(2008)3Tracie CooperTaking preventative measures against the contraction of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases is considered by society, regardless of one's sexual orientation, to have varying degrees of importance; on the more dramatic end, many see condoms as a barrier between life and death, and on the other, some consider them to be nothing more than a convenient, yet inconsequential, hygienic measure. In any case, the majority opinion is that having safe sex, like wearing a seatbelt in a vehicle, or a crash helmet on a motorcycle, is safer than the alternative. Yet, at the time that AIDS began to appear within the homosexual populations of urban communities -- L.A., Miami, and particularly New York City -- condoms were something heterosexuals used to prevent pregnancy. Why would they be used, then, in the gay hotspots of Times Square in the early '80s? Why, in the dawn of the gay rights movement, in the midst of a sexual revolution of sorts, would the urban gay community listen to a man who claimed that promiscuity was a key factor in the spreading of HIV -- especially if that man had made a substantial living as a sex worker?
This was exactly the position of Richard Berkowitz, the key contributor to director Daryl Wein's documentary Sex Positive. Toward the end of the film, Berkowitz -- an author, activist, ex-hustler, longtime HIV survivor, and one of the first pioneers in the promotion of safe sex -- laments that, in all the leaps and bounds made in gay rights throughout the decades, rarely does the community pat itself on the back for the millions of people who have been saved from AIDS by taking simple precautions against infection. These days, he says, it's all about the infection rate. Berkowitz was himself infected before HIV was isolated as the cause of AIDS (he does not know exactly when, or from whom he contracted the virus), and was consequently immersed in the hysteria generated by what was then viewed as a gay disease. Wein's use of footage from Berkowitz's old city haunts interspersed with anti-gay religious sentiment (a young Pat Buchanan is shown claiming that AIDS is God's response to homosexuality) provides a clear, visceral portrait of this hysteria -- of watching friends weaken and die of a disease that anyone could get at any time, and a media and government that seemed eager to place blame and reluctant to find a cure.
Chatty, charismatic, and conflicted, Berkowitz relates his fateful meeting with Dr. Joseph Sonnabend, a virologist who believed that AIDS wasn't the result of a single exposure, but the effect of a cumulative weakening of the immune system caused by other STDs, infections, and drug abuse. Though the vast majority of modern virologists agree that HIV is the sole cause of AIDS, the idea that AIDS may be brought about by a multitude of factors spurred Berkowitz (and eventually well-known musician and AIDS activist Michael Callen) to lead a highly publicized campaign stressing the importance of limiting one's exposure to the bodily fluids thought to increase risk of infection. This was received initially as a kind of betrayal -- as "sex negativity" akin to the anti-promiscuity sentiment of the Religious Right. Berkowitz's determination to introduce safe methods of sex into the bedrooms of the gay community was tumultuous, to say the least, and interview footage confirms that he is still tortured by the bumps in the road that he faced -- and at one point refused to face, to the consternation of all. The stronger message, however, is that Berkowitz, in retrospect, was and still is a pioneer of sex positivity: the notion that it is still OK to have sex, and lots of it, in the age of AIDS, as long as it's done safely. Berkowitz, and the film itself, are not perfect -- some moments feel haphazard and more than a little self-congratulatory -- but as AIDS documentaries go, Sex Positive is one of the more insightful and optimistic of the bunch. It's also poignantly relevant to today, as films like Louise Hogarth's The Gift (a documentary exploring the rare phenomenon of "bugchasing" [i.e., purposely contracting AIDS]), and The Other Side of AIDS, a key film in the AIDS denialist movement, reveal that stressing the importance of safe sex is still very much a needed message in the battle against HIV and AIDS.
Documentary filmmaker Daryl Wein explores the life and legacy of revolutionary gay S & M hustler-turned-AIDS activist Richard Berkowitz, whose noble efforts in promoting safe sex during the 1980s have been all but forgotten in the early years of the new millennium.