edit: 3.23.09 After writing this entry, I got in touch with Richard Berkowitz — star of “Sex Positive” — and arranged an interview. You can read that interview by clicking here! end of edit
Last night at my sex-positive documentary film series, we screened the documentary “Sex Positive”, courtesy of Regent Releasing. I thought it went really well — we had at least 50 people, and again, just about half the audience stayed for the discussion!
Firstly: great film! I was so floored by it that I had to take a few minutes to gather my thoughts before I even could start talking during the discussion group.
“Sex Positive” tells the story of Richard Berkowitz — and how he was one of the first to spread the word about safe sex in America. Berkowitz, a talented writer, started out as a hot-blooded participant in the promiscuous gay bathhouse culture. When AIDS started decimating the gay community, Berkowitz was instrumental in teaching his community (and the world) about safe sex. As it became clear to some medical professionals that sexual promiscuity spread AIDS, Berkowitz tried to tell the world about their findings. But there was a huge backlash against him — because in those days, the promiscuous bathhouse culture was seen by many gay men as a huge part of identifying as gay and sex-positive … and anyone who argued against it, or tried to modify it, was therefore cast by many people as sex-negative.
As someone who grew up in the late eighties and nineties, it’s stunning for me to think about a time when safe sex was considered a sex-negative idea. Everyone in the subcultures I run in takes the idea of safe sex for granted … including just about everyone I’ve ever met in my age group (though maybe we should keep in mind that I was raised in liberal New York). Sure, we aren’t always perfect about practicing safe sex, but we take it for granted that we should be — and we all know exactly where we can go to get information on how to have safe sex. In fact, safe sex messages bombard us so thoroughly that we’re practically bored by them (another point highlighted by the documentary).
This was one of the earlier points that came up during the discussion group — a lot of the younger people in attendance were humbled to realize just how much we owe Richard Berkowitz. (And it was so cool to hear the perspectives of our older attendees, who were having sex through the 70s and 80s and could offer further commentary.) The documentary made it clear that the first safe sex initiatives did not come from the government, or from any well-funded bodies — they came from activists who poured out their hearts and received very little in return. In fact, the film asserts that Berkowitz wrote the very first safe sex pamphlet (it was titled “How To Have Sex In An Epidemic”) on his own typewriter at home — and he struggled to find someone who would print it, even within the gay community. The eventual printer published it only on the condition that certain scary medical theories be removed (no matter how true those theories might be).
In a way, I find Berkowitz’s story inspiring. I grew up in the midst of lots of great safe sex initiatives, so obviously his movement — the safe sex movement — has had a powerful and important effect! But of course, Berkowitz himself is now broke and largely forgotten, and safe sex education is under attack from any number of conservative social forces … as well as the ennui of a generation that doesn’t get just how good we’ve got it. So his story frightens as much as it inspires.
I think that there’s a sweet little pre-packaged idea of activism that it’s easy to fall into, today: you know, the one where you attend all the correct cordoned-off marches, and sign all the petitions, and never sacrifice anything or shock anyone. There’s nothing wrong with doing those things, of course, and there’s lots of things right. But it takes some real willingness to go the distance if you want to have a bigger effect. Yet all your passion and drive won’t protect you or even necessarily work, no matter how true or important your message is.
So, the film raises personal questions about how important certain messages can be — how important we find certain messages, and what we’re willing to sacrifice to promote them when we know the task could be (a) totally thankless and (b) an eventual failure, partially or completely.
And here’s another activist-type question, arguably harder, raised by Lisa during the discussion: Obviously, Berkowitz was somewhat silenced by his community because his criticism was perceived as an attack … but his criticism was also necessary and important and, in the end, lifesaving. So how do we ensure that our communities allow space for tough criticism? How do we make sure that we ourselves give a fair chance to messages that could require us, and our communities, to change — change in major, identity-threatening ways — but that could be so important?
God, I’ve written all this and I haven’t even described most of the discussion, or talked about half the notes I took during the film. I feel as though I’ve only covered the most facile points — I can just imagine the Onion headline: “Wide-eyed young American totally floored by the idea that activism can be hard.” I’ve just written about a few activism-related questions, and there are so many others.
For instance, I thought representations of sex work and BDSM in the film were interesting. Berkowitz expresses reservations about his one-time career as a professional BDSM dominant. It’s unclear how much he thinks sex work is a bad thing in general, but he doesn’t come across as very happy that he did it. He talks about his BDSM activities, and those of his clients, as arising from “self-loathing” and “insecurity” and negative cultural pressures on the gay community; it’s unclear how much he thinks BDSM in general arises from those things. As a BDSM advocate I feel very wary of such representations. I feel even warier of the way Berkowitz, at one point, smiles while recalling how he always made a point of doing the things his partners said they absolutely did not want him to do. Yikes!
(I am often interested in the way BDSM consent was negotiated in past times. The fact that Berkowitz specifically ignored some partners’ boundaries is obviously sketchy, to say the least. But I’ve heard people argue that the BDSM subculture didn’t have such clear-cut notions of exact consent and negotiation until feminists like Andrea Dworkin forced us to address those concerns. So I do wonder how unusual Berkowitz’s approach was, historically speaking, at the time when he lived. If anyone from the BDSM community who lived through that time would like to share some insights, I’d love to hear them.)
Still, it’s also worth noting that Berkowitz said some beautiful things about BDSM, how it made him feel, and how he connected to his BDSM partners. I wish I had written his statements down.
I’ve thought a bit about the way Berkowitz, in the documentary, discussed his coming-into-BDSM. He talked about how he didn’t initially think of himself as a BDSM type — but his partners convinced him that he was perfect for it, started giving him leather accoutrements and grooming him into a BDSM top. Berkowitz certainly describes liking BDSM play — again, there were some beautiful quotations in there — but he doesn’t seem to take a lot of ownership of BDSM as an identity. Which isn’t to say that everyone who does BDSM must own it as an identity! It just makes me wonder where he puts BDSM sexuality in his own self-conception.
The discussion group largely did not seem to feel that Berkowitz made a lot of moral judgments over the course of the film, and I think in the end I do agree … but I also wonder how much pride Berkowitz takes in the activities he once engaged in, and whether he would speak in favor of sex work advocacy or BDSM advocacy.
A fascinating character, Berkowitz!
In the end, I give “Sex Positive” five stars — I’m so glad we got to screen it as part of the series. Regent Releasing tells me that they’re not sure when or how the movie will be released for a wider audience, but if you want to keep track of that, you can always check their website (here it is again).
Our February 24th documentary will be “When Two Won’t Do” — made by a polyamorous filmmaker and her boyfriend, it covers all manner of consensual non-monogamy and will give us all a lot to think about in terms of love, fidelity and the ideal relationship. The screening is courtesy of Picture This Productions. See you there!