The sexual freedom promulgated during the last two decades is undergoing serious reconsideration by many in the 1980s. A major reason is the growing epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) that can be life-threatening or permanently damaging to our health.

The STDs of most concern to the public are the deadly acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), the as-yet incurable herpes, and the potentially infertility-causing chlamydia. According to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, the District now ranks 10th in the number of reported AIDS cases with 284 of the national total of more than 15,000. Maryland is 11th with 229; Virginia is 14th with 177.

Sex is a powerful, natural instinctive drive capable of producing great pleasure or pain, great enjoyment or fear. Traditionally, our culture has produced paradoxical messages about sex, winking at men for pursuing "what comes naturally" while condemning women for doing the same.

For generations, women's concerns have focused on being respected in the morning, wondering if "he" would call again, and becoming pregnant. But now, just when both sexes were beginning to enjoy and benefit from their new-found freedom of expressing their sexuality, the rules are changing again.

Today, sexual behavior has become fraught both with psychological dangers and with the known medical complications of the various STDs. These dangers are coupled with myths about sex, people's lack of basic knowledge about how their bodies function sexually, personal insecurities and misunderstanding of the medical facts about these diseases.

As a practicing psychologist and sex therapist, I frequently see the effects of unresolved sexual anxieties. Those fears can wreak havoc on relationships and intimacy. What concerns me is that people's misunderstandings and feelings of helplessness in the face of baffling diseases can interfere with their relationships and intensify their fears.

No one can afford to ignore the STD epidemic; it has become increasingly evident our sexual behavior may endanger not only our own health but also that of others and cause irreparable harm to relationships. Regardless of one's marital status, sex, sexual preference or practices, many sexually active individuals are confronted with fears, anxieties and unresolved personal conflicts as they are forced to deal with these harmful and spreading sexually transmitted infections.

As a result, sexual etiquette rules are being rewritten as people attempt to cope with the situation. In particular, it is now acceptable for potential sexual partners to exchange information about their STD status.

Finding out whether your partner has an STD before engaging in sexual activity is vital to your health and, perhaps, may save your life. But how do you approach such a sensitive and personal subject? That is the quandary facing both sexes today, and there are no simple answers. Talking about sex is often anxiety-producing, and there's just no standard, tactful way to ask questions dealing with such a delicate issue.

Five extremely important points for everyone are:

*Practice safer sex by protecting yourself against contracting or spreading STDs by using condoms and spermicides.

*Know your partner before engaging in any sexual activity.

*Learn the facts about STDs, how they are transmitted and how to prevent infection.

*Communicate openly and honestly with your sexual partner.

*Practice monogamous sex or strictly limit your sexual partners.

Those who have an STD and are still infectious have a responsibility to inform potential sex partners. If you have had an STD but are no longer infectious, you may choose not to say anything until you feel comfortable about it or if it becomes necessary.

Timing is extremely important when asking someone if he or she is a carrier of an STD. Asking such a question on the first date is premature and might offend. Actually, it's a private concern and irrelevant unless you're getting ready to engage in sex.

Since many people are uncomfortable discussing sexual matters, you might use a news item about STDs to ease into any question relating to your date's sexual history.

Above all, when a partner asks you if you have an STD, be honest. It's difficult to tell if someone is lying -- and they may not be aware if they have or carry a disease. But if you have developed a trusting relationship with open communication, your chances of getting an honest answer are greatly enhanced.

While the medical world struggles to find cures and vaccines for AIDS and herpes, it is incumbent upon all sexually active adults to protect themselves and others by practicing responsible, safer sex and getting the facts about STDs. Parents must assume their responsibility in educating their children about sex and not wait until they "think" their child is becoming sexually active.

Safer sex practices and an accurately informed public will allow people to continue enjoying what comes naturally.