Abstract

Bringing disability studies into conversation with queer histories of AIDS activism, this article examines the relationship between disability and queer politics in safer sex videos created by AIDS activists in the 1980s. As a form of what the author terms "guerrilla biopolitics," safer sex videos insisted on the viability of queer life and sexual expression at a historical moment of intense homophobia and sex negativity. At the same time, the vision of sexual health and identity they offered risked reproducing racialized and classed ideologies of ableism. Seeking to "crip" our understandings of safer sex discourses and practices, this study explores how risk reduction techniques have been historically linked to imperatives of compulsory able-bodiedness, precluding alternative expressions of queer/crip life.


Introduction

On October 19, 1985, over 200 gay men gathered in the High School for the Humanities auditorium in New York City for a screening of a sixty-minute erotic video called Chance of a Lifetime. As the title screen explained, "This program is designed to be an entertaining, erotic, explicit educational tool for AIDS prevention using real people in real situations." Conceived and produced by the Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC), one of the earliest leading community-based AIDS organizations in the United States, this video sought to address what its introductory voiceover described as "a health crisis that leaves many people feeling powerless and afraid. Lately more and more people seem to think that sex is too scary. Sex used to be fun. Does anyone remember sex?" 1 In a climate of fear and sex negativity, Chance of a Lifetime represented part of a larger trend among AIDS educators that involved focusing energy on helping gay men learn to eroticize a new set of risk reduction practices that would come to be known as safer sex. 2 Unlike medical and public health campaigns that advocated abstinence or monogamy, this video promoted new forms of "healthy" sex that focused on pleasurable alternatives to high-risk practices. Whereas sex education campaigns have historically served to marginalize nonheteroreproductive sexual behavior as not only deviant but "unhealthy," Chance of a Lifetime challenged this view, rescripting queer erotic practices as healthy and desirable. As producer Raymond Jacobs explained, it was very important for gay men to have "a sense of empowerment again about our sexual choices and our sexual identity." 3 Drawing on the tenets of gay liberation to affirm the importance of sexual expression to gay identity and culture, Chance was conceived as a way "to show that in the face of this crisis, sex can remain fun, creative, satisfying, and safe." 4

Staging a new form of what we might call guerrilla biopolitics, safer sex activism actively resisted the necropolitical elimination of queer life, marking a major cultural shift in which formerly "unhealthy" behaviors were incorporated into a more inclusive definition of health. The success of Chance of a Lifetime as an educational tool helped to inspire the production of a number of other erotic safer sex videos in the 1980s and early 1990s, and in 1989 GMHC undertook a second video project: the Safer Sex Shorts. 5 Influenced by the rise of direct action tactics in connection with the formation of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) in 1987, this series of seven videos represented what producers Jean Carlomusto and Gregg Bordowitz described as "a guerrilla-type production of safer sex 'propaganda'." 6 Intended to be "distributed in as many ways as possible," each video was under five minutes in length, drawing on conventions of music videos, television advertisements, and video pornography for their camera and editing techniques. While Chance was designed to be shown as part of a GMHC workshop, the Shorts were designed to be screened in bars and bathhouses and as trailers on commercial porn videos, in order to disseminate the message of safer sex beyond GMHC's core constituency of middle-class white gay men. 7 By working with directors and focus groups from specific communities, GMHC used video as a means to reach audiences who had been excluded from traditional forms of AIDS prevention.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the invention of safer sex during the early years of the AIDS epidemic has served as an important touchstone within the development of a queer political and social imaginary, providing an example of a sustainable, creative sexual culture, a "counterpublic" that fostered shared modes of intimacy and structures of feeling. 8 As Douglas Crimp famously argued in his 1988 essay, "How to Have Promiscuity in an Epidemic," gays "were able to invent safer sex" because the liberationist ethos of the 1970s served as "psychic preparation" for the adoption of risk reduction practices in the face of AIDS. According to Crimp, it was their familiarity with "the great multiplicity" of pleasurable sexual activities that enabled many gay men to adopt life-saving safer sex practices. 9 Within the queer political imaginary, safer sex was conceived "not as a practice to be imposed on the reluctant, but as a form of political resistance and community building that achieves both sexual liberation and sexual health." 10

Yet this celebratory narrative obscures a more complicated relationship between health, dis/ability, and queer politics within the history of safer sex. Despite a rhetoric of liberatory community building, the development of safer sex by and for gay men themselves indexed a shift toward new forms of individual and collective self-governance, in which marginalized communities used alternative media to create their own norms of "healthy" behavior and embodiment. In this sense, the development of safer sex must be understood not as an exception to but rather as an expansion of biopolitical governance. In contrast to state-based public health campaigns or the market imperatives of the privatized health industry, community-based safer sex activism represented a more subtle mechanism through which desire became linked to new modes of compulsory able-bodiedness.

This article brings disability studies into conversation with queer histories of AIDS activism as a means to "crip" our understandings of safer sex discourses and practices. Despite the fact that, as Robert McRuer has noted, "the various opportunistic infections caused by HIV/AIDS have been disabling (reducing energy and mobility, sometimes leading to the loss of vision or other functions)," scholarship on the AIDS epidemic has not commonly engaged directly with disability studies. 11 Bringing a critical disability analytic to bear on the history of safer sex activism, this article examines how safer sex discourses promoted a definition of sexual "health" that relied on and reproduced racialized and classed ideologies of ableism. From a crip theoretical perspective, the project of protecting the "healthy" (negative serostatus) body from infection resonates with the imperatives of compulsory able-bodiedness. Assuming that HIV negativity is a universally desired status eliminates alternative ways of valuing the affective capacity of bodies that may not conform to idealized models of able-bodiedness. I argue that by linking risk reduction techniques to a particular vision of sexual health and identity, GMHC's efforts to incorporate formerly marginalized groups into the biopolitical project of fostering life and health ultimately precluded alternative expressions of queer and crip life.

Indeed, despite significant achievements of early safer sex campaigns in changing community norms and behavior among many gay men, the adoption of safer sex has been far from universal. As public health literature attests, since the mid-1990s there has been an unforeseen rise in practices of unprotected sex, particularly among men who have sex with men who may or may not identify as gay (known as "MSM" in public health parlance). The ongoing issue of so-called "risky" sexual behavior and rising rates of HIV/AIDS, particularly among young men of color in urban areas, indicates the limitations of safer sex as a means of health promotion. As rates of HIV infection among MSM continue to rise, public health campaigns increasingly bemoan the failure of prevention strategies among "hard-to-reach" populations. 12 While safer sex activism pioneered the kinds of strategies that would become central to public health campaigns over the next twenty-five years, such as creating targeted interventions for specific "at risk" populations, ultimately the invention of safer sex failed to provide a model for an effective AIDS prevention program. I suggest that even as they represented an effort to create "culturally relevant" materials to reach a range of populations, safer sex videos exposed the limitations of a politics of inclusion predicated on participation in a certain set of "healthy" practices. By merging a definition of sexual freedom with an equally normative commitment to sexual health defined as HIV negativity, safer sex activism participated in the construction of a new able-bodied norm, even as it produced new forms of sexual excess that threatened to destabilize the boundaries of queer life as such. Insofar as erotic safer sex videos engendered new modes of individual and collective behavior oriented toward an ethic of sexual health in the name of protecting and preserving queer life, we need to ask what forms of life were preserved, and what forms might have been foreclosed.

