'Sex Positive': Giving A Safe-Sex Prophet His Due

Richard Berkowitz i i

The Safe-Sex Hustler: Richard Berkowitz was lambasted for his early efforts to promote safe sex as a way of fighting HIV/AIDS. Regent Releasing hide caption

itoggle caption Regent Releasing
Richard Berkowitz

The Safe-Sex Hustler: Richard Berkowitz was lambasted for his early efforts to promote safe sex as a way of fighting HIV/AIDS.

Regent Releasing

Sex Positive

  • Director: Daryl Wein
  • Genre: Documentary
  • Running Time: 75 minutes

Rated R: Strong sexual content including graphic dialogue and images, and for language

(Recommended)

Larry Kramer i i

On The Health Crisis: The documentary features gay activist and playwright Larry Kramer in both present-day interviews and archival footage. Regent Releasing hide caption

itoggle caption Regent Releasing
Larry Kramer

On The Health Crisis: The documentary features gay activist and playwright Larry Kramer in both present-day interviews and archival footage.

Regent Releasing

At age 51, flat broke and getting by on disability and handouts from former clients, Richard Berkowitz is the pioneering AIDS activist most people have never heard of. That includes most other advocates now working in the field.

One virtue of Daryl Wein's sympathetic but searching documentary about this unsung hero of the '80s safe-sex movement is that it seeks to uncover all the reasons for Berkowitz's plight, including those that don't shine a favorable light on a man the director clearly admires.

If Sex Positive consisted only of the personal testimony of this garrulously articulate former hustler — a compulsive transgressor, and a man for whom sadomasochistic sex is an act of communication — it would still be completely fascinating.

Depending on where you stand on the limits of sexual freedom, Berkowitz was either the ideal advocate for safe sex within the gay community or the most hopelessly ill-equipped one. The handsome son of a liberal Jewish family, he entered with gusto into the explosion of gay male sexuality in New York in the 1970s.

Caught short by the AIDS crisis and by his own diagnosis, Berkowitz soon joined forces with popular musician Michael Callen and pioneering virologist Dr. Joseph Sonnabend (whom Berkowitz calls "my personal Moses") to spread an unwelcome hypothesis: AIDS was a lifestyle disease, they argued, the result not of a single encounter with HIV but gestating cumulatively, a syndrome caused by multiple factors including minor sexually transmitted diseases that weakened the immune system.

Unlike most AIDS documentaries, which focus on the struggle between a putatively unified gay community on the one hand and the government, the medical establishment and the media on the other, Sex Positive wades as fearlessly as Berkowitz himself did into crucial divisions within the gay community. The conversation about what caused AIDS was just one of them.

Berkowitz put out a pamphlet urging safe-sex practices, and though he never counseled abstinence, he was still alternately hated, ostracized and ignored by gay men who didn't want to hear what he had to say about the risks of promiscuity.

Other gay leaders, like author Larry Kramer — who at the time feared alienating straight society, and who comes across in the movie as a slippery customer given to revising his past public stances — flatly denied that promiscuity either caused or spread the virus.

We now know that AIDS is caused by HIV. Still, if Sonnabend and Berkowitz were wrong about causes, they were certainly right about the need for safer sex. That may sound like old news today, when every high-schooler outside the fundamentalist orbit is taught how to fit a condom on a banana.

But in the early 1980s, Berkowitz's message was anathema, both to a gay population riding high on an ideal of limitless carnality, and to a mainstream society put off by Berkowitz's firm rejection of abstinence as a solution.

That he remains unknown today is undoubtedly due in part to his robust gift for self-destruction. Sonnabend notes in sorrow and anger that his friend became "useless" for years when he got into drugs and hustling.

The poor sales of Berkowitz's recent book, Stayin' Alive: The Invention of Safe Sex (a casualty of corporate downsizing in publishing), may be a personal tragedy for Berkowitz, who today lives clean but destitute.

But the book's limited availability is emblematic, too, of a wider catastrophe — one that's aptly signaled by Wein's brooding, Errol Morris-style montage. The New York City Department of Health says that one in 25 Manhattan men is infected with HIV today, and those men — not to mention the people of both sexes who continue to fall prey to the disease all over the developing world — may end up repeating the painful history chronicled in Wein's indispensable film.

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