SEX IN AN EPIDEMIC is a pioneering documentary that explores the personal, political and structural challenges that have continually hampered the best efforts of HIV educators and community groups to curb HIV infection rates in the United States. It is a compelling history of the devastating early days of the epidemic in NYC, when men with “GRID” were a stigmatized population that died swiftly of a terrifying new disease.
Few concepts have had as great an impact on sexuality over the past 28 years as that of “safer sex.” Yet, as a concept, it is important to remember two things: first, safer sex had to be invented amidst an alarming lack of information that existed before the discovery of HIV in 1984; and second, safer sex as a concept had to be sold by the persistent and creative persuasion of community-based groups all across the country.
SEX IN AN EPIDEMIC unfolds in four chronological segments:
Rare Cancer – NYC 1981
It was impossible to say with medical certainty what was causing a “rare cancer” in gay men and how to prevent it. Publishing factually accurate sex recommendations was extraordinarily difficult in the atmosphere of fear and blame that pervaded the gay community. Yet, Dr Joseph Sonnabend and his patients, Michael Callen and Richard Berkowitz, write HOW TO HAVE SEX IN AN EPIDEMIC, the first book on safe sex.
To Promote and Encourage
In late 1984, HIV is identified as the cause of AIDS and a reliable test for the virus is developed. The first medical guidelines for the prevention of HIV transmission are written. Community based groups take these medical recommendations and develop a vernacular to market safer sex to their constituents. GMHC creates playful safer sex workshops and erotic videos such as Chance of a Lifetime to reach the community. Energized by the political message of Act Up, 800,000 lesbians and gay men march on Washington for equal rights on October 29, 1987. Two days later, Senator Jessie Helms attacks GMHC’s Safer Sex Comix on the Senate floor. His rant leads to the Helms Amendment prohibiting federal funding for any educational material that condones sodomy or the “homosexual life-style.” This amendment hampers efforts to educate gay and bisexual men at a critical juncture in the epidemic.
Funding for abstinence-based sex education started under the Reagan administration, but progressed rapidly under George W. Bush. Against the recommendation of his own Surgeon General and despite scientific evidence from the CDC citing the ineffectiveness of abstinence-only education, Bush repeatedly increased funding for these programs. This section explores the efforts by Americans from all walks of life to challenge government funding and promotion of abstinence-until-marriage based sex education.
Prevention Justice Approximately 60,000 Americans are newly diagnosed each year. Despite growing numbers of infection, particularly among African Americans, Latinos, and gay men, funding for evidenced based interventions has effectively decreased. In the face of government inaction, groups like Act Up Philadelphia and CHAMP have used AIDS activism to advocate for effective HIV-prevention programs that look at the structural inequalities driving up HIV infection rates in populations most affected.
Each segment speaks openly and honestly, with courage and hope, about the challenges of HIV prevention. SEX IN AN EPIDEMIC is a wakeup call for renewed engagement around prevention.