Technologies of Desire

Whereas early models of AIDS prevention had focused on providing information about transmission and risk, by the mid-1980s it had become clear that even though most gay men were aware that unprotected sex put them at risk of contracting AIDS, this information was not enough to change their behaviors. A 1984 study commissioned by the San Francisco AIDS Foundation found that "information about risk is not, by itself, sufficient to effect behavioral change," insofar as the "motivational issue" remained to be addressed. 13 Along with workshops and print materials, the newly accessible medium of video technology emerged as a unique tool through which safer sex educators hoped to "motivate" their audiences to adopt a new set of risk reduction techniques.

More than simply a practical set of health guidelines, "safer sex" signified a specific affective investment in health that tied sexual pleasure to new practices of risk management. Focusing on the material practices, representations, affects, and institutions that were brought together under the sign of "safer sex," I consider safer sex as techne, a "technique, an habitus, ethos, or lived practice" that builds associations between various activities, objects, and affects. 14 While I attend to a wide array of bodies, objects, and practices that were brought together under the rubric of safer sex, I privilege video technology as a unique interface for the conjunction of health, risk, and pleasure during this period. The advent of video technology was integral to the development of safer sex, providing a platform that linked burgeoning forms of gay and lesbian erotic cultural production to new activist media strategies and tactics. As media scholar and filmmaker Alexandra Juhasz has shown, video served as a primary medium of AIDS activism more broadly during the 1980s, enabling otherwise marginalized individuals and groups to create their own forms of alternative media with the availability of camcorder technology and low-cost editing. 15 New technologies enabled individuals from "'minority,' 'disenfranchised,' and 'marginal' communities" to "make politics in a way rarely, if ever, available to them before: in a 'dominant' cultural form, yet in a personal voice; by, for, and about themselves, but easily available to outsiders." 16

Safer sex videos emerged out of this larger landscape of media activism, but they also drew on the conventions of the more widespread genre of commercial video pornography. As Lucas Hilderbrand has demonstrated, it was not coincidental that a major boom in the home video market for gay pornography between 1981-1985 occurred at the exact moment of the onset of AIDS. As an alternative to other gay sexual institutions such as bars and bathhouses, porn could be understood as "a means of escaping from a more active sexuality that ha[d] become too uncertain, if not blatantly dangerous." 17 As porn viewing became an alternative to engaging in "risky" sexual acts with other men, the porn video itself could be understood as a technology of safe sex, analogous to the condom as a barrier device for interrupting disease transmission. Men at home watching porn instead of picking each other up at gay bars and bathhouses were presumably less at risk of disease transmission. Richard Dyer has argued that insofar as pornography offers a mode of sensory education it can serve as a site for "re-educating desire." 18 By producing their own erotic videos, AIDS educators sought to use this popular medium to redirect desires toward a new techne of safer sex practices.

Produced by an organization dedicated to serving gay men in New York City, GMHC's safer sex videos were integrated into a larger community-based effort to help gay men adopt safer sex behavior. Chance of a Lifetime was designed to be screened as part of GMHC's day-long "Eroticizing Safer Sex" workshop, which involved a "a series of large and small group exercises that help men to discover new, creative and satisfying ways of expressing ourselves sexually in the age of AIDS." 19 These workshops aimed to not only provide safer sex information, but to help participants develop a "feeling of bondedness to the Gay community," which would "build self-esteem, counter feelings of internalized homophobia, and lead[] to the support of community normative behavior in the area of safer sexual practices." 20 As part of this larger apparatus focused on changing community norms, Chance not only provided safer sex instructions and depictions of safer sex acts, but also taught the viewer how to reimagine safer sexuality as a broader "lifestyle" change. Unlike mainstream public health campaigns that sought to change individual behavior primarily through antibody testing, GMHC's approach focused on changing community norms by instilling a new sense of mutual responsibility for preventing seroconversion. As a means of cultivating "a new social value emphasizing the benefits of self-responsibility and mutual and reciprocal caring among sex partners," Chance valorized an ideal of "healthy sex" based on risk reduction practices. 21 Within this schema, ideals of mutual care, affection, and responsibility were marshaled to defend "the community" against the threat of illness and disability, thereby marginalizing seropositive individuals and coding behaviors that might lead to seroconversion as dangerous and antisocial.

In the first segment of Chance of a Lifetime, the narrator, Robbie, a white man in his mid-twenties, is nervous about his upcoming date with Louis, an African American man he has seen several times. While he is attracted to Louis, Robbie explains to a friend that due to fear of AIDS he "hasn't done it with anyone but [his] VCR in 12 months." As Robbie exclaims, "Don't you read the papers, don't you listen to the news? And you wonder why I've been faithful to my video machine. What could I possibly do with him? Are you crazy? I mean I want to go to bed with him, but I'm not going to go to bed with him and that's final." Luckily, his friend provides helpful safe sex advice over the phone, telling Robbie to avoid exchanging body fluids and encouraging him to relax, use his imagination, and "have a good time." Importantly, this new techne of safer sex included not only a list of what not to do, but also an invective to bring pleasure and creativity back into sex. In keeping with GMHC's overall ethos, the "expert" safer sex advice in the film comes from Robbie's friend, rather than from a doctor or public health professional. His friend's only credibility comes from the fact that he is a trusted fellow gay man (with a fabulous mullet, I might add) who speaks authoritatively on the subject of safer sex. Reaffirming the notion that safer sex techniques were developed within the gay community, rather than imposed from without, this scene also emphasizes that safer sex guidelines are easy to learn and teach to others. Ideally, the viewing audience of Chance, like the participants of GMHC's safer sex workshops, could become precisely this trusted friend, able to disseminate friendly and accurate advice to their own social circles. In this sense, AIDS prevention is imagined as a community effort based on affective bonds and mutual trust.

Indeed, the narrative arc of this vignette centers on not only the question of how to practice safer sex, but the difficulty of learning to talk about it. As an article in The Advocate noted in August 1985, "Negotiating safe sex requires new social skills. At one time gay men could initiate a sexual encounter with a nod or a touch, but now many must get accustomed to talking about sex, health and what activity is acceptable." 22 As their date progresses, Louis makes several attempts to initiate a conversation about sex but is interrupted by Robbie's repeated excuses to run to the phone to call his friend for advice. Once Robbie and Louis agree to practice "absolutely" safe sex with no exchange of body fluids, Robbie says to Louis, "I am so relieved, I was so nervous. It's been a long time and I'm concerned about my health," to which Louis responds "So am I." Robbie expresses surprise and Louis tells him, "Of course. Everybody is. Look, I admire you for bringing it up." Coaching its audience on how to initiate a conversation about safer sex, this scene resolves the fear and tension by affirming Robbie and Louis's mutual desire and shared ethos of responsibility for safer sex.

The decision to feature an interracial sexual encounter in "Robbie & Louis" reflected GMHC's growing awareness that its educational materials needed to be more "culturally sensitive." At the same time, this scene ultimately centered whiteness both narratively and visually while displacing racial and class inequalities within a fantasy of a singular, yet diverse "gay community." Working explicitly to solicit audience identification with the white narrator, "Robbie & Louis" not only privileged an assumed white audience, but also functioned to equate risk with interracial sex. Robbie's anxiety about his health translates into a projection of sexual dangerousness onto Louis, who represents the racialized threat of infection. Even through Robbie and Louis mutually agree to a shared ethic of sexual health, this scene depicts safer sex as a project of risk management in which the white (presumably seronegative) gay body must be defended from "outside" threats. Within this cultural imaginary, the black body functions as a repository of white fear, bearing the burden of symbolically representing the risk of contamination. While this threat is successfully neutralized through the mutual negotiation of safer sex boundaries, this scene demonstrates how inclusion within the "gay community" depends on an affective investment in safer sex as a shared responsibility for risk reduction. Within the fantasy logic of the video, Louis's racial difference ceases to be a threat once he expresses a desire to practice safer sex, allowing him to be incorporated into an imagined community built around a specific set of desiring practices – as long as he adheres to proper "community normative behavior" designed to prevent seroconversion.

