AIDS: Homophobic and Moralistic Images of 1980s Still Haunt Our View of HIV -- That Must Change
November 27, 2018
If we take into account the highly homophobic social context in which news of the condition first started circulating, then its cultural dimensions become all the more important. We must consider what AIDS meant to people in the 1980s and 1990s, and what HIV still means today, at a time when antiretroviral therapies are being used successfully to manage existing infections and prevent new ones.
Take, for instance, these 1987 public service announcements, produced in the US for the State Health Division of Oregon:
Turtledove Clemens for Oregon State Health Division, AIDS Public Service Announcements (1987)
Despite the fact that homosexual men had been one of the demographics most affected by the condition, these campaigns still refused to address homosexuals directly and communicate clearly to them ways in which homosexual sex could be made safer. Instead, they preferred to deal in visual metaphors and allusions aimed at an abstract general public.
Marked by a fear, on the part of the Thatcher and Reagan governments, that speaking directly to homosexuals could be seen as endorsing "deviant" homosexual behaviour, the often moralistic -- and publicly-funded -- health campaigns released during the peak of the Western AIDS crisis ignored the specific realities of those most affected by the epidemic.
Not only that, but health campaigns and news stories often played with metaphors that were not only deeply sexist and homophobic, but also inspired by the language of warfare. They also mostly chose to endorse celibacy or monogamy rather than educate people about risk-management and safer sex.
A Fatal Price
In Oregon's "Revolver" video, for example, promiscuity is posited as the ultimate cause of AIDS. Further, the penis is represented by a gun and the (infected) semen by killer bullets, associating HIV transmission, in most cases unintentional, with murder.
Or consider the image below. Published in the popular science magazine Discover, in December 1985, medical illustrations and considerations about human anatomy are used to portray the rectum as "vulnerable" and the vagina as "rugged ... designated to withstand the trauma of intercourse". As a result, the article concluded "AIDS ... is now -- and is likely to remain -- largely the fatal price one can pay for anal intercourse."
In the photos, which led activist group ACT UP New York to protest against the show, emaciated bodies of sick men are portrayed in a way that could be seen as objectifying them. In one image included in the show, the subject -- Donald Perham -- is depicted as an "AIDS body", deprived of individuality or agency, his whole existence violently reduced by the camera to the syndrome that would eventually kill him. The photograph tells us nothing about him apart from his name and the health condition that will eventually destroy him. He is portrayed as a living corpse.
A New Visual Vocabulary
Further, if AIDS became such a defining spectre haunting gay men during the 1980s and the early 1990s, we need to think about the ways in which gay masculinities and sexual practices are today being shaped and represented in the age of antiretroviral therapies.
That is, in part, the aim of my new research project, funded by a fellowship of the Arts and Humanities Research Council, which will look at contemporary representations of masculinity in "post-AIDS" gay pornography. The hope is that it will help us to understand the ways in which the AIDS crisis and its aftermath have impacted the lives, identities, and sexual practices of gay men, rather than just see it in terms of tombstones and grim reapers.
[Note from TheBody: This article was originally published by The Conversation on Nov. 27, 2018. We have cross-posted it with their permission.]
This article was provided by The Conversation.
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