warn people, even if it's questionable."

The promotion of personal agendas at many of the nation's AIDS hot lines cannot be helped, according to Jerry Johnson, director of the GMHC's AIDS hot line, who said the blame is to be pinned on the U.S. government. "Why isn't it the job of the federal tax dollar?" asked Johnson. "Almost all the work in AIDS education now is being done by private agencies, with no specific set of guidelines to follow. We want guidelines, but we only have our own. And because of that, our counselors many times feel more at liberty to give personal responses."

That they do. Three calls to the GMHC asking the question "what are your agency's safe-sex guidelines?" brought three different approaches, if not responses. One counselor, a woman, methodically listed the agency's do's (touching, hugging, kissing) and don'ts (unprotected intercourse and oral sex). A second presented identical information, but in a far more clinical manner and with language largely unprintable. A personal aside from the man ("I doubt the durability of most condoms") was thrown in for good measure. A third call to the hot line brought a curt response from a male counselor: Use a condom.

Caller: "So that's it?"

Counselor: "What? Didn't you hear me the first time?"

That last counselor, said Johnson, was "probably having a bad day. We have people here who have AIDS and are working on the lines though they are desperately ill. Maybe that cranky counselor you were talking to had a bad morning of chemotherapy. We're not robots," he said. "My counselors get phone calls from people who have AIDS and are dying, from people who say their lover has died and the funeral home won't come to collect the body unless they pay $4,000 in cash up front. So if the answers are sometimes short, if they sometimes are political to an extent, then I say we're sorry, but that's life. With some hot lines you call and get a recording, but with us you get live responses."

George Swails, director of the Sunnye Sherman Aids Education Program at Whitman-Walker, said it would be wonderful if the country as a whole could develop a specific set of proven, safe-sex guidelines to follow. It would no doubt, he said, alleviate many worries and much fear.

But, he says, this will never happen. "It's just not possible," he said, "because the nature of us as a nation is that we are not monolithic. That, and it's unrealistic."

Voeller has a metaphoric theory about today's rules of sexual etiquette he prescribes with a dose of condolesences thrown in for good measure. It's a hypothesis that sums up the current sexual situation.

"Well," he says, "it comes down to this: Is it safer to walk across a remote country lane with one car coming at you, or is it safer to walk across Times Square during rush hour? The country lane represents kissing and oral sex, and Times Square would be anal and vaginal intercourse. The connection might be strange, I realize, but the point is not. What I'm saying is that because of the AIDS virus, there is now always a risk attached to sex. The question is just how much of one?"