Working in the laboratory at the city's Sexually Transmitted Disease Control Clinic in Southeast Washington, Rosalie Turner noted the parasitic bacteria diplococci in a specimen taken from a patient.

"Not a happy situation," she said.

Under her microscope was a strain of gonorrhea, presumed to be penicillin-resistant, part of a wave of trauma-inducing, sexually transmitted diseases that has turned the District into a veritable microbiological battle ground.

"These things are growing new muscles every day," said Turner, who has been the clinic's chief medical officer for 19 years.

This was not like a scene from collegiate health clinics in the 1960s, when carefree students were reassured by hippie physicians that a shot of penicillin and a dab of herbal ointment would do the trick.

"The simple 'clap,' as you guys called it, was always a serious matter, in my view," Turner said. "But what we are seeing now is much, much worse."

The arrival of Valentine's Day, with its flowers, candy, champagne and lingerie, may temporarily obscure the dark side of sex, Turner said, but poor judgment exercised while intoxicated with "love talk" is one of the main reasons women end up infected.

"The girls who thought they were 'special,' or the 'only one,' or so 'safe' in their relationships that they didn't bother to use condoms are so sad to see," Turner said. "The pregnant women who end up passing syphilis, or AIDS, on to their fetuses are devastated."

Since 1985, syphilis among D.C. residents has quadrupled, reaching a rate that rivals the poorest Third World nations -- up by 186 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

The disease is believed to have exploded among low-income minorities because of cuts in health care and the increased practice of exchanging drugs for sex, federal epidemiologists say. Because of budget cuts, Turner's office of eight staff members can barely handle the stampede of up to 55 patients who line up at the front door of the clinic before it opens each day.

On some days, the clinic becomes so crowded that the doors must be closed within 15 minutes after opening.

There are similar situations in other urban areas across the country, leading national health experts to conclude that adequate staffing would cost two to three times the $70 million a year now spent on the problem by the federal government.

But while the syphilis infection rate among blacks has risen during the past five years to 122 cases per 100,000 people, it has dropped for whites to 2.6 per 100,000 -- a trend that does not appear to concern the Bush administration.

"This is a completely curable, treatable disease that we should have eradicated two decades ago," said epidemiologist Robert T. Folfs, of the Centers for Disease Control. "But we're not even close to having adequate resources for managing it in the 20 biggest cities in the U.S."

The federal government's cavalier attitude brings back memories of the Tuskegee syphilis experiments that the U.S. Public Health Service conducted in Alabama from 1932 to 1972. Hundreds of black men were led to believe that they were being treated for syphilis, when in fact they were only being observed to determine the effects of the disease.

The men were allowed to go blind, become crippled and die.

"More money would help," Turner said. "But in the meantime, we must do whatever we can to modifiy our behavior and counter the low self-esteem that contributes to self- destructive acts such as unsafe sex."

On the front lines of the District's battle, Turner sees casualties from a variety of economic lifestyles -- with and without histories of drug abuse -- who have one thing in common: irresponsible attitudes toward sex.

"They refuse to practice safe sex," she said.

The most troubling trend involves the infection of girls as young as 12, Turner said.

"I think it's because the female counterpart of an 18-year-old man is becoming more sophisticated in protecting herself and limiting her sex partners," she said. "They insist that the man use a condom, while the very young are naive, easier to convince to have sex and then talked out of using protection."

Reaching these girls must become a priority, Turner said. Although they have no business having sex, reality dictates that they at least get the message behind her clinic's Valentine's Day poster: Only when a man cares enough about himself to use a condom will he be capable of caring about someone else.