Sexual Pleasure, AIDS, and Gay Politics

by Dan Royles

In 2012, the FDA approved Truvada, a popular antiretroviral drug, for use by HIV-negative people to prevent infection. The use of Truvada for HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, has been controversial. Veteran AIDS activist Larry Kramer has called HIV-negative gay men who elect to take the drug “cowardly.” Some gay men on PrEP have pushed back against such criticism by reclaiming the slur “Truvada whore.” This debate harkens back to conflicts within the gay community during the early days of the AIDS epidemic when gay men argued over how to reconcile the sexual openness of the 1970s with the growing danger of a deadly disease that appeared to be linked to gay men’s sexual practices.

One in a series of posters produced by the Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum and the National Task Force on AIDS Prevention to encourage safer sex among Black gay men. (Source: University of Rochester, Rare Books and Special Collections)

Although AIDS did not signal the end of sexual liberation, the epidemic did change the meaning of sex for many gay men, mixing potent feelings of fear with otherwise pleasurable acts. In Tim Murphy’s recent piece on PrEP for New York Magazine, Sarit Gloub, a psychology professor at Hunter College, described her research findings that half of gay men think about HIV most or all of the time during sex.  This fear is in part a result of the very “sex-positive” programs that gay men’s groups developed in the 1980s, which eroticized safer sex for gay men but also represented sexual contact between men as dangerous.

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The Yellow Star and the Pink Triangle: Judaism and Gay Rights in the 1970s

By Gillian Frank

Homosexuals cannot reproduce—so they must recruit, and to freshen their ranks, they must recruit the youth of America.

- Anita Bryant

Anita Bryant at a Soviet Jewry march in Miami on May 22, 1977. Photographer: Pauline Lubens/Miami Herald Staff.

In 1977, Anita Bryant became the face of a right wing religious coalition, Save Our Children (SOC). SOC, which was based in Dade County Florida, enshrined into national conservative politics the idea that homosexuals should not be given equal rights because they are a threat to children. Historians frequently use Anita Bryant’s anti-gay campaign as shorthand for the growing importance of conservative Evangelical voters, the rise of the Religious Right and the concurrent ascent of anti-gay politics. Little attention has been given to how the struggle over gay rights evolved within the context of Dade County’s large and politically active Jewish community.

Analyzing Jewish responses to a gay civil rights law in 1977 enriches historians’ understanding of Jews’ varied relationship with both conservatism and liberalism. In 1977, Jews comprised approximately 15% of Dade County’s population and were an important voting bloc. Both pro- and anti-gay activists sought to appeal to Jewish voters, and did so respectively by invoking the legacy of the Holocaust or longstanding Jewish fears of demographic decline. These appeals created divides within and between denominations. Although a significant number of Jewish voters opposed gay rights in 1977 and bolstered a nascent conservative religious coalition, many more expanded their definition of liberalism to include sexual politics.

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The Bishop’s New Stockings, or The Dangers of Love Magic

By Katherine Harvey

At some point in the first half of the eleventh century, Archbishop Poppo of Trier (1016-1047) decided to commission a new pair of pontifical stockings. He sent some material to a young canoness who belonged to a nearby religious house; shortly afterwards, he received his new footwear, and decided to try them on. The stockings were almost perfect, but they had one major flaw.

Miniature of a bishop standing on a devil.  (British Library: Egerton 859   f. 22)

Miniature of a bishop standing on a devil. (British Library: Egerton 859 f. 22)

According to the chronicler who recorded the incident, the canoness ‘desiring to have [the wearer] partake of her lewdness, poisoned them with what kind of magic art I do not know’. Consequently, when Poppo put the stockings on, he was overcome with lust for the woman, and felt that his life would not be worth living if he could not have sex with her. Taking them off, he called over one of his priests, and told him to put the stockings on. The priest did so, then immediately took them off, exchanging a look with the bishop but saying nothing. A whole succession of clerics donned the stockings, and all ‘suffered similar things.’ Finally, a prefect of the city arrived, and the bishop ordered him to try on the stockings. Furiously, the layman declared that he had been bewitched, and demanded an explanation. Poppo revealed the perpetrator of this evil deed, and the clergy unanimously condemned this outrageous attack on their church.