While Chance of a Lifetime affirmed the importance of gay sexual expression, it also promoted a new ethical imperative that linked sexual freedom and sexual health to a particular vision of embodiment and identity. Significantly, all of the main characters in Chance are represented as physically fit and able-bodied. As Sander Gilman has argued, safer sex imagery has typically featured bodies devoid of any sign of illness or disability, pictured as "projections of the idealized self, eternally healthy, youthful and safe." 23 Putting forth an ableist fantasy of sanitized gay sexual culture, here sexual desirability is predicated on compulsory able-bodiedness. The video does feature one HIV positive character in the final vignette, "Hank and Jerry," in which a voiceover informs the viewer that Jerry has recently been hospitalized due to AIDS. Played by actor Fred Gormley, Jerry himself shows no signs of ill health, instead portrayed as a physically attractive, able-bodied white gay man spending a weekend at Fire Island with his boyfriend, Hank. In this scene, Hank returns from a run on the beach to find Jerry napping on the pool deck, and a playful romp in the pool leads to a sex scene involving cowboy-themed role play, mutual masturbation, and frottage. In direct contrast to mainstream images in which the bodies of people with AIDS were "coded as frightening, untouchable, and contaminating," Chance portrayed Jerry as both physically fit and sexually desirable. 24 In this sense the video explicitly worked to counter representations of AIDS "victims" as debilitated bodies in hospitals or wheelchairs, often showing visible signs of Karposi Sarcoma lesions. Moreover, by depicting a person with AIDS in a healthy, loving, sexual relationship, this scene represented what Thomas Waugh terms "a defiant articulation of desire and sexual identity." 25 Whereas media representations of gay men either vilified their "deviant" and dangerous sexuality or portrayed them as victims sanitized of any sexual desire, Chance depicted Jerry's sexual desire as "natural," reinforced by the outdoor setting of the scene.

As a fantasy of escape (represented literally as a weekend getaway), this scene evoked a larger utopian longing for an escape from the devastation of AIDS. In a moment when gay men were considered "disposable in their entirety," Chance mobilized its own utopian fantasy of queer life in which sex was a form of conviviality rather than toxicity. 26 Unlike most safer sex materials, which often presumed the negative serostatus of their audience, this scene demonstrated the possibility of satisfying sex while living with AIDS. This vision of safer sex, however, was necessarily limited in scope to a particular audience, who could identify with the image of "healthy" gay sexuality put forth within the video. 27 Shot on Fire Island, "Hank & Jerry" depicts a racially homogenous landscape populated exclusively by able-bodied, athletic, tanned white men. This scene valorized a specific formation of racialized and classed leisure culture that may have been familiar territory to GMHC's core clientele, but was not necessarily accessible to populations who could not afford good medical care, much less a beach vacation.

Even as it sought to put forward a "positive" representation of a person with AIDS, this representation was sanitized of any association with illness or disability. Within the pornographic imaginary of the video there was no space for bodies that did not conform to an ableist imaginary of physical beauty and attractiveness. Bodies marked with racial or class difference, as well as those showing visible signs of illness or disability, are thus excluded from the boundaries of queer identity and desire. Jerry's sexual desirability is linked to his physical fitness despite his (invisible) disability; in this sense he represents what Susan Wendell describes as the "healthy disabled." 28 Wendell points out that by distancing itself from pathologizing connotations of illness or disease, the disability rights movement has privileged a "healthy disabled" subject, thereby marginalizing people with chronic illnesses or other conditions that negatively impact their health. By confining its "positive" representation of sexuality to a sanitized image of "healthy" white masculinity, Chance reinforces an "inspiring" model of disability in which social belonging is predicated on the ability to "approximate the activities and appearance of nondisabled people." 29 Reinscribing a specific norm of able-bodied, middle-class, white monogamy as "healthy," this scene portrayed sexual desire and desirability as the exclusive property of subjects who are able to perform able-bodiedness, excluding the "unhealthy disabled" from its image of sexual culture.

Here health emerges as synonymous with an ideal of middle class whiteness that included not only physical fitness (in spite of illness) but also a primary relationship characterized by romantic love and affection. In this scene, Jerry is allowed free sexual expression, as long as his sexual expression is limited to "safe" acts within a monogamous relationship. This scene forestalls any anxiety about sexual contagion by not only physically removing the person with AIDS from any larger social context (while Hank is pictured going for a run on the beach, Jerry is only shown on the enclosed pool deck of their vacation home), but also by circumscribing his desire to focus only on his partner. Interestingly, while other (presumably seronegative) characters in Chance are depicted fantasizing about various group sex scenarios, in Jerry's dream sequence he fantasizes only about the ("safe") act of mutual masturbation with his boyfriend. Unlike the video's earlier fantasy scenes, which worked to situate the representation of sexual desire within a larger sociopolitical context of gay sexual culture, Jerry's dream is self-referential, hermetically sealing his sexual desire within the boundaries of his relationship. Chris Bell has argued that denying HIV-positive individuals "access to a variety of sexual experiences" is undesirable not only because it is unrealistic, but also because it "forecloses possibilities of pleasure." 30 Chance implicitly placed the burden of preventing illness on Jerry, who must act responsibly to limit his own actions and desires. Like Louis, Jerry can be incorporated into the larger imagined queer community only insofar as his own sexual practices adhere to specific norms of "safe" behavior.

By elevating a certain set of practices as both healthy and desirable, Chance constructed an ableist fantasy in which illness and disability could be prevented or contained though a shared commitment to mutual care, affection, and responsibility for risk reduction. As we have seen, despite its effort to be inclusive, Chance privileged particular forms of queer identity, embodiment, and relationality. While effective in reaching a certain group of gay men who could identify with its vision of health and community, this model of safer sex education was less able to accommodate the shifting demographics of AIDS later in the decade. By the late 1980s it had become clear that GMHC's programming was inadequate to address the growing epidemic among populations who had not traditionally been served by the organization. In addition to a general lack of programming and outreach to men of color, especially those in outer boroughs, existing GMHC materials and programs came under fire for promoting a white middle class cultural norm that excluded other groups. For instance, an evaluation of "Eroticizing Safer Sex" workshops found a number of "service gaps and barriers," including the fact that the psychodynamic group structure tended to be "uncomfortable" for individuals who were "not used to sharing their feelings and emotions in a group setting," namely "non-college educated, blue collar, non gay-identified, outer borough, and Black and Latino men." 31

Under pressure from staff members of color within the organization, GMHC's education department established a "Minority Outreach" program in 1987 "in order to carry the AIDS prevention message to gay men of color who were not benefitting from existing prevention efforts that had been designed by and for gay men who were assimilated into New York's gay culture, usually white, middle class gay men." 32 The following year, the GMHC Board of Directors amended the organization's mission statement to include a new stated goal to "Expand and adapt prevention programs to groups of men who have sex with men who have not historically been served by GMHC or other organizations." 33 By 1989, GMHC had begun to develop and implement "interventions" specifically targeting Black and Latino gay and bisexual men at bars and bathhouses. By bringing AIDS education to an "established social and entertainment network," and involving members of the community in the planning and production of the event, these programs represented a new trend toward producing "culturally relevant" AIDS education by and for the communities most impacted. 34 It was within this context that a second phase of safer sex video activism was inaugurated that would push GMHC's agenda in new directions.

