As a TV character, Sgt. Christine Cagney of CBS' landmark female cop show "Cagney & Lacey" is in serious trouble: She's a sexually active single person in the age of AIDS who doesn't seem too concerned about practicing safe sex.

And she's part of a larger problem facing almost every writer, director and producer in the film and television industry -- how to depict sex, sensuality and romantic relationships at a time when incautious intimate contact is potentially deadly.

"For the first time in the history of the show, I am stymied," says Barney Rosenzweig, executive producer of the celebrated series that has examined such themes as abortion, incest, apartheid, breast cancer and alcoholism. "As a filmmaker, I feel I have a responsibility to have a clear point of view. But I am confused. We do not know a whole lot about this disease yet.

"In the past, we went out of our way to portray Cagney as a sexually liberated woman. It became clear to us about eight to 10 months ago that we were sending an improper or irresponsible message to the public. But we didn't know what to do about it. We didn't want to create any more of the homophobic hysteria that already exists."

The plan now, says Rosenzweig, is for Cagney to "practice abstinence for the first half of {next} season, which is not really a practical message." Then she'll have her first "blue-collar relationship" with a maintenance man that will reflect her gradual awareness of the dangers of unsafe sex, and a change in her romantic life style. But it's giving the writers and producers fits.

Says Rosenzweig: "We're still struggling with it. I'm not very proud of our leadership in this area."

The safe-sex issue has exploded in Hollywood like a time bomb that had an inexplicably long fuse. Recent feature films heavily dosed with casual sex and hothouse sensuality -- "Body Heat," "Crimes of Passion," "9 1/2 Weeks," "About Last Night," "Blue Velvet," "Angel Heart," the "Porky's" series, to name a few -- now seem like period pieces made in a time when there were different rules. And TV programmers are feeling more than ever the burden of social responsibility in a medium that reaches more than 200 million viewers in the United States alone.

The reality of acquired immune deficiency syndrome is raising questions in production offices about taste, social responsibility versus artistic freedom, the delicate balance between caution and panic and the long-term psychological effects of a new restrictiveness -- even the possibility that the AIDS crisis for the general population has been exaggerated, as a backlash contingency claims.

But the bottom line among film and TV people now seems to be: Unsafe sex is taboo. Or, at the very least, a troubling creative and commercial concern.

"Absolutely," says Susan Merzbach, president of Sally Field's Fogwood Films. "Every writer I've talked to, if the story involves free sexuality, you can't ignore it."

Merzbach tells of a Fogwood project in development for HBO called "Bridal Shower," in which five women discuss their lives; as originally written, one talks blithely of an affair. "We realized we'd better take consideration of this -- the dangers of their sexuality," Merzbach says. "It was something we hadn't considered six months ago.

"You don't want to do a lecture series {on safe sex}, but you can't ignore it. It's the new rule."

Already well publicized are the condom scene inserted into "Dragnet" (Tom Hanks, in bed with his girl, finds the condom box empty and the action cuts to the next day) and a newly monogamous James Bond in the "The Living Daylights." Also revealed: a title change for Warner Bros.' "Dying for Love" to "Masquerade" because of public sensitivity to AIDS, and the addition of a condom in a love scene between stars Rob Lowe and Meg Tilly.

Further examples of the media's growing AIDS awareness are not hard to find:

In writer-director David Seltzer's original script for Columbia's upcoming "Punchline," Sally Field and Tom Hanks fell into bed on the first date. It was shot that way. But "it will probably not end up in the picture," Seltzer says. "There's been a lot of talk and consideration here on whether it's a responsible thing to put on screen."

One of the four young women characters on NBC's "Facts of Life" "will have her first sexual encounter this season, in a positive way," says executive producer Irma Kalish. "We do plan to make a responsible statement about safe sex, even getting into protection. And we're likely to do an AIDS story if we find the right approach."

ABC, the network probably best known for sexually oriented TV movies dealing with extramarital affairs, housewife hookers, et al., is changing its image. "My own proclivity is to not make those kinds of movies, notwithstanding the current health problem," says Ted Harbert, ABC's vice president for motion pictures. "You're seeing less of them already. But does the current health crisis influence that? Sure."

A source who has read the script of 20th Century Fox's recently wrapped "Less Than Zero" reports that it is a "much more moralistic story now" than the source novel by Bret Easton Ellis, "which had no morals." Gone is the random and rampant sex, including teen-age bisexuality and homosexual prostitution. The lead character of Clay (Andrew McCarthy in the film), morally directionless in the book, is now "something of a hero trying to save his friend from drugs."

For a scene in "Glory Days," a teen film recently completed in Seattle, director Martha Coolidge ("Valley Girl") employed several hundred eager teen-age extras. But she had to search hard to find two for a simple boy-girl kissing scene, so great was the general fear of acquiring AIDS from a stranger (even though there is no medical evidence linking kissing to AIDS transmission). Coolidge finally found a couple going steady who were willing to touch lips for the camera. She's also reshot a scene with a humorous reference to a sexual act now associated with high-risk sex because "it looked fine on the written page, but when we saw it in the dailies, we were all appalled."