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“What a Woman Is”: Breast Cancer, Sexuality and the Unreconstructed Self

By Agnes Arnold-Forster

The manifesto of Monokini 2.0, a social art project centred on swimwear designed for women who have had a mastectomy, advocates,

We think that the current focus on a breast-reconstruction after mastectomy as the only way to a full life, is a breast-fixated way of seeing what a woman is…We want to incite a positive self-image of breast-operated women by showing that you can be whole, beautiful and sexy even with just one breast or with no breasts at all. (Monokini 2.0)

Breasts are fundamental to our collective understanding of female sexuality. This association has profound implications for the way cancer of the breast is perceived, responded to and dealt with by the media, the public and by medical professionals. This “breast-fixated way of seeing what a woman is” has resulted in the sexualisation of breast cancer awareness campaigns that reflect the old adage that sex sells. The Save the Ta-Tas campaign in the United States produces t-shirts that proclaim, “caught you lookin’ at my ta-tas” and “I love my big ta-tas.” Toronto’s annual Boobyball party to benefit the charity Rethink Breast Cancer produced a public service announcement that insisted, “You know you like them/now it’s time to save the boobs.”  The message is clear: breast cancer is worth paying attention to because the disease and its treatment reduce women’s desirability and prevent male access to the female body. Viral video campaigns may be unique to our own age, but the feminine and sexual context of breast cancer care, treatment and culture is not new.

Thomas Eakins, The Agnew Clinic, 1889

Figure 1: Thomas Eakins, The Agnew Clinic, 1889, Oil on canvas, 189.2x 330.8 cm (74 x 130 in.) University of Pennsylvania Medical School, Philadelphia, Gift of Three Undergraduate Medical Classes.

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Cunnilingus in the Middle Ages and the Problem of Understanding Past Sex Lives

By  Tom O’Donnell

In order to conjure up the sexual practices of our forebears we have to bridge gaps. Gaps in language, time and ways of thinking. In order to write a history of medieval sexuality we need to know what that sexuality consisted of. It is hard enough to mentally recreate the sex lives of our friends from idle gossip when we know the euphemisms, the forms of reference, what is on the sexual menu and what is thought permissible. But for medieval sex lives we have to work creatively with our sources to understand what people were doing with one another. And there is a constant challenge with the written sources.

Mouth of Hell, Meester van Katharina van Kleef, c. 1440

Mouth of Hell, Meester van Katharina van Kleef, c. 1440 (Wikimedia Commons)

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Heterosexuality in America: Fifty Years and Counting

By Marc Stein

This month, the GLBT History Museum in San Francisco is marking the fiftieth anniversary of LIFE magazine’s influential photographic essay “Homosexuality in America.” The essay, which appeared in a weekly periodical that was read by millions of U.S. Americans, is featured in an exhibit curated by community historian Paul Gabriel. According to the museum’s website, the exhibit, titled “1964: The Year San Francisco Came Out,” addresses “an infamous LIFE magazine article that catapulted San Francisco into national consciousness as the ‘gay capital’ of America.” In highlighting the historical significance of “Homosexuality in America,” the GLBT History Museum joins the Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto, which is featuring the LIFE magazine essay in “What It Means To Be Seen: Photography and Queer Visibility.” Curated by Sophie Hackett, the associate curator of photography at the Art Gallery of Ontario, this exhibit was part of the recently-concluded WorldPride 2014 festivities in Toronto.

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Homosexuality in America,” Life, 26 June 1964, pp. 66-80.

Discussing “Homosexuality in America” on Huffington Post, Hackett writes that the article in LIFE was “one of the first depictions of gay life in a mainstream magazine.” Hackett is right to say that it was “one of the first”; for example, in December 1962 Philadelphia Magazine published “The Furtive Fraternity,” a lengthy expose on gay life by journalist Gaeton Fonzi. As is so often the case in the history of mainstream media, “national” media stories were preceded and anticipated by “local” ones.

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Born This Way? Sexual Science and the Invention of a Political Strategy

By Jana Funke

Gay politics today tend to be premised on the ‘born this way’ argument, the idea that being gay is not a matter of choice or preference, but rather an innate, natural and biologically conditioned fact of life. If homosexuality is something we are born with and therefore not something we choose or can be expected to change, the argument goes, we have the right to demand protection under the law, equal rights and social acceptance more generally.

Born this Way (Credit:

Born this Way (Credit: Quinn Dombrowski / Wikimedia Commons)

While incredibly pervasive (think Lady Gaga, Macklemore or Glee) and undeniably powerful, the ‘born this way’ argument has also been subjected to substantial criticism. Even though stories about the ‘gay gene’, for example, continue to circulate in popular media coverage, most scientists are very hesitant to assert that there is any straightforward link between potential genetic variation and sexual attraction. Scholars in the humanities and social sciences, especially history and anthropology, have also challenged the ‘born this way’ argument. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that different cultures in the past and present did not distinguish clearly between ‘homosexuals’ and ‘heterosexuals’. Instead, such cultures often developed entirely different ways of understanding sexual desire that resist the idea that there is a social minority group consisting of individuals who are simply ‘born gay’.

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