Militant Eroticism

In October of 1987, GMHC's safer sex education program became the center of a national scandal when Senator Jesse Helms circulated a copy of GMHC's Safer Sex Comix on the floor of the Senate in order to launch an attack on gay-affirmative AIDS prevention materials. Designed to be distributed in gay bars and bathhouses as part of GMHC's outreach and prevention programs, the Comix featured a series of illustrated safer sex scenes with lines such as "I'd like to get fucked with a tight rubber," and "Please sir, would you shoot your man-cum on my chest?" Despite the fact that no federal monies had been used to print the Comix, Helms sponsored an amendment to the 1988 omnibus appropriations bill that passed in a vote of 94-2, preventing federal funding for any AIDS education materials that "promote, encourage, or condone homosexual sexual activities." 35

In response, GMHC once again turned to video as a medium to produce a new set of safer sex educational materials: the Safer Sex Shorts. The brainchild of Jean Carlomusto and Gregg Bordowitz, video activists who were also heavily involved in ACT UP, the series of seven short films was conceived as a video version of the Comix that upped the ante by filming real people performing sexually explicit acts. 36 As Carlomusto and Bordowitz explained, "In the face of increasing censorship amidst a morally conservative climate, we militantly advocate sex – in beds, kitchens, bars, restrooms, taxis, anywhere you want. If it's safer sex, do it! That's the message." 37 The Shorts aimed to inspire a militant reclamation of public sex by depicting safer sex scenes in precisely these kinds of locations: for instance, Midnight Snack incorporated saran wrap into a memorable rimming scene in a darkened kitchen, while Car Service involved an encounter between a cab driver and a passenger who offered three condoms in shiny wrappers as "payment" for his ride. As part of a larger movement of media activists who focused on seizing control of the means of representation, the Shorts drew on a rich history of countercultural and postcolonial media production that saw video as potentially revolutionary. 38 Whereas other forms of video activism focused on countering stereotypes or documenting protests, however, the Shorts represented what Carlomusto called "militant eroticism video." 39 Rather than educational tools, the Shorts were "specifically made with the intention of being disseminated as porn." 40

Like GMHC's other educational programs, the Shorts were envisioned as "interventionist," that is, effective means through which to disseminate a message to a particular audience. Yet this mode of intervention differed from a marketing approach in that Carlomusto and Bordowitz saw themselves as "providing video as a resource" "for communities to develop their own forms of education." 41 Fellow media activist Alexandra Juhasz explained, "We have found over the course of the AIDS crisis that education is most effective when it comes from, and is made specifically for, the diverse communities who most need to be addressed." 42 In order to "address ever widening circles of people among the communities hardest hit by AIDS," Bordowitz and Carlomusto convened task groups who would chose the scene, the situation, and the acts to be performed "with a specific community or audience in mind." 43 According to the information sheet given to these task groups, "The objective of this project is to come up with a number of culturally sensitive tapes addressing the needs of a number of communities regarding safer sex." 44 Bordowitz and Carlomusto's commitment to self-representation was influenced in large part by organizing strategies of ACT UP that emphasized self-determination. 45 According to Bordowitz, "We were not making works for a demographic, we were making works with constituencies." 46 While the first two shorts, Something Fierce and Midnight Snack, were created by Bordowitz and Carlomusto to appeal to a general audience, the remaining five shorts were designed to target specific groups. Car Service was geared toward black men, Steam Clean was aimed at Asian Americans, and Gotstabeadrag was aimed at youth of color involved in the house ball scene. 47 Current Flow was targeted at lesbians and directed by Carlomusto, who wrote the script in conversation with members of ACT UP's women's caucus. Finally, Law and Order was conceived as a S/M video, which, like Midnight Snack and Current Flow, featured a black/white interracial couple.

Of all the Shorts, one of the "most successful in terms of an intervention" was Gotstabeadrag, which was directed by David Bronstein, a filmmaker working with the drag ball community in New York. 48 As an example of what Marlon Bailey calls "a minoritarian social sphere where performance, queer genders and sexualities, and kinship coalesce to create an alternative world," ballroom culture offered black and Latino gay and gender nonconforming youth a space in which a multiplicity of gender and sexual identities were not only welcomed, but celebrated. 49

Gotstabeadrag featured scenes of voguing intercut with footage of house mother Tracy Africa addressing the audience with safer sex advice. "It doesn't matter whether you're butch, fem, male or female," she informed her audience, "Any sexual act can be made safer with the use of condoms." Evoking the glamour, beauty, and style of voguing through its camera and editing techniques, Gotstabeadrag used generic conventions of music video to highlight and amplify Tracy Africa's existing level of celebrity and authority within the ball community. The video premiered to a packed house at the House of Africa ball at the Sound Factory in January 1990, three months prior to the release of Madonna's hit single "Vogue." Unlike Madonna's best-selling music video, which as critics have noted did much more for Madonna's career than the ballroom community, Gotstabeadrag was centrally focused on showcasing the talent and glamour of the stars of ballroom culture itself. Rather than relying on the public health paradigm of interventions into "at-risk" communities, the success of Gotstabeadrag was based on its ability to work within the conceptual logic of what Cindy Patton calls a "sexual vernacular," which includes the form, aesthetic, and mode of cultural circulation of a particular community. 50 Gotstabeadrag helped to lay the foundation for GMHC's work with the ball community; GMHC went on to establish a House of Latex and the organization holds an annual Latex Ball that continues to be hailed as a successful form of outreach and community education today.

Importantly, the Shorts intentionally refrained from disclosing the serostatus of any of its characters. In contrast to Chance's focus on protecting the seronegative body from infection, the Shorts aimed to present a wide array of harm reduction practices without placing undue stress on seroconversion. This decision came at a moment when many activists involved in GMHC and ACT UP were struggling to come to terms with their own or their loved ones' HIV diagnoses and varying degrees of illness. 51 Attentive to the complex issues around visibility and vulnerability, Bordowitz and Carlomusto sought to foster an ethos of personal responsibility for safer sex without the necessity of status disclosure. While nearly all the videos featured amateur actors in keeping with Bordowitz and Carlomusto's commitment to an ethos of "people's porn," the visual economy of the Shorts linked sexual desirability to images of physical health, fitness, and able-bodiedness, excluding any representation of disabled bodies themselves. 52 In Gotstabeadrag, the glamour of ballroom culture was represented by the striking physical beauty and lithe bodies of the models and dancers. Considered in the face of a long history of the denigration and violation of black bodies, especially those deemed nonnormative, this video can be understood to challenge racist representational practices through its celebration of black performance and gender nonconformity. At the same time, the incorporation of gender nonconforming bodies of color into a larger vision of queer political inclusion was simultaneously predicated on their performance of compulsory able-bodiedness.

