Carnegie Mellon University

Private Parts, Public Selves: The Co-construction of Safe Sex before the Discovery of HIV

Author: Ryan Mitchell

Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 2020

Before the isolation of HIV as the causal agent for AIDS in 1984, mainstream medical authorities uniformly recommended that those most at risk for contracting AIDS – gay men, intravenous drug users, Haitian immigrants, and hemophiliacs – abstain from sexual activity. Believing that this recommendation was needlessly broad and implicitly motivated by anti-gay moralism, sexually active urban gay men began circulating what I call gay community-produced AIDS prevention texts. These texts infused rapidly emerging biomedical AIDS knowledge with gay liberationist politics to construct speculative prevention protocols that aimed as much to protect the lives of gay men as they did to safeguard the queer community’s political strength. Private Pars, Public Selves: The Co-construction of Safe Sex before the Discovery of HIV examines the invention, circulation, and evolution of these texts. Specifically, I track the development of speculative AIDS prevention protocols within non-expert and popular arenas to study how everyday gay men harnessed the knowledge acquired from past sexual and political experiences to compensate for inadequate expert responses to the crisis.

This rhetorical history shifts focus away from well known public confrontations between grassroots AIDS activists and medical officials to recover and engage with the gay community’s internal discursive practices about AIDS prevention. Through case-driven analyses informed by extensive archival research, I reconstruct three non-medical sites that I argue were critical for the invention of what we now call safe sex – the gay press, the sexual body itself, and gay bathhouses. My analyses demonstrate that these sites helped gay men develop adaptive, comprehensive strategies for preventing the spread of AIDS as well as laid the social and political foundations necessary for organizing later AIDS activist movements. In Chapter Two, I argue that early AIDS service organizations fought against mainstream representations of AIDS as a “gay disease” by using prevention recommendations to introduce both new sexual practices and new models for gay sociability. These models would suggest that preventing AIDS would require more than just medical information – it would require an overhaul to the gay community’s sexual ethic. In Chapter Three, I analyze how descriptions of the internal body allowed gay men to imagine what safe sex might look like by bringing an adaptive, highly customizable approach to prevention before the mind’s eye. This analysis illustrates that vivid descriptions of the contact between porous membranes and body fluids localized AIDS prevention to particular sex acts and resisted mainstream biomedical impulses to develop a universal model of AIDS prevention. Chapter Four examines how matters of citizenship, space, surveillance, and the authority of public health policy where implicated in arguments surrounding the proposed closure of San Francisco’s gay bathhouses in 1984. I argue that to fight city-mandated closures, gay men presented arguments that transformed bathhouses from spaces of sexual inhibition to spaces of safe sex education and training. Chapter Five sediments and extends the theoretical insights gleaned from earlier chapters by considering what the gay community’s initial responses to the AIDS crisis can tell us about the intimacies and sociabilities catalyzed by epidemics of infection diseases.