The Aids crisis
The access to more reliable methods of contraception, the legalization of abortion, and the relaxation of moral controls on sexuality triggered by the sexual revolution opened up a small window of greater openness, legal freedom, and sexual experimentation from the 1960s which detached sexuality from its traditional associations with sin and disease. The consequences of these changes were profound, especially for women, for whom sexuality had historically been entwined with the dangers of loss of reputation, unwanted pregnancy, and death in childbirth.
In retrospect, the lighthearted celebration of greater sexual
opportunities – criticized by feminist thought for masking the exploitation of women by men – lasted less than two decades. The emergence of HIV/Aids (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) from the early 1980s symbolized a move away from the hedonistic emphasis on sexuality as a site of pleasure. It revived earlier associations with danger and risk, echoing traditional anxieties about sexually transmitted disease, and about prostitutes and ethnic or racial ‘others’ as sources of sexual danger. It also set the stage for a return of religious models as major actors in the politics of sexuality.
The sociologist Jeffrey Weeks has argued that Aids revealed the unfinished character of the sexual revolution. On the one hand, sexuality remained primarily associated with heterosexuality not just within writings and therapeutic practices of sexologists such as Masters and Johnson and popular works such as The Joy of Sex, but also within areas of the feminist politicization of sexuality (as lesbian feminists had earlier complained). In this sense, the sexual revolution was a heterosexual revolution, as Sheila Jeffreys has pointed out. On the other hand, the loosening of moral control over sexuality, combined with the weakening of legal regulations against deviant sexualities, created societal conditions in which peripheral sexualities could flourish more publicly.
The historically unprecedented growth in the West of lesbian and gay ‘communities of choice’ in the 1960s and 1970s publicly demonstrated the profound transformations of the sexual order that accompanied the sexual revolution and signalled a new era of political mobilizations around the rights of sexual minorities. Whereas lesbians and gays had been successful in establishing new public identities, the Aids crisis revealed, as Weeks contends, that traditional associations of homosexuality with disease and abnormality had not been suppressed irreversibly. With the advent of Aids, sexuality moved away from its connection with liberation to become once again fraught with anxieties and risks. As the American sexologist Theresa Crenshaw, president of the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and
Therapists (AASECT), put it in 1987: ‘the sexual revolution is over’.
Western responses to Aids were shaped by the political climate of the time. In countries such as the UK and the US, the 1980s saw the rise of the Right with the Thatcher and Reagan governments. The moral agenda of the Right was shaped in response to the claims of gay rights activists and the perceived threat from feminist critiques of dominant understandings of femininity and female sexuality. Whereas the sexual reforms of the 1960s had been promoted by the political Left, by the late 1980s, it was the Right which called for moral regeneration backed by state intervention. Particular targets were the 1960s liberalizations such as the legalization of abortion and homosexuality, as well as the greater legal freedoms in the areas of obscenity and censorship (attacks on the latter being supported as much by the moral Right as by certain strands of feminism that combated pornography).
The World Health Organization and UNAIDS currently estimate that more than 25 million people have died from Aids since it was first reported in Los Angeles by the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention on 5 June 1981, and that 38.6 million people presently live with the disease worldwide. A third of deaths from Aids have occurred in sub-Saharan Africa. While national rates of HIV infection currently exceed 20% in countries such as Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, and Zimbabwe, in some sub-regions over 70% of the population are estimated to be living with Aids. Such figures show the Aids pandemic to be one of the most destructive in human history. Since unprotected sexual contact is the main (though by no means only) vehicle of infection with HIV, Aids put sexually transmissible disease back at the forefront of collective anxieties about sex. As an infectious disease whose global spread was accelerated by long-distance trucking, mobile migrant work, tourist travel, and other forms of mobility characteristic of modern society, it required fast intervention both at the level of national states and at the
international level. And yet, most governments were initially slow to react due to its initial identification as a disease that struck marginalized groups such as gay men, drug addicts, and ethnic minorities. Whereas ‘innocent’ victims such as haemophiliacs were to be pitied, the ‘degenerate conduct’ of promiscuous people meant that they were ‘swirling around in a human cesspit of their own making’, as the Chief Constable of Manchester, James Anderton, put it in 1988.