Interestingly, Gotstabeadrag was the only one of the shorts that did not feature any explicit sex, functioning much more like a music video than porn. The glaring absence of sex in the one video geared toward trans and gender nonconforming people speaks to the limitations of eroticizing safer sex as a queer political project. By focusing on latex as a means to sexual liberation, safer sex activism privileged a model of sexual freedom that was based on a notion of sexual choice. Yet the systemic transphobia, racism, and economic precarity that structured the lives of many of the youth involved in the ballroom scene meant that the discourse of safer sex as an erotically enhancing or empowering "choice" was not necessarily applicable. Tracy Africa's assurance that "any sexual act can be made safer" begged the question of what kind of sexual "safety" condoms offered in a context in which sex was often negotiated through various structures of power, inequality, and violence. Gotstabeadrag represented a powerful symbolic gesture of inclusion that sought to incorporate marginalized communities into a radical queer vision of sexual health. As a medium for harm reduction, however, safer sex videos alone could not address the structural conditions that constrained the "choices" of many poor gay and gender nonconforming youth of color.

Steam Clean, directed by Richard Fung and aimed at gay men of Asian descent, sought to remedy the lack of attention to systemic inequality within queer sexual cultures by tackling racist desiring practices head on. Shot on location at the Spa on Maitland, a recognizable gay bathhouse in Toronto, this video follows an East Asian man as he walks down a hall of private rooms, the camera tracking behind him as he encounters a range of reactions from disinterest to mild curiosity to overt rejection (one white man shakes his head vigorously and mouths, "NO!"). Finally, he comes across a South Asian man who smiles invitingly, and the two share kisses and caresses before using a (prominently displayed) condom for anal intercourse. As part of his larger project of "articulating counterhegemonic views of sexuality," Steam Clean constructed what Fung called "an alternative erotics." 53 Fung's enthusiasm about participating in the project was in part an effort to contest the exclusion of gay Asian men from sexual representation by depicting gay Asian men as sexual subjects who disrupted racial and sexual stereotypes. 54 In a climate where mainstream gay pornography could not imagine a desiring gay Asian male subject, Steam Clean called attention to the racism within gay sexual culture on and off the screen. Staging a public sexual encounter that explicitly critiqued and revised racialized hierarchies of gay male desire, Steam Clean disposes with any fantasies of the bathhouse as a democratic, egalitarian sexual space, depicting it instead as what Leo Bersani calls "one of the most ruthlessly ranked, hierarchized, and competitive" spaces of sexual encounter. 55 At the same time, within the sex scene itself, these power dynamics melt away to reveal what Tom Waugh described as "smiling, tender, safe coitus." 56 Through mise-en-scene and cinematography, the sex scene constructs an alternate sexual and racial imaginary grounded in a political and aesthetic commitment to equality, mutual pleasure, and a shared investment in risk reduction. While commercial porn conventionally uses high or low camera angles to convey sexual domination and submission, Steam Clean maintained a level gaze, alternating between medium and close shots to emphasize egalitarian sexual and racial relations. Additionally, while Fung chose to have the East Asian actor play the penetrative role in order to counter racial stereotypes about passivity, by positioning the South Asian "bottom" physically sitting on top during intercourse, he destabilized the conventional power dynamics of top/bottom.

Despite its effort to invert the racial and sexual hierarchies within gay commercial sexual culture, ultimately Steam Clean's political message may have eclipsed its erotic appeal. After interviewing several men who had seen the video, Fung found that in fact, his target audience did not tend to respond positively. Some of his interviewees fast-forwarded to the sex scene (thereby missing much of the social critique of racism in bathhouses) while others even fast-forwarded through the sex scene itself. One viewer felt that the video didn't have enough sex, commenting that "it doesn't disguise itself very well as porn," while another found the Shorts in general to "carry more of a medical or a social message than a pure porn film." 57 Additionally, the mandate of self-representation in order to be racially inclusive failed to take into account individual preferences in pornography; as Fung pointed out, Asian men are not necessarily attracted to Asian actors. The question of whether "the pleasure premise of porn [could] coexist with the pedagogical" points to the disconnect between queer politics and queer desires. 58 As Fung explained, "The mechanisms of producing pleasure and viewer interest, and the mechanisms of imparting information to that viewer, while mutually reliant, are not the same." 59

Foregrounding fantasy as a space for inverting hierarchies of race and class, the Shorts constituted a radical reimagining of power and domination. But by evacuating these power dynamics, the videos lost their erotic edge: as it turned out, politically radical sex was not necessarily sexually desirable. Indeed, if the marketplace of commercial pornography is any indication, the stuff of fantasy does not always align neatly with progressive political ideals. Bordowitz and Carlomusto tried in vain to convince commercial porn distributors to include the Shorts as a trailer on their videos, but there was one simple problem: they just "weren't hot" enough. 60 In addition to being unable to compete with the production value of commercial porn companies, the Shorts also refused to comply with pornographic conventions by intentionally replacing the "money shot" with the safer sex message. Caught between the contradictory objectives of commercial pornography and safer sex education, the Shorts illustrate the difficulty of reconciling these aesthetic and political commitments. While the Shorts were screened at a number of bars and bathhouses in New York City, they ultimately achieved more circulation at academic conferences and art museums than within the "communities" they were intended to speak to.

In part, it was the materiality of the Shorts that constrained their ability to circulate beyond the familiar territories within the reach of GMHC and ACT UP. While videotapes were relatively cheap to reproduce, with no budget for distribution the Shorts were not able to circulate in the ways that Bordowitz and Carlomusto had hoped for. Though they were inhibited by the lack of technical infrastructure available at the time, the entire production and distribution strategy for the Shorts represented an attempt to, in effect, go viral. Anticipating the kind of viral niche marketing that has become omnipresent in the digital age, the Safer Sex Shorts were somewhat tragically ahead of their time, limited by an analog medium that was ultimately too clunky to circulate with the velocity that they needed (one can imagine the potential impact of these videos had the internet existed at that time). It is perhaps a fitting irony that this new model for virality emerged out of a queer utopian vision of sexual freedom from the tyranny of AIDS.

In the face of overwhelming hostility, homophobia, and sex negativity, the Shorts sought to "picture possibilities" for positive representations of queer identity, belonging, and sexual freedom. 61 These videos could thus be understood as helping to construct what queer theorist José Muñoz calls "queer utopia": a means of conceptualizing "new worlds and realities that are not irrevocably constrained by the HIV/AIDS pandemic and institutionalized state homophobia" and offering "a critique of the present, of what is, by casting a picture of what can and perhaps will be." 62 At the same time, it was precisely this queer utopian vision that prevented the Shorts from realistically addressing the systemic inequalities that shaped the conditions in which sexual practices, including safer sex, were negotiated. Unlike Chance, the Shorts did not privilege the monogamous couple form, yet they too emphasized the importance of mutual care and responsibility for risk reduction. By depicting their characters as enthusiastically invested in mutual safer sex practices, these scenarios provided little advice on how to negotiate sexual encounters in which one or more parties might be resistant to risk reduction techniques. Within their utopian depiction of queer public sexual cultures, power inequalities and hierarchies were largely absent, along with visible signs of illness or disability. As a poignant and powerful artistic expression of queer utopian longing, the Shorts were exceptional. But as a tool for safer sex education, they fell short.

The vision of queer world-making the Shorts offered was one that reimagined sex itself freed from the constraints of systemic homophobia, racism, and other systems of oppression. Yet by offering a utopian ideal of safer sex as an egalitarian site of community building in which sexual pleasure could coexist with sexual health, the Shorts simultaneously disavowed the central role that power often plays within sexual desire, along with the erotic attraction of risk itself. Erasing any vestige of power hierarchies within sexual encounters, they performed what Lee Edelman calls "sexual optimism," constructing a sanitized vision of queer desire that evacuated all elements of negativity. Edelman argues that the violence of sexual normativity is not a matter of policing "good" or "bad" forms of sex, but inheres in the process of "trying to separate sex from negativity, from what's unbearable in enjoyment." 63 Within the vision of "healthy sex" that these videos offered, sexual fantasies or practices that fell outside this particular vision of queer worldmaking were rendered unthinkable, and therefore could not be assimilated into the logic of safer sex.

