promiscuity teaser
promiscuity teaser

Sex in an Epidemic: Activists Differed on Responses to the Gay Community’s Promiscuity

In the first post of our “Fucking with Dignity” series, titled “Not Just Another Glory Hole,” we explored how the bathhouse functioned as a community space that city officials attacked during the early years of the HIV/AIDS crisis. We ended by noting how, during this vulnerable time of uncertainty and increasing deaths, some officials explicitly dehumanized, infantilized and abandoned gay men, creating a narrative of blame for our “undignified” behavior.

Not only did this narrative shape public health policy but it also seeped into arguments that gay men were having as a community. How were we going to fuck each other, much less love one another, without dying, without killing each other? If the sexual exploration that defined the post-Stonewall generation was grounded in promiscuity, then we had to confront whether promiscuity was the root of seemingly endless gay deaths.

In a now canonical essay titled “We Know Who We Are: Two Gay Men Declare War on Promiscuity,” published in a 1982 edition of The New York Native, Michael Callen and Richard Berkowitz call on gay men to account for their sexual behavior:

Those of us who have lived a life of excessive promiscuity on the urban gay circuit of bathhouses, backrooms, balconies, sex clubs, meat racks, and tearooms know who we are. We could continue to deny overwhelming evidence that the present health crisis is a direct result of the unprecedented promiscuity that has occurred since Stonewall, but such denial is killing us. Denial will continue to kill us until we begin the difficult task of changing the ways in which we have sex.

Callen and Berkowitz believed the reigning theory of the disease at the time, something called the multifactorial theory. The now-debunked idea held that by having multiple sex partners, gay men “overloaded our immune systems with common viruses and other sexually transmitted infections.” In so doing, “our lifestyle has created the present epidemic of AIDS.”

Consequently, the “obvious and immediate solution to the present crisis is the end of urban gay male promiscuity as we know it today.”

Charles Jurrist, a prominent dance critic for The New York Daily News, responded in the next issue of the Native with his “In Defense of Promiscuity.” Jurrist read Callen and Berkowitz as shaming the sexual practices so closely linked with hard-fought liberation: “They seem to be saying that anything other than monogamy or sex restricted to two or three ongoing, tightly controlled relationships constitutes promiscuity and ought to be avoided.” For Jurrist, Callen and Berkowitz shamed the transgressive possibilities gay men invented to fight dominant power.

promiscuity 2
Photo via Getty Images

But we read Callen and Berkowitz’s essay differently, precisely because they were concerned with how we might fuck each other without dying. Indeed, that desire motivated their famous pamphlet, How to Have Sex in an Epidemic: An Approach, self-published in 1983. They were less interested in shaming our sexual behavior and more interested in calling for us to care for one another as a community. And, perhaps the bathhouse could be one of those spaces where that care could take place.

While we might assess their initial efforts as conservative and failing to explore the importance of unlimited intimacy to our sexual selves (and Berkowitz himself has acknowledged this criticism), we must recognize that they were writing at a moment when very little was known about the disease, how it was spread, and how it could be combatted.

In fact, in the Native article, Callen and Berkowitz write, “We are not suggesting legislating an end to promiscuity. Ultimately, it may be more important to let people die in the pursuit of their own happiness than to limit personal freedom by regulating risk.” Instead, they urged regulation. Aware of the history of government raids of gay safer-spaces — such as bars and baths — Callen and Berkowitz favored community-led regulation over government imposition: “It would be preferable to avoid further governmental interventions. … [Instead] the gay community must take responsibility of providing its members with clear and unequivocal warnings about the health risks of promiscuity.”

Heeding this call, gay community organizations such as the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) began to produce educational materials that recommended safer-sex practices within the baths. By late 1983, activists in New York City — including Berkowitz, Callen, Keith Lawrence, Joseph Sonnabend, Roger Erlow and others — created a Committee on Safer Sex. That committee established a Subcommittee on Bars and Baths. Their meeting notes can be found in the Keith Lawrence Papers and the Joseph Sonnabend Papers held by The LGBT Community Center National History Archive in New York City. Those notes reveal efforts to establish these community responses.

At a December 1983 meeting, members discussed “education” and “effective behavior modification, not just bars and baths” in great detail. Emphasizing the fear of government intervention, the notes emphasize that actions to regulate the baths and promote safer sex must be seen as a gay community initiative. Otherwise, what “would be seen as govt [sic] intervention” would mean “political death” of this committee. Instead, it must be clear that this initiative is “gays helping gays.”

promiscuity poster

In a Jan. 14, 1984 memo, the Committee on Safer Sex identified six items for community education: (1) a bathhouse poster with pamphlets and phone numbers; (2) the same poster for “bookstores” and bars; (3) subway posters with the phone number of the subcommittee; (4) posters for public places such as post offices; (5) public service announcements on television and radio; and (6) pamphlets that answer basic questions like “What is the immune system?” and offer a glossary of AIDS terms.

The proposed mock-up for the poster embraced sex-positivity. In bold letters, it proclaimed, “Sex Is Wonderful!” and then below, it warned “But Don’t Let AIDS Kill You!” It also offered a set of high-risk activities to be avoided: “Don’t Rum, Don’t Let Him Come in Your Ass. Make Sure You Don’t Come in His. Don’t Come in His Mouth, and Don’t Let Him Come in Yours.”

This idea became the famous “Great Sex is Healthy Sex” poster. It depicts two men who could just as easily be in a gym locker room as in a bathhouse. It dropped the proposed “AIDS will kill you” and instead embraced healthy sexuality. The poster promoted low-risk acts, noting “Jacking off is hot and safe.” Importantly, it added, “Affection is our best protection,” reminding us of how we must take care of one another and that sex is more than individual pleasure. Overall, the poster affirmed the importance of community and connection among gay men.

In our next post, we will take you into the archives to explore community efforts at education in and regulation of the bathhouses.

Stephen M. Engel is Professor and Chair of Politics at Bates College and is the author of Fragmented Citizens: The Changing Landscape of Gay and Lesbian Lives. Timothy S. Lyle is Assistant Professor of English at Iona College, and is most recently the author of “Tryin’ to Scrub that Death Pussy Clean Again: The Pleasures of Domesticating HIV/AIDS in Pearl Cleage’s Fiction.”

This is the second of an ongoing series entitled “Fucking with Dignity: Sexuality, Politics and the Queer Past.”

Featured image of Castro Street in the 1970s by Crawford Barton

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