By the time I graduated from high school in 1985, “safe sex” was all the rage among sexually active men and women, homosexual and heterosexual alike, as the primary form of protection against HIV/AIDS. I was too young and uninformed then to know that it had taken the controversial efforts of several people to bring safe sex to the forefront of my and others’ consciousness.
An enlightening new documentary, Sex Positive, is coming to theaters this June from Regent Releasing. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at last year’s Outfest, it uncovers the little-known story and real-life figures behind the philosophical development and subsequent practice of safe sex.
Richard Berkowitz was a young, newly-out gay man involved in the underground S&M scene when the mysterious, deadly epidemic that would become known as AIDS hit New York City hard in the early 1980’s. After watching dozens of friends die in a matter of months, Berkowitz became hell-bent on discovering how to protect himself as well as others.
Berkowitz’s initial attempts at self-defense while remaining sexually active came too late to prevent him from becoming infected. However, his research and growing activism led him to virologist Dr. Joseph Sonnabend and popular musician-activist Michael Callen. The three would become an outspoken team in mid-80’s gay circles, inspiring equal parts appreciation and condemnation.
Sonnabend discovered that gay men with AIDS had sexual histories overwhelmingly characterized by multiple partners and prior diagnoses with other sexually transmitted diseases. Initially, Sonnabend thought his subjects’ promiscuity directly weakened their immune systems to the point that AIDS was the natural result. Berkowitz and Callen became convinced by the doctor’s arguments and began to speak out at gay pride events and in the media against promiscuous sexual activity. They also co-published a 1983 booklet, How to Have Sex in an Epidemic, that is regarded as the first safe-sex treatise.
As Sex Positive reveals, both through vintage news footage and new interviews, the virologist and his two disciples (the Jewish Berkowitz even refers to Sonnabend on-camera as “my personal Moses”) were quickly labeled “the Jerry Falwells of the gay community” for challenging their contemporaries on their risky sexual behavior. The trio’s speaking out against homosexual promiscuity and advocating the use of condoms was regarded by many gay leaders as a betrayal of much of what the community had fought for up to that point. Gay activist-playwright Larry Kramer became one of their most vociferous opponents.
The film’s director, Daryl Wein, has spoken of what motivated him to make Sex Positive. “Both in government and the gay population, the widespread silence during the early years of the AIDS crisis is absolutely shocking,” Wein said. “People my age were not born of the era in which the crisis of AIDS forced behavioral change … I feel it is my duty to challenge the complacency of my generation by instilling the values of those forgotten heroes.”
The “behavioral change” of safe sex remains controversial in some GLBT circles today. The more recent proliferation of adult videos depicting unprotected, “bareback” sex can be regarded as a direct repudiation of safe-sex practices. As a result, we shouldn’t be surprised that HIV-infection rates among gay teens and young adults in the US nearly doubled between 2001 and 2006. Yet many sexually active adults remain committed to safe sex 25 years after the term was coined.
As the movie goes on, it focuses primarily on Berkowitz, who, along with Sonnabend, is still living (Callen died of AIDS-related complications in 1993). Berkowitz is a compelling, well-spoken subject, but Sex Positive grows increasingly one-sided in allowing him and his reflections to take center stage. I would have liked to hear and see more of Sonnabend and more about Callen. Perhaps because he isn’t around to assert himself, Callen and his significant contributions — educational, political and musical — end up being pushed to the side.
But Sex Positive is definitely worth seeing, if for no other reason than the filmmakers’ willingness to shine a spotlight on the unsung yet enduring achievement of Berkowitz, Callen and Sonnabend. After all, a lot of us literally owe our lives to them.
UPDATE: Sex Positive is now available on DVD from Amazon.com.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.