Entertainment » Movies

Sex Positive

by Jim Duncan
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Jul 3, 2009
The two sides of a safer-sex activist
The two sides of a safer-sex activist  (Source:MIGHT and MAIN)

Although he was pegged as a self-loathing puritan for promoting condoms and speaking out against gay promiscuity in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, Richard Berkowitz, a gay journalist who co-wrote the world's first safe sex manual in 1983, was far from puritanical.

Moonlighting as an escort specializing in domination, his effectiveness as a spokesperson for healthy living was doomed once his detractors in the gay press got hold of that story. With all the earmarks of a political sex scandal drawn from today's headlines, Sex Positive, Daryl Wein's fascinating and strangely erotic documentary about a writer who was ostracized for speaking out of school, feels like deja vu at a time when many gay men are once again forgoing condoms.

Like last year's Gay Sex in the 70s, the film raunchily evokes the origins of safe sex through nostalgic footage of Marlboro men in Speedos and faded 501s. Heady sixteen-millimeter film clips of towel-clad bathhouse gods make it easy to see why Berkowitz and thousands of other men took to Manhattan's pre-AIDS gay sex scene like kids in a candy store. But when scores of those kids began dying of exotic illnesses in the early eighties, it became necessary for someone to set limits on the candy. With the help of his doctor and another gay activist, Berkowitz began writing articles about ways to "disrupt disease transmission."

"Safe sex began because of three people," he explains. "Dr. Joseph Sonnabend, who had the scientific background, Michael Callen, who was a beloved gay activist who gay men connected to when he spoke ... and me, because I had the health and the anger to make sure the writing got done."

The three men co-wrote a controversial safe sex manual in 1983, a year before the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) was discovered. Covering everything from condoms to water sports, their groundbreaking public health message, which now seems like a no-brainer, was conspicuously rejected by their target audience.

"Richard's arrival on the scene, and Michael's, was [like] cold water in the face," explains Larry Kramer in the film, co-founder of Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC) and author of Faggots. "Most people chose to ignore it."

Through interviews with Dr. Sonnabend and a number of activists and authors who've written extensively about AIDS, including Edmund White and Michelangelo Signoreli, we learn why a book meant to save lives was met with so much hostility in the gay community.

As it turns out, using condoms wasn't the only thing gay men found dubious. Like former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, Berkowitz's exhortations weren't always applied to himself. While working as an S&M escort in 1983, he had this to say about gay promiscuity during a CNN interview about AIDS:

"It's very difficult to talk about promiscuity because, as a gay man, I'm immediately accused of being sex negative, but ... I don't believe promiscuity is as liberating as I thought it was while I was being promiscuous."

Why the past tense? Was this a case of "give me chastity, give me continence, but not quite yet," or just plain hypocrisy? In any case, once word got out about Berkowitz's hustling, his credibility as a journalist and public health advocate was ruined.

The film delves into the personal and political ramifications of his sex work with humor and insight. Although he's coy at first, telling the director "I can't think of anything more unsexual than listening to some old fart talk about how he got his dick sucked in 1979," once he does get going, Berkowitz's commanding voice and concise way of talking about his sex life hint at the journalist and dominant top in him. For someone who's been described as "the Jerry Falwell of the gay community," he really knows his way around a sling.

It should be mentioned that the scenes dealing with hustling and his fascination with S&M are very explicit and not for the faint of heart. X-rated home movie clips and dozens of Polaroids of naked men in bondage gear from his personal archives paint a very different portrait of the man in a suit who once said no to gay promiscuity on CNN--and that's a good thing. Like the film's title suggests, Richard Berkowitz was never really the anti-sex loony he was purported to be. One wonders what might have been if his pioneering AIDS work hadn't been cut short.


  • , 2008-04-24 05:28:36

    I liked what Jim Duncan wrote about the new documentary (SEX POSITIVE) about my role in the invention of safe sex, but I’m not sure the fast-moving film is clear about my complicated journey through AIDS, hustling and safe sex, so I feel compelled to correct something Jim got wrong. Jim writes,

  • , 2008-04-24 09:00:33

    "Like former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, Berkowitz’s exhortations weren’t always applied to himself. While working as an S&M escort in 1983, he had this to say about gay promiscuity during a CNN interview about AIDS:"It’s very difficult to talk about promiscuity because, as a gay man, I’m immediately accused of being sex negative, but ... I don’t believe promiscuity is as liberating as I thought it was while I was being promiscuous."Why the past tense?"The reason, Jim, for the past tense is that, I became celibate for a period when guys I was having sex with began dying and no one knew why. It was during this period that I appeared on CNN. Soon after, I began to learn from my doctor, Joe Sonnabend, that there were ways to have sex safely, and 5 months later I co-authored the first safe sex guidelines and returned to sexual activity. I wasnt being hypocritical at all--the times were just changing and I along with them.

  • , 2008-04-30 13:41:03

    Thanks for clarifying. The sequencing of events was vague, and as you know, the film does not state conclusively that you were celibate at the time of the CNN interview. That’s unfortunate because I would have loved to say so in my review.Let’s hope no one else gets thrown off by the ambiguity.Best of Luck,Jim Duncan

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