Healthy Desires: AIDS Activism and the Queer Transgressions of Safer Sex Videos

Monday, January 5, 2015: 11:00 AM
Midtown Suite (New York Hilton)
Karisa Butler-Wall, University of Minnesota Twin Cities
The outbreak of the AIDS crisis in the United States was a profoundly devastating and disorienting experience, precipitating a range of affective and political responses, from the overtly politicized tactics of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) to the development of support service organizations like the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. As AIDS activists developed their own tools for providing care to their communities, alternative media emerged as a central instrument for activists to challenge mainstream representations of AIDS and create their own forms of expertise.

This paper investigates erotic safer sex videos produced by U.S. queer AIDS activists in the 1980s and early 1990s as a unique form of interdisciplinary cultural production that blurred the boundaries between education and pornography, generating new promiscuous entanglements of bodies, knowledge, and desire. Whereas sex education campaigns have historically served to marginalize nonheteroreproductive sexual behavior as not only deviant but “unhealthy,” I argue that queer articulations of “safe” and pleasurable sex challenged this view, asserting a more inclusive vision of sexual health. Safer sex videos became not only a means to impart vital information about how to avoid infection, but also a site for reimagining the racial and gendered politics of sexuality and constructing queer fantasies of erotic conviviality.

As instructional videos that participated in a larger epidemiological imperative to contain contagion and target “risky” populations, however, these videos also represented the uneasy tensions at the intersection of queer activism and public health. In order to trace the queer transgressions of this unique form of cultural production, my paper engages in uninhibited dalliances across disciplines, combining media and cultural studies, queer theory, scholarly and popular accounts of AIDS activism, and histories of public health and sex education.

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