Testing the Limits of Inclusion

From its earliest incarnations, safer sex activism has held a complex relationship to so-called "risky" or "unprotected" sexual behavior. Initially developed as a stopgap measure for gay men whose lives were seen as unworthy of protection by the government and medical establishment, safer sex practices were imagined as a temporary undertaking in a larger battle to stop the epidemic altogether. As the temporality of AIDS shifted with increased access to anti-retrovirals in 1990 and the introduction of protease inhibitors in 1995, an HIV-positive diagnosis no longer spelled certain death. As HIV/AIDS became understood as a potentially "manageable" condition, safer sex evolved from a short-term commitment to a lifestyle.

Coinciding with these shifts, a new challenge to safer sex as a utopian ideal arose in the form of barebacking, or the intentional practice of unprotected sex. While unprotected sex was not uncommon in fantasy or in practice during the height of safer sex activism, since the mid-1990s "barebacking" gained new visibility as an object of public health concern and academic scrutiny. 64 By the end of the decade, reported incidents of sex without a condom among gay men rose from 25 to 45 percent. 65 While the question of how much responsibility for HIV transmission should be placed on the intentional practice of barebacking is up for debate, this practice has come to occupy a central place in discourses around queer sexual cultures and public health. 66 In his study of barebacking subcultures, Tim Dean argues that by embracing risk and rejecting both responsibility and respectability, barebacking challenges narratives of HIV/AIDS within both public health establishments and mainstream LGBT politics. 67 Based on what Michael McNamara terms a "pathologizing of gay male desire," barebacking has been constructed in opposition to the "mature, moral, responsible and healthy practice" of safer sex. 68 As David Halperin observes, barebacking has provided a justification for drawing new boundaries between good queers who practice safer sex and bad sexual subjects who are seen as both selfish and self-destructive. 69 The most extreme example which has garnered much popular and scholarly attention is the figure of the "bugchaser": an individual who intentionally engages in unsafe sex based on a desire to seroconvert. Describing the bugchaser as "an apocryphal figure in our contemporary cultural landscape," Octavio Gonzalez argues that within public health discourse and queer communities this rhetorical figure is mobilized to discipline everyone else into practicing safer sex. 70 The figure of the bugchaser in particular challenges normalizing discourses predicated on a "hygienic vision of the uninfected gay male body and unthreateningly 'safe' sexual behavior in the LGBT community." 71 Within the ableist cultural imaginary, the bugchaser's desire for disability is precisely what makes this figure an enduring object of both revulsion and fascination.

Particularly in the face of what many viewed as the resounding success of safer sex campaigns in changing behavior among gay men, the rise of barebacking as a practice that, regardless of the number of actual practitioners, elicits strong feelings of both disgust and desire suggests that this cultural phenomenon poses a challenge to any assumptions regarding the alignment of safer sex, queer politics, and the desirability of compulsory able-bodiedness. My purpose here is neither to indict nor exonerate the practice of barebacking, but rather to explore its rather curious – indeed, distinctly crip – relationship to safer sex activism. As a direct descendant of safer sex campaigns (indeed, "unsafe" sex could only come into being in response to "safe" sex), this queer progeny rather brazenly embraces the very "risky" activities that its predecessor sought to eliminate. While evidence suggests that the majority of "unsafe" sex practices between men actually seeks to minimize HIV transmission, barebacking within the cultural imaginary focuses on an irresponsible, uneducated, and/or irrational individual who "courts death" via his desire for seroconversion. 72 A persistent thorn in the side of public health personnel and safer sex activists alike, barebacking represents the embarrassing, shameful, uncivilized underbelly to queer life. Within our current cultural frameworks, we can only make sense of barebackers as either risky subjects (dangerous vectors of contagion) or as at-risk objects of a paternalizing savior mentality (in need of education and training in proper sexual practices). Rejecting the imperatives of personal responsibility and risk management, the barebacker's seeming indifference to becoming disabled casts him beyond the pale of a queer "community" dedicated to protecting itself from disease and disability. At the same time, barebacking practices may represent an escape from what Gonzalez terms "the compulsory able-bodied management of an HIV-negative lifestyle." 73 By refusing to adhere to community norms that privilege seronegativity, barebackers expose the ableist impulses within queer communities that otherwise embrace ideals of sexual freedom. Posing a challenge to the alignment of queer politics with safer sex practices, barebacking illustrates the limitations of a politics of inclusion based on an ableist investment in "healthy" desires oriented toward an HIV negative serostatus.

As one of the first self-proclaimed barebackers to take a public stand against safer sex, writer and porn actor Scott O'Hara described himself as one of "the unrepentant libertines" who believed that "Sex is not, cannot be, and should not be 'safe.'" 74 For O'Hara, the risk of dying at a younger age than other gay men who practiced safer sex was "worth it." 75 Being HIV positive, O'Hara said, gave him "the freedom to behave 'irresponsibly.' I look at the HIV-negative people around me, and I pity them. They live their lives in constant fear of infection: mustn't do this, mustn't do that, mustn't take risks…. My life is so much more carefree than theirs." 76 For O'Hara, HIV positivity was an enabling, rather than disabling, condition. Asserting his own freedom, O'Hara reversed the discourse of pity to focus on HIV-negative individuals whose lives were limited by fear of infection. Arguing that true sexual liberation includes "the freedom to behave 'irresponsibly,'" O'Hara not only called into question the compatibility of health and pleasure but also the desirability of HIV negativity. In this sense, O'Hara could be understood as embodying an alternative queer crip sensibility that called into question the alignment of safer sex with queer politics.

O'Hara's embrace of irresponsible, risky sex represented a refusal to valorize seronegativity and thus a sound rejection of compulsory able-bodiedness. While this position may appear to lack political viability, O'Hara was not alone in his convictions. Halperin has observed that "O'Hara clearly found liberation in abjection. Moreover, abjection led him to forge new sexual communities and cultures among the outcast, the shamed, the excluded." 77 These views were echoed in publications created by and for HIV positive individuals such as Diseased Pariah Network, which featured articles such as "I Fisted Jesse Helms," and "Aunt Kaposi's Advice to the Loveworn." Staging campy reversals of the moralistic discourse associated with safer sex, articles like these valorized HIV positivity as desirable and liberating. Diseased Pariah News (DPN) embraced the multivalent and sometimes ambivalent positionality of being HIV positive. With tongue-in-cheek humor and acerbic wit, DPN writers spoke candidly to the perils and pleasures of "pos" identity. Rather than advocating for liberal tolerance or inclusion for HIV positive individuals, DPN embraced the status of "diseased pariah" as a way to maintain critical distance from the violent normalization of compulsory able-bodiedness. Without erasing the political conditions that led to the AIDS epidemic, DPN validated the very behaviors and desires that safer sex discourse rendered illegitimate. For instance, the "current obsessions" of Kevin Bryson, coverboy of a 1993 issue of DPN included: "making and star[r]ing in HIV porn – unsafe, nasty sex for the DPN Nation; obtaining enough Seconal to act out Sharon Tate's death scene in 'Valley of the Dolls'; Henry Rollins (ex-member of Black Flag) of the Rollins Band – ultimate stud from hell; Wigstock, N.Y.C.; finding an HIV boy into tattoos, buzz cuts, boots, rough sex, and trouble who is searching for a buddy to live our a final 'Living End'/'Thelma and Louise' type of exit from this earth." 78 Far from romanticizing HIV/AIDS, Bryson characterized it as "a real life horror movie that's fucked up all of our lives." At the same time, he unapologetically defended his own choice to practice "unsafe, nasty sex for the DPN Nation." 79

