The invention of safe sexPosted: November 23, 2009
*A collaboration for PFLAG for Families of Color & Allies in NYC / Latino PFLAG en Nueva York.
What’s over isn’t sex, just sex without responsibility.
Richard Berkowitz & Michael Callen, How to have sex in an epidemic: one approach.
I think we all know what safe sex is –and I hope I’m right when thinking that most of us practice it. Almost everyone in my generation began or will begin their sex life with a notion, even if very basic, of safe sex. The origin and importance of this concept since it appeared are not as popular though.
Richard Berkowitz is a writer, former hustler and activist in favor of LGBT rights and people living with HIV/AIDS. The invention of the concept of safe sex is attributed to him, along with Joseph Sonabend and Michael Callen. His contributions had not received the acknowledgement they deserved until recently, when Richard was the object of interest in the documentary Sex Positive. Thanks to the film, I got in touch with him and his book Stayin’ alive: the invention of safe sex, which includes a safe sex handbook that is considered the publication where this term was coined.
During the sixties and seventies there was a period of free love; popular culture incorporated sex as something natural and part of everyday life, the birth-control pill appeared, homosexual sex became increasingly less taboo, and its decriminalization took it to a more public realm –literally, as it was common to have sex at bars, clubs, parks, in alleys or on subway cars. The sexual revolution changed attitudes in the Western world towards sexuality, but the rise of AIDS in the eighties marked an attenuation of that and societies retook traditional values that were once displaced by the sexual revolution. Unfortunately, an entire generation saw thousands of friends and partners die victims of an epidemic for which nobody had the necessary information or condoms.
Among the main promoters of safe sex there have been promiscuous men, porn stars and sex workers. This may seem ironic, but it is actually pretty simple: if you are having sex with a lot of people, the smartest thing is to do it with precaution. In my opinion, the most plausible achievement of safe sex advocates has been to successfully spread the idea that safe sex is necessary, healthy, convenient, enjoyable… without satanizing sex or promiscuity. The handbook published by Berkowitz in 1983 is not a defense of abstinence, but a series of technical recommendations to avoid transmission through sexual relations, based on the multifactorial theory of AIDS in gay men.
Some governments undertook their role in this issue later than it would have been ideal, in spite of the need for them to lead health campaigns, implement public policies and spread information. Today it is frustrating to see that some parents, opinion leaders such as the pope, and even those in charge of public education programs do not recommend –and actually explicitly forbid– the use of condom.
For more information on the invention of safe sex: http://inventionofsafesex.blogspot.com