March 22, 2018 at 7:17 pm PDT | by Robert Williams
The lost art of safer-sex messaging

Long before a pill could protect you, Safer-Sex posters were a hallmark of early AIDS activism and shaped a generations response. (Images courtesy One Archives)

“Lost & Found: Safer Sex Activism,” on display now through June 24 at West Hollywood’s One Gallery, is a provocative exhibit of safer sex media from the 1980s and 1990s, examining 30 years of safer sex messaging represented through in-your-face posters, installations and video assembled by the ONE Archives Foundation. The objects show how activists, artists and health professionals tried to creatively communicate safer sex practices in a sex-positive fashion during the peak of the AIDS epidemic.

As you enter the gallery, a freestanding acrylic box containing thousands of used needles collected by Clean Needles Now pricks the observer and sets the tone of the small but forceful exhibition. A few feet away, visitors can watch an HIV-positive IV-drug user and prostitute discussing his preference to abstain from condom use, as he advocates for clean needle access, on 1990s archival footage of the APLA educational television show AIDS Vision.

Works never before publicly presented are included alongside some of the most iconic works of the AIDS crisis, such as Gran Fury’s Kissing Doesn’t Kill: Greed and Indifference Do. While some of the objects were produced for the mainstream public, others focus on specific ethnic and/or erotic communities. Many of the more explicit posters were intended for display in gay bars and bathhouses and use tongue-in-cheek expressions coupled with erotic images to communicate in a playful manner.

“In opposition to moralizing rhetoric that stigmatized sexuality, safer sex activists sought to affirm sexual expression and pleasure while promoting knowledge about ways to protect oneself,” reads a gallery label.

The exhibit purposely provokes viewers congruent to the intentions of the original messaging.

A few feet deeper into the exhibit, finds a collection of PSA videos, including a safer sex tutorial showing a woman using a vibrator to masturbate and a condom being placed on an erect penis.

A floor-to-ceiling, X-rated comic strip, originally published in the booklet Safer Sex Comix, is wallpapered to the back wall of the gallery. The comic booklet, produced by the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, was later used as propaganda by Senator Jesse Helms in his campaign to withhold federal funding from AIDS education programs.

“The comic books do not encourage and change [sic] any of the perverted behavior,” Helms said on the Senate floor. “I believe that if the American people saw these books, they would be on the verge of revolt.”

Jennifer Gregg, executive director of the One Archives Foundation, said the purpose of the exhibit is to educate communities of color and the younger generation about the importance of safer sex activism.

“Today the rates of infection in Los Angeles County are pretty dire — two in five black men, one in five Latino men, and one in 10 white men who sleep with men are infected,” Gregg said. “This exhibition is meant to educate the public about the lives that we lost, but also the resources and knowledge that we have gained over the last couple of decades.”

Located at 626 North Robertson Blvd. in the heart of West Hollywood, many visitors to the exhibit will enter as experts on the message being communicated — whether a contributor to the safer sex voice and/or the intended recipient of its messaging, then and now. Without viewing the exhibit, each person can judge the impact of these works and safer sex messaging by how HIV and AIDS has affected them personally. But only by viewing the exhibit, can we understand the remarkable energy and creativity employed to communicate the consequences of sex without shaming it.

Lost & Found is organized by the ONE Archives Foundation utilizing holdings from the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries, the largest LGBTQ archive in the world. It runs through June 24, 2018, with a second phase of the exhibit set to run in 2019.

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