Poster Exhibit Chronicles the Fight Against AIDS

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Along the still desolate swath of Mission Street on the edge of SOMA and just beyond the Mission District, sits an oasis of information, free to the public, filled with materials that will expand your awareness, but may make you blush.

The 13-year-old Center for Sex and Culture, a library and museum of sorts, features a vast array of books, magazines, art, videos and photography, all documenting what some could call humanity’s favorite pastime — sex. From ancient-looking texts depicting the sexual maturation process to a trove of handwritten love letters addressed to adult film actress Nina Hartley, the center has all the bases covered.

On World AIDS Day this past weekend, the center held an art exhibition and literary event, featuring a collection of posters promoting safe sex and readings by a handful of Bay Area sex writers. The posters, donated by local designer Buzz Bense, span three decades and several countries, chronicling the evolution of the AIDS epidemic, and serving as the perfect backdrop for the reader’s tales of sex and AIDS in San Francisco.

“We really wanted to slow down and do something larger,” said Dorian Katz, curator of the center. “Tying this in with World AIDS Day was the perfect opportunity, but these images and stories have an impact any time of the year.”

The exhibit, “Safe Sex Bang,” showcases about 50 posters including giant depictions of superhero-esque anthropomorphic condoms, images that once lined bus shelters in the early 90s, and smaller posters intended to be collected and hung up at home. Every aspect of safe sex is explicitly covered in the posters that come from the United States, Germany, Australia and Denmark.

Underscore on explicit — many of the posters could be construed as pornography if not for the mention of AIDS, STDs and condoms. Almost all of the posters are specifically targeted to gay men, and the bulk of them depict men of all ages, races and sizes in various compromising positions.

“Some of these are so graphic you have to wonder where they got the funding,” said Bense, who also designed several of the posters — albeit the tamer ones with cartoon condoms — himself. “It certainly wasn’t from the federal government.”

In fact, the funding for a lot of the campaigns is a mystery because the early days of HIV/AIDS prevention funding was contingent on the fact that they not promote homosexual activity. In 1987, Congress approved a $30 million in emergency funding for anti-retroviral drugs, but also adopted the Helms Amendment, banning funds for any educational material that depicted gay lifestyles.

Flipping that mentality, a series of posters take the buzzworthy phrases of those days — “Moral Majority,” “Family Values,” and “Right to Life” — and pair them with photos of gay men or condoms.

“These are dinosaurs,” Bense said. “Public health messages are not delivered on posters anymore, but it’s extremely important that we are still reaching our community.”

Bense explained how messages of the past emphasized condom use and cleanliness of needles and sex toys. Those of today center on getting tested and knowing one’s status.

Arthur Johnson Weiss, 29, marveled at the diversity and history that the posters reveal.

“It’s really interesting to see the epidemiology and evolution of graphic design through this exhibit,” he said. “You go through these very graphic ones, to ones that are very specific, and then you see the end of the campaign when http addresses start appearing at the bottom of the posters.”

Weiss’s reference to specificity of the images was exemplified in such images saying, “Pierce Properly,” “Use Clean Needles,” and a depiction of two men in their kitchen, preparing to load their dishwasher with dildos.

“I like this little domestic scene,” Weiss said referring to the latter.

The first-ever safe-sex promotion item during the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco was a 1982 descriptive pamphlet from the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. It was distributed before AIDS even had a name. It is currently on loan at the center.

“We didn’t even have AIDS organizations yet when some of these were printed,” Katz said. “The strategy with these kinds of messages was to put them in bars and public places, and they will see a hot guy and take the poster home, then everyone who sees it is reminded of the need to be safe.”

“Dress for the Occasion,” one black and white poster reads, showing a naked man fully suited up, so to speak, for intercourse.

That one got around,” said Carol Queen, co-founder of the center, writer and resident sexologist at Good Vibrations. “I saw that thing everywhere, and every time you would see it at a bar, everyone would be like, ‘I want one of those!’”

But not all of the posters were designed to entice the viewer. One campaign, “HIV is No Picnic,” sheds light on painful aspects of the disease, such as night sweats, lesions and wasting.

“In some cases, people were very uncomfortable seeing these things,” said Bense. “But that’s the point. If a poster is able to cause a reaction, whether it is negative or positive, then it is successful.”

The space, which was once a Baptist church, is entirely volunteer-run, and this exhibition serves as a fundraising opportunity. The center also received $8,000 from a Kickstarter fund to create a catalogue of the posters. It will be published in January 2014, but the center is still looking for a little extra help to make it happen.

Opposite the wall of posters, the ever-expanding walls are lined with literature and vintage sex diagrams. Lawrence and Queen explained how they have a number of interns who organize and curate the massive quantities of information and imagery.

“We’ve got high-end journals of urology to ‘Daddy’s Trucker Buddies,’” said Robert Lawrence, co-founder of the center. “The most ironic thing is that these high-end journals go for $75 to $100, and these smut books go for about the same.”

Lawrence and Queen believe their center, which they were originally encouraged to found in 1994 by sex educator Betty Dodson, is the only such library in the country that is completely free. It also serves as a gallery and performance space.

“Every day, I see something new and I’m like, ‘What? Where did this amazing thing come from?,” Queen said.

The center serves as a sex information and visual stimulation hub for all types of people.

“We have doctoral students in here and vintage porn collectors,” Lawrence said.  “Some of the texts are only available here.”

Lawrence’s roots are in sex education and self-expression. His mother was a sex educator in the 1950s and 60s, and his grandfather and uncle preformed drag shows in the 1930s.

During the reading portion of Sunday’s event, five writers shared humor and pain, loss and love. The readers included Queen, Shar Rednour, Julia Serrano, Mark Abramson and former porn star Howie Gordon, aka Richard Pacheco.

Bense wept openly during Queen’s reading, a powerful documentation of her whirlwind experience of sexcapades, friendship and then seeing the virus head-on in the streets of San Francisco.

“If I had come to San Francisco when I had first dreamed of coming, I would have surely caught the bullet,” Queen read. “Before I learned in the early 80s to be afraid, I would have been unafraid…before sex was coded to mean life or death.”

The event tapped into the past fear of the unknown, as well as the modern day fear associated with understanding the sheer scope of the disease.

“It was bad then,” Bense said. “But if there is one thing everyone should know now, it’s that it’s not over.”

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