Producer Steve Tisch says flatly that his biggest hit, the landmark teen film "Risky Business" (1983), "could not and should not be made in 1987." The movie about an enterprising boy using his parents' house as a brothel "did not even address the realities of AIDS. I'd feel irresponsible {today} making a film aimed at teen-agers, as 'Risky Business' was, that introduces them to the world of call girls and casual sex."

At least one director, Penelope Spheeris ("Suburbia," "The Decline of Civilization") -- while bemoaning the AIDS epidemic -- found some creative relief from its impact. "Everyone is at a loss to say anything positive about AIDS," Spheeris says. "But at least now directors won't have to shoot gratuitous sex scenes. I'm personally uncomfortable shooting them, or even having to watch them. I've always felt that way."

Her new film, "Dudes," due out this fall from New Century Vista, tells of three New York City punkers headed for California who become entangled in an Old West adventure. In a love scene between Jon Cryer and Catherine Mary Stewart, says Spheeris, "I shot it so they did the dialogue, kissed, and I cut away so audiences could assume the rest.

If she were making the film today, "I'd shoot it so they didn't even kiss. I wouldn't ask an actor to kiss another actor, even though they say you can't get AIDS from kissing."

That kind of reaction triggers near-belief in writer-director William Richert ("Winter Kills"). Among those interviewed, he stands pretty much alone.

"I'm living my life ignoring it {AIDS}, and I'm making my films the same way," he says, his words occasionally sliced with dark laughter. "They took smoking out of movies. Now are they going to get rid of kissing and sex? Men and women have enough trouble getting together without {worrying about} this. What will happen to instinct?"

In his new picture, "Jimmy Reardon," to be released by Island Pictures later this summer, Richert will take his audience back to a more innocent time. Starring River Phoenix and based on Richert's 1967 novel of the same title, the film revolves around "a day in the life of a kid, 17, who's loaded with hormones. Basically, he follows his instincts but eventually learns that's not necessarily best. But he certainly has fun."

Richert added, "Mercifully, it was written and set in 1962. It's a historical piece. The movie has no AIDS consciousness whatsoever."

Richert questions the statistics flooding from the media, some of which project AIDS-related deaths in the tens of millions worldwide by the end of the century. He also suspects that fear of AIDS is partly hysteria in an era when right-wing politics and religious fundamentalism have flourished. "I don't want to be glib about it," he says, "but aren't there more important things, like war, to worry about?"

Not to Molly Ringwald, according to her publicist, who said the young actress is "very concerned" about the AIDS problem in relation to the roles she takes. In the case of Ringwald's upcoming film, "The Pickup Artist" from 20th Century Fox, heavy rewriting transformed her character from promiscuous in early drafts to "quite the opposite" now, according to producer David MacLeod. The story revolves around an insecure, compulsive and unsuccessful womanizer (Robert Downey Jr.) who more than meets his match in Ringwald.

"We had an ongoing discussion since we began shooting the picture {last summer} in New York," says MacLeod. "As our awareness grew, particularly in New York, where so many were affected, we started making changes. It was written and rewritten in the context {of AIDS}, though there's nothing specific about that. As the script evolved, she's no longer promiscuous. And by the end of the story, it's clear that they're going to attempt a serious relationship together."

What does all this mean for artistic freedom in Hollywood, not to mention that time-honored staple, screen romance? To some, it portends a return to pre-'60s morality and sexual repressiveness.

"I don't live in fear and I won't let anyone force me into portraying fear," Richert says defiantly. "Movies can be art, and that transcends a whole lot of stuff. There are already enough cautions in too many heads about what you can and cannot do in films. If this is going to be the new censorship, then AIDS has doubly hurt us."

Screen writer Barry Sandler (who wrote the landmark gay romance "Making Love") says: "We've already been operating to some extent in a repressive shadow the past couple years with these raging hypocrites like Edwin Meese and the pornography commission looking over our shoulders. Now, with AIDS, it will certainly shift things in another direction on screen."

But: "I think romance will be unaffected. My sense is, you'll have to go back to the spirit of the '40s and '50s -- a clutch and a fade-out and you assume he's putting on his condom." Sandler laughs. "You just don't see it!

"Sex is alive and well. It just has to be cautionary sex."

Tisch concedes, "I've made films with gratuitous violence and sex. But this is a much bigger issue. We have to use our filmmaking power to show kids that lives are at stake. If you deal with it responsibly, lives will be saved. If you deal with it irresponsibly, lives will be lost."

Like several filmmakers, Spheeris mentions "Last Tango in Paris" as an exception ("It's a shame that films like that one can't be done anymore"). But as a director, she says, "if I had a script that depended on {sexual} scenes, I'd turn it down. I couldn't in good conscience do it."

"It's a very complex issue," says producer MacLeod. "To think that you can get around the problem with an insert of a condom coming out of a pocket is simplistic. It's much more complex than that. It's going to give rise to a whole different attitude."

Many in the American heartland may not be as sensitized to the crisis as those who live in the major urban centers, MacLeod guesses, but in time they will be. "It's like the early years of the Vietnam war. When sons and brothers and buddies down the street started dying, people started to be troubled by it. It's the same with AIDS.

"More and more of us will be troubled in some way, and attitudes will change." John M. Wilson is a Los Angles-based free-lance journalist and screen writer.