For the moral Right, Aids was the result of the permissive society. In the US, where the majority of Aids victims in the 1980s were black or of an ethnic minority, underlying racism further impacted on government inaction, and elsewhere the association of Aids with black people – in particular, Africans – or foreigners more generally structured public understandings of Aids as something brought in by ‘outsiders’. Policies that were initially considered were primarily repressive in nature, including measures such as quarantine (supported by religious fundamentalists who saw Aids as divine retribution for immoral behaviour) or the mandatory testing of ‘risk groups’ and revival of anti-sodomy laws; measures that were promoted by conservative groups despite lack of evidence as to their effectiveness in curtailing the disease. Proposals for preventative sex education campaigns were treated with hostility from conservatives, who argued that they would encourage promiscuous behaviour. The first few years of the epidemic were furthermore characterized by recurrent media hysteria about the ‘gay plague’.
Against the backdrop of governmental foot-dragging, most of the initial prevention effort in the West, especially in the UK and US, did not come from the state, but from grassroots organizations which had developed out of gay liberation and feminist movements. Voluntary organizations such as the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), founded in the US in 1981, or the Terrence Higgins Trust in the UK, set up primarily by gay activists, developed the concept of ‘safe sex’ and pioneered preventative sex
education as well as support groups for people living with Aids, initially with minimal state support.
Gay organizations pursued different political tactics. For example, groups such as the GMHC centred on self-help, with the declared aim being the provision of care for the sick similar to that given by families or groups of friends – a crucial necessity in a social context in which biological families were often reluctant to assume that role themselves (reflecting the stigmatization of Aids and homosexuality in general). The GMHC’s radical offshoot ACT UP – Aids Coalition to Unleash Power – campaigned for greater access to new drugs for people living with Aids. Adopting the slogan ‘silence = death’ and the pink triangle which the Nazis had used to identify homosexuals, they privileged shock tactics that aimed to publicly embarrass government officials into action. Other groups such as the Lambda Legal Defense Fund pursued the strategy of ‘impact litigation’ – consisting of the selection of cases not just for their impact on a particular person, but for the wider legal precedent that they would set – in areas such as discrimination in the workplace, aiming to improve the legal position of Aids sufferers as well as gays and lesbians more generally. The health emergency of Aids acted in turn as a further point of crystallization for political mobilization around gay rights. As Weeks has put it:
The impact of the Aids crisis served to solidify the ties of community between gay people not despite but because of’the threat it posed to their survival.
Sexologists were generally as slow to react to the emergence of the epidemic as governments. Deep internal divisions emerged over the most appropriate political response. In the US, for example, as the sociologist Janice Irvine reports in her analysis of modern American sexology, politically conservative sexologists such as Helen Singer Kaplan, Theresa Crenshaw, and Masters and Johnson rejected the notion of safe sex as a myth, and called
for the ‘re-establishment of traditional values’, to use Crenshaw’s terms. Masters and Johnson’s alarmist book Crisis: Heterosexual Behavior in the Age of Aids claimed in 1988 that Aids could be contracted from toilet seats and restaurant food (a claim that epidemiological experts strongly disavowed but which triggered a thriving commerce in ‘anti-viral’ toilet sprays). They called for mandatory testing of risk groups and for ‘governmental crackdowns on prostitution’. Conservative American sexologists consequently frequently found themselves in political alliances with religious groups, as illustrated by Crenshaw’s statement in 1987:
I don’t really mind if the right-wing leaders want to limit sexual practices to monogamy for religious reasons, if we want to limit them scientifically and the net result is the same.
Such positions were strongly rejected by other sexologists, however, many of whom became actively involved in the production of safe sex material and counselling.