AIDS Awareness and the Safe Sex Revolution

AIDS Awareness and the Safe Sex Revolution
by Margo Cunningham

People were dying. Dying quickly, without a known cause, and with radio silence from some of the nation’s leading politicians. The outbreak of AIDs, and it’s devastation to the queer community in particular, called for an open discussion of safe sex as a means of survival for those at risk. Safe sex was no longer simply a way of avoiding pregnancy or ‘minor’ STDs but an essential aspect of the sexual experience. This movement toward discussing specific and all action inclusive sexual activity allowed for the expansion of sexuality studies and the documentation of queer history in general. Back in the 90s, a group called ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) created a Safer Sex Poster as an Montreal Project, written up by the Prostitutes’ Safe Sex Project of Toronto, with illustrations and design done by artists Rob Flack and Werner Arnold. The poster is a bilingual how-to for not only safe sex, but safe needle usage. It doesn’t assume certain ‘typical’ or ‘accepted’ sexual practices and it extremely extensive. For example, it doesn’t shy away from giving advice for safe ass-fucking and lists possible kinks that can or cannot transmit HIV. The poster itself draws you in with the creatively designed artistic emblems of both male and female genitalia that surround the border and appear on either side of the title. Dating this poster proved to be difficult but with no area code it can’t be after the 90s. With some more extensive research I honed in on ACT UP Montreal as being primarily associated with 1990-1993, with their documentary video on these years and the groups influence on the movement. Rob Flack, who designed the tattoo designs on the poster, created those specific illustrations in 1988 titled “My Love Beats a Tattoo”, and after some digging I’ve found the Prostitutes’ Safe Sex Project of Toronto time stamped as a reference for 1991, giving us our most likely date of 1991 for this poster.

Steven Maynard in his write up “The Burning, Wilful Evidence”: Lesbian/Gay History and Archival Research” discusses the history of sexuality studies in North America, particularly pertaining to that of of non-hetero relations. He notes particularly the need for documenting the history of human sexuality, despite some struggle with defining the archives and relaying their importance. So much of what is recorded and saved in archives that relate to sexuality, are rooted in scientific language and discussion. Ideas of sex and sexuality are kept almost exclusively linked to the physical biological attributes. Sexuality if often associated with a taboo or shameful topic in the American history. Since non-heterosexual relations were (and in many ways still are) considered on the fringe of sexual desire/acceptance, what is documented about sexuality excludes homosexual relations to a great extent. Based on artistic representations from thousands of years ago we know that queer relations are nothing new. Yet the documentation of queer history only really came about with the rise of the lesbian and gay history movement in the 1970s. Even with the rise of the movement, queer bodies were still excluded from spaces that were the producers of archived content. “What is important to note about this activity is the fact that it has been community-based. Given the exclusion of lesbian and gay history from universities and academic journals, and the conscious and unconscious suppression of lesbian/gay materials in mainstream archives, the sources and locations of gay history have, by necessity, emerged outside of these institutions” (Maynard, 196). Groups like ACT UP, on top of producing vital information for the community, also stood as an edition to the queer archives of personal documentation and the history of queer sexuality studies. Maynard believes that the 90s were a time when the lesbian/gay movement really came into its own and materials like this poster are evidence of that.

What is often lacking is any documentation on the different meanings we attach to sex, range of erotic preferences, various forms of sexual regulation and the ways in which sex is politicized. This poster, although coming across somewhat humorous with the detailing of tattoo genitalia, touches on all of the commonly absent aspects of sexual activity and is straight to the point when it comes to sexual knowledge. Even this language is something we don’t often experience, so much so that its forward language caught me and my classmates off guard as many of our own modern sexual educations lacked the in depth information provided in the text. The importance of extensive sexual description wasn’t simply due to a drive of sex positive inclusion, but driven especially by the need for a safe-sex answer for any situation and an understanding that those who deviated from common sex practices were not to be ignored (especially because the AIDs outbreak effected them the most). Groups like ACT UP Montreal made significant interventions at the Fifth International AIDS Conference in Montreal in 1989, fought for treatment access and funding, wrote and distributed explicit safer sex materials in French and English, established Parc de l’Espoir and engaged in some of the earliest organizing around women and AIDS. Their influx of safe sex information allowed for an increased discussion of sexual practices in general, the integration of other types of sexual encounters outside the realm of heteronormativity and allowed for the continuation of all sexual encounters on a significantly safer level. Groups like these established a base of resources that people affected by the disease today can benefit from. This was a major change and it helped not only people living with AIDS and HIV, but expanded the funding for treatment also helped a lot of other people facing various different health problems and emergencies in their lives. The outbreak of AIDs led to tragically increased visibility of the queer community that slowly sparked continued discussion of inclusive safe sex practices and the existence of queer history studies as a whole. Even if it is done with a hand drawn penis with wings.

Works Cited

Maynard, Steven. "" The Burning, Wilful Evidence": Lesbian/Gay History and Archival Research." Archivaria 33 (1991).

ACT-UP Montreal, “ACT-UP Montreal - "Safer Sex - ACT-UP Montreal",” AIDS Activist History Project,