I came out of the cinema and upon realizing what had just happened, I froze in my tracks. “Oh wow, our book was just autographed by a S&M top hustler!” Rewind.
Richard Berkowitz is a controversial man. An activist and author, he and two friends, Michael Callen and Dr. Jo Sonnabend, can be credited for bringing about the discussion surrounding “responsible behavior” when having sex. Featured in the biopic documentary “Sex Positive”, released in March 2008, Richard oscillates between headstrong and anxious during interviews with the filmmaker. “I really feel uncomfortable. This feels like a 50 year-old man telling how he got his dick sucked in his younger days,” he said interspersedly with comments about “Everybody just used the term “safe sex” without acknowledging the work we have done.”
During the raging AIDS epidemic of the early 80s, Richard and his friend, Michael Callen, wrote in the Native that gay men should cut back on their “promiscuous” behavior so as to reduce the probability of getting infected with the disease. Through continued and repeated infection and exposure to casual sex, a person’s rate of AIDS infection becomes higher. “It’s time we take responsibility for our behavior,” Richard said. Many gay people at the time found Richard’s sentiments distasteful. Larry Kramer, whose book was nominated for a Pulitzer, engaged directly in debate with Richard and Callen on national TV.
The debates get a bit more technical. Richard, Callen, and Sonnabend were proponents of the multifactorial theory of AIDS infection whereas Kramer’s camp believed that a single agent, i.e. a virus, is responsible for the disease. Today, there is enough scientific evidence to show that a specific virus, HIV, is responsible for AIDS – although links between CMV and AIDS are still being researched on (cf. The Lancet, 2004). However, it was Richard and Callen who tried to look for a solution to counter the infection.
As the debates raged on, Richard and his camp were accused of being sex negative. This was despite the fact that Richard, as a part-time job, was a paid-for-hire S&M top. He and his team began discussing S&M and how through safe behavior, the probability of passing on the infection is low. This is when they started writing the first manual to safer sex: “How to Have Sex in an Epidemic”. It is a guide on having safer sex using protection or engaging in behavior that does not transfer bodily fluids from one to another. Richard continued advertising his services, emphasizing on “safe”: “Safe S&M Top” was his classified ad header.
The documentary ended with a question posed to several activists, healthcare practitioners, and a porn star: Have you heard of Richard Berkowitz? Many of them answered in the negative.
The documentary, however, has done a great job in introducing to us Richard Berkowitz. In an era of huge debates and personalities surrounding the AIDS epidemic, Daryl Wein, the filmmaker has seamlessly weaved several narratives into a huge emotionally-charged and affecting fabric of the earlier half of the 80s.
At the end of the movie, it turns out Richard was watching the documentary with us. He stood up for a QnA session. “Many young gay and lesbian people today think of AIDS as a developing country problem, but we forget that there are many out there who still live through each day with AIDS,” he said of what young people can do in this age to raise awareness and advocacy for the issue. “Too few gay youth are engaged at all with the issue of AIDS.” But he ended on an optimistic note and one that recognizes and appreciates the tireless efforts of activists and scientists before us: “We always still talk about 1% infection rates, and prevalence and what not. But sometimes I think it’s time we pat a gay or lesbian youth on their back and say, “Good job!”"
To watch the trailer and several snippets from the biopicumentary, visit Richard Berkowitz.com. His book, semi-autobiographical, semi-thoughts and opinion, will also be re-released. Page through Stayin’ Alive: The Invention of Safe Sex.