This articulation of DPN as its own "nation" was a reference to, and disidentification from, the activist group Queer Nation, which had been formed in 1990 at an ACT UP New York meeting. Borrowing from ACT UP's militant tactics of street protest and public spectacle, Queer Nation embraced a "national-style camp counterpolitics" that relied on hypervisible actions in public spaces from bars to shopping malls. 80 At a moment when Queer Nation represented the face of radical queer politics, DPN put forth its own distinctly crip political stance. If Queer Nation was organized around the defiant refusal of heteronormativity, "DPN Nation" coalesced around a failure to incorporate the "unsafe, nasty" elements of queer (crip) life that could not be assimilated into Queer Nation's political project. Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner argued that safer sex served to construct a collective, affective mode of queer life: as a form of "critical practical knowledge," this kind of "counterintimacy" was not an "empty release or transgression" but rather "a common language of self-cultivation, shared knowledge, and the exchange of inwardness." 81

In stark contrast to safer sex as a queer nation-building project, DPN articulated an ethos of unsafe sex as a critical element of crip identity and belonging. Tobin Siebers has argued that people with disabilities have historically been excluded from "sexual culture" through institutional practices and cultural conceptions that deny people with disabilities forms of sexual expression. 82 Like people with disabilities more broadly, HIV-positive individuals have been historically denied the right to free sexual expression. A consideration of barebacking as an example of a uniquely crip sexual practice enlarges our understanding of what might count as sexual culture, while simultaneously challenging ableist assumptions about what kinds of sexual behavior are desirable.

Rather than seeking social acceptance/belonging within the "mainstream" or within queer counter-cultures, DPN exemplifies the embrace of what Halperin calls the "antisocial splendor" of gay sex with "its filthiness, its disgracefulness, its thrills, its delirious risks and dangers, its defiance." 83 While Halperin's vision for sexual politics has been critiqued for its privileging of a normative white, gay male identity, an ethical investment in abjection could alternately be read as the foundation for the kind of coalitional queer politics that Cathy Cohen called for in her landmark 1997 essay, "Punks, Bulldaggers and Welfare Queens: Toward a Radical Queer Politics?" Cohen critiqued the growing movement around "queer politics" (represented most visibly by Queer Nation) for its inability to make common cause with other marginalized groups. For Cohen, "punks, bulldaggers, and welfare queens" described groups who, like queers, were located on the margins of social and political belonging, often possessing their own anti-normative critique of the state and capital. Cohen argued that the radical potential in queer politics lay within the queer movement's ability to build coalitions that expanded beyond the sexual specificity of queerness grounded in various forms of sexual nonconformity. 84 While Cohen does not explicitly address disability, her analysis lends itself to a crip politics centered on the embrace of abjection in various forms. Her essay in fact begins by addressing issues of racism at GMHC, and ends with a discussion of ACT UP needle exchange and prison programs as exemplary of coalition-based politics that brought marginalized communities together by virtue of their shared experience of state and medical neglect during the AIDS epidemic.

While DPN did not explicitly advocate the type of coalitional politics that Cohen envisioned (indeed, the publication was quite limited to the issues and interests of its HIV positive constituents), in its own way it did enact a new form of queer politics along the lines of Cohen's argument. For instance, an article titled "The Complete Welfare Queen" advocated quitting your job and living off disability as "one of the best deals currently available for diseased pariahs in these United States." DPN appropriated the stereotypes commonly used to discredit black single mothers to advocate for its own model of welfare queendom: "If you can bind the Fed by their own stupid and contradictory rules to fund your poetry writing or graffiti campaign, or cooking yourself nice fattening meals, isn't this as good a use of your own fucking tax dollars (and those of your friends and family) as 'lending' them to Israel so they can buy war-toys and build more Zionist trailer parks in Palestine?" 85 Rather than rejecting the conservative cultural invention of the welfare queen as racist or classist (the general liberal response), DPN embraced the abject figure of the welfare queen as a model for crip politics. Enthusiastically encouraging gaming the system, DPN advocated redistributing economic resources away from U.S. military imperialism and toward various and sundry "nonproductive" applications such as poetry, graffiti, and "fattening meals." Indeed, DPN's attitude toward food illustrated its critique of normative regimes of health: its regular cooking column, "Get Fat, Don't Die!" was self-styled as an antidote to the weight-loss side effects of AIDS medications through the embrace of distinctly unhealthy recipes for things like "Hard-Hearted Hannah's Pecan Buttercrunch," "Biffy Mae's Sexually Repressed Pecan Pie," and pot brownies. Inverting dominant systems of social currency, DPN valorized the very signifiers of immorality and irresponsibility that have traditionally been used to dispossess those who "fail" to conform to the compulsory able-bodied demands of the state and capital: fatness, laziness, entitlement, and presumably nonproductive and perhaps antisocial artistic practices such as poetry and graffiti.

Instead of adhering to a politics of inclusion, DPN pursued the strategy of embracing abjection in all its forms. In so doing, it rejected a medical model of AIDS as an illness which longs for a cure, instead reimagining HIV positivity as a form of dis-ease that signals the breakdown of a larger sociopolitical system, as that which cannot be recuperated biologically or socially. Exposing the inherent ableism within most discourses on AIDS/HIV, the transformation of "pos" identity into a desirable and valorized social form called into question the privileging of HIV negativity as a normative ideal. As Gonzalez points out, "from a radically queer disability-rights perspective" HIV positivity could be understood as "a socially enabling and positive style of life." 86 One public health study of barebacking ends with the following closing remarks: "Could it be possible, then, to perceive of barebackers as human beings desperate to live a life outside the violence of order, and determined to live fully (although excessively)? Through the limit experience of unsafe anal sex with anonymous partners of unknown (HIV) serological status, barebackers are engaged in a revolution against the constraints of everyday life." 87 According to this account, through a valorization of sexual "excess," barebacking rejects the ableist imperatives of self-control, order, and risk management. Refusing to privilege normative ideals of "the good life" over the transient demands and pleasures of the here and now, barebackers constructed their own ethical and aesthetic rules to live (and die) by: "Live fast, die hard." 88

Conclusion

This article has sought to examine the relationship between early safer sex activism and queer/crip politics as a way to think through the split legacy they have imparted. On one hand, Chance of a Lifetime and the Safer Sex Shorts represented a radical form of resistance to the necropolitical state violence that targeted queers for death during the AIDS crisis. Redefining practices that had formerly been considered deviant as "healthy," safer sex videos constructed utopian visions of sexual health and queer intimacy. At the same time, by linking sexual freedom to a specific techne of safer sex practices, these videos delimited the boundaries of who could or would align themselves with this particular political project. The price queers paid for inclusion within the mandate of health was their participation in new modes of control: not imposed by the state but through one's own contradictory desires for able-bodiedness and sexual freedom. Within the techne of safer sex, there is no space for desiring practices that do not adhere to the biopolitical logic of longevity as a measure of worth. In contrast, crip practices that reject discourses of "safety" challenge the ableist privileging of seronegativity as the fundamental marker of a life worth living.

"The Safer Sex Shorts were brilliant but they failed," Bordowitz commented in an interview. 89 Yet the "failure" of the Shorts points to a larger incommensurability between radical queer politics and public health imperatives; between sexual freedom and sexual "safety." We might consider the queer world-making project of safer sex, along with its inevitable shortcomings, as a form of what Jack Halberstam calls the "queer art of failure." For Halberstam, failure is something to be embraced because it "allows us to escape the punishing norms that discipline behavior and manage human development." 90 If many people experience safer sex as a frustrating attempt at self-control that is ultimately destined to fail (who, after all, has ever been successful in practicing safer sex one hundred percent of the time?) perhaps the entire apparatus of safer sex itself is exemplary of the ways in which normalizing logics eventually break down. Indeed, barebackers exhibit what we might call a radical ineptitude for biopolitical regimes of governance. In making this claim, I am not suggesting that barebacking constitutes a radical, resistant, or even political stance. In contrast to the outspoken defiance espoused by figures such as O'Hara, the great majority of people who practice unsafe sex are likely not doing so because of an explicit political commitment. The challenge for us is to come to terms with unprotected sex as an apolitical activity that nevertheless violates some of the fundamental tenets of biopolitical governance. In so doing, we would do well to recall Chris Bell's insistence that there is no clear-cut line between "responsible" and "irresponsible" behavior. What might it mean to explore what Bell terms "a middle space, moving toward and away from responsibility and irresponsibility as circumstance, agency, and desire dictate"? 91

Rather than celebrating barebacking as a form of resistance, then, perhaps we need to explore what Sianne Ngai terms "the politically ambiguous work of negative emotions" that are "explicitly amoral and noncathartic, offering no satisfactions of virtue, however oblique, nor any therapeutic or purifying release." 92 Ngai points to Melville's classic story of "Bartleby, the Scrivener" as politically equivocal, demonstrating how Bartleby's "unyielding passivity" could be read as either radical or reactionary. Bartleby's "unnervingly passive form of dissent" characterized by his refrain of "I prefer not to" bears an uncanny similarity to barebacking, insofar as it resists categorization or comprehension. 93 Rather than indicting or exonerating "unsafe" sex, perhaps we need to rest with the radical uncertainty that this practice may not signify according to any of the normative logics we are familiar with. This may allow us to rethink our assumptions about how we define sexual freedom, queer politics, and crip life itself.

Endnotes

  1. Chance of a Lifetime was produced as part of a GMHC study of the impact of AIDS risk reduction and education programs known as the "800 Men" Project, which took place between March 1985 and October 1987. Designed to test the theory that erotic audiovisual materials would be more effective at inspiring behavior change than print materials, this video was screened to one-third of the 619 study participants. See M. Quadland, W. Shattles, R. Shuman, R. Jacobs, J. D'Eramo, The '800 Men' Project: A Report on the Design, Implementation and Evaluation of an AIDS Risk Reduction and Education Program, October 1987, Gay Men's Health Crisis, GMHC Records, New York Public Library Manuscripts and Archives Division.
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  2. I use the term "gay" because it was a political term adopted by GMHC as an organization and because Chance of a Lifetime was explicitly aimed at gay-identified men. As GMHC's video production shifted to reflect a more diverse constituency later in the decade, I use the term "queer" when appropriate to indicate a political opposition to heteronormative institutions and structures.
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  3. Living With AIDS. Gay Men's Health Crisis. Episode #14. March 17, 1986. Videocassette. GMHC Records, New York Public Library Manuscripts and Archives Division.
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  4. Chance of a Lifetime, directed by John Lewis (1985), videocassette. AIDS Activist Videotape Collection, New York Public Library Manuscripts and Archives Division.
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  5. Other notable erotic safer sex videos produced during this period include Life Guard (HIS Video, 1985), created by porn company VCA in conjunction with the San Francisco AIDS Foundation; Inevitable Love (1985), funded by group of clinical psychologists; Play Safely (1986, Fantasy Productions); Turbo Charge trailer (1987, Surge Studios); Top Man (1988, Catalina Video); and Getting it Right (1993, Pride Video Productions), which was produced in conjunction with U.K. AIDS organization Terrence Higgins Trust. Additionally, in 1993 the San Francisco AIDS Foundation hosted a Gay Men's Safe Sex Video Contest cosponsored by Falcon Studios and Frameline, the San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. Lesbian porn company Fatale Video also produced a number of safer sex videos for women including Clips (1989); Suburban Dykes (1990); and Safe is Desire (1993).
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  6. Jean Carlomusto and Gregg Bordowitz, "Do It! Safer Sex Porn for Girls and Boys Comes of Age," in A Leap in the Dark: AIDS, Art, and Contemporary Cultures, ed. Allan Klusacek and Ken Morrison (Montreal, Quebec: Véhicule Press, 1992), 181.
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  7. Carlomusto and Bordowitz, 181.
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  8. Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner, "Sex in Public," Critical Inquiry 24 (1998): 561, https://doi.org/10.1086/448884.
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  9. Douglas Crimp, "How to Have Promiscuity in an Epidemic," in AIDS: Cultural Analysis, Cultural Activism, ed. Leo Bersani and Douglas Crimp (MIT Press, 1988), 253, https://doi.org/10.2307/3397576.
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  10. Cindy Patton, Inventing AIDS (Routledge, 1990), 42.
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  11. Robert McRuer, "Disability and the NAMES Project," The Public Historian 27, no. 2 (2005): 60, https://doi.org/10.1525/tph.2005.27.2.53.
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  12. Octavio Gonzalez reports that "There is a whole lot of public hand-wringing over MSM—specifically, hand-wringing over increasing incidence rates within this population, precisely despite decades of focused HIV-prevention efforts dedicated to diminishing the impact of HIV/AIDS within communities of gay and bisexual men." See Octavio R. Gonzalez, "Tracking the Bugchaser: Giving The Gift of HIV/AIDS," Cultural Critique 75, no. 1 (2010): 84, https://doi.org/10.1353/cul.2010.0010. While the annual number of total new HIV infections has remained relatively stable in recent years, it has increased significantly among the epidemiological category of MSM, with new infections rising 12% from 2008 to 2010 (from 26,700 to 29,800). The U.S. government estimates that although MSM represent about 4% of the male population in the United States, they accounted for 78% of new HIV infections among males in 2010. See "HIV in the United States: At a Glance," U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, published December 2, 2014, https://www.aids.gov/hiv-aids-basics/hiv-aids-101/statistics/
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  13. Research & Decisions Corporation, "A Report on: Designing an Effective AIDS Prevention Campaign Strategy for San Francisco: Results from the First Probability Sample of an Urban Gay male Community," December 3, 1984, The San Francisco AIDS Foundation, GMHC Records, New York Public Library Manuscripts and Archives Division.
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  14. Alexander R. Galloway, The Interface Effect (Cambridge, UK; Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2012), 16.
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  15. AIDS activist videos were not only inspired by the pioneering work of the civil rights, gay liberation, and women's health movements, but also a genealogy of radical film and video production, from Third Cinema and New American Cinema to indigenous media and camcorder activism. See Alexandra Juhasz, AIDS TV: Identity, Community, and Alternative Video (Duke University Press, 1995), 33.
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  16. Ibid., 8-9.
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  17. Bernard Arcand, "Erotica and Behaviour Change: The Anthropologist as Voyeur," in A Leap in the Dark: AIDS, Art, and Contemporary Cultures, ed. Allan Klusacek and Ken Morrison (Montreal, Quebec: Véhicