SEX POSITIVE: A Review
“Sex Positive”, the fascinating new documentary by Daryl Wein, focuses on the story of New York HIV/AIDS author and activist Richard Berkowitz. Berkowitz, now 51 and still living in New York City, never achieved the recognition that he deserved for his efforts (in distinction, for example, to his friend, the late musician Michael Callen). Yet, as the audience learns, he is a true unsung hero for his work to promote safer sex at a time when even the term “safe sex” itself was ill-defined and something of a novelty. (As one interviewee in the film stated, the idea of gay men using condoms in the early 80’s was “ludicrous”.) In the very beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, AIDS doctor and virologist Dr. Joseph Sonnabend hypothesized that the new disease which affected gay men was caused not just by a virus alone, but by multiple factors. One of them likely included having many sex partners. Richard Berkowitz and Michael Callen, who were very immersed in the wild side of New York City’s gay male culture at that time, agreed with this theory. They set out to spread the message about using condoms and reducing possible risky behaviors. In 1983, Berkowitz wrote and published a 40-page, gay male-oriented safe sex manifesto named “How to Have Sex in an Epidemic: One Approach”, which has been hailed as one of the earliest safe sex guides for gay men, and which became a template of sorts for future safe sex materials ever since. Interestingly, the views of Sonnabend, Callen, and Berkowitz were not looked upon positively by everyone; on the contrary, they were branded by many members of the community as being “sex negative” and judgemental. Berkowitz, because of his past as a hustler, was particularly judged harshly as a hypocrite. This was largely because gay male promiscuity, in many circles, was viewed as a positive thing, and the mentality was, ” Wouldn’t changing our lifestyles impede upon our freedoms?” The vilification of these three men by many vocal gay New Yorkers may seem dismissible or even amusing today, but it was very real at the time. As the movie tells the story of Berkowitz’ life, the audience also gets a reminder of the atmosphere of fear and lack of information that existed in the early, darkest days of the new disease, with the double whammy of (1) lack of information, and (2) the stigma attached to the disease. For example, through archived TV segments, one talking head calls for quarantining those with the virus, and we also get to see the late Jerry Falwell’s notorious statements which pretty much called AIDS a death penalty from God. The grainy archival TV news footage is combined with new commentary from HIV activists/experts ranging from as playwright Larry Kramer, Founder of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, to Krishna Stone, Assistant Director of Community Relations at GMHC today. Berkowitz himself proves to be an interesting subject: The movie explores his growing up in a middle class, liberal, Jewish household (The scenes of his mother, Dotty, are priceless.); to his early venture into gay activism (at college); and his move to New York City, where he embraced the Big Apple’s new, exploding gay male hedonistic subculture in a big way. At that time, gay liberation was largely defined as enjoying complete, unrestricted sexual freedom. Young, handsome, and free-spirited, Berkowitz found a lot of work as a dominant S&M hustler. After being diagnosed as HIV positive in 1985, he became an activist and continued writing, most notably the 2003 book “Stayin’ Alive: The Invention of Safe Sex”— which was Daryl Wein’s inspiration to make this movie. Today, Berkowitz lives in the same rent-controlled apartment where he plied his trade decades ago, and he describes himself as “all alone and broke”. Though he wears his years on his face, he is still articulate and charismatic.
“Sex Positive” makes its biggest impact on the viewer when Wein shows us rare vintage footage, like an ’80’s NYC public access cable TV show featuring Michael Callen and Berkowitz discussing safe sex, or a close up of a gay classified ad in a newspaper in which Berkowitz advertised his sex services (Considering how the Internet has pretty much taken over the way gay men “hook up”, it seems pretty quaint in 2009…). Wein also gets a lot of mileage from his new footage. He showcases the views of a wide range HIV activists and experts, such as adult film producer/actor Michael Lucas, who promotes safe sex; and activist Sean O. Straub, founder of “Poz” Magazine. We also hear from those who have survived those heady times to be able to tell their story, such as one of Michael Callen’s former boyfriends. Even as the film gives the audience some grim statistics about the disease in 2009, and as taxing as the fight against HIV/AIDS has been for all of us, Berkowitz himself seems to be satisfied at least on some level with his achievements. He rightfully acknowledges that his activism likely saved a lot of people’s lives, and/or improved the quality of a lot of lives. “Sex Positive” is a film about the early days of the AIDS epidemic, so to state the obvious, it’s a not a “feel good” film. But it’s truly moving, mesmerizing, and as educational as it is provocative. The movie will likely open a Pandora’s box of emotions for those who were living in New York City in that era. For those too young to remember, it promises to be a real eye-opener: a reminder of much things have changed, but also how little things have changed as well. The politics of AIDS and safer sex remain just as controversial as ever. But regardless of your generation or viewpoints, “Sex Positive” is mandatory viewing for anyone seriously interested in all aspects of queer history.
Sex Positive won the “Grand Jury Prize” at L.A.’s Outfest. Visit www.SexPositivethemovie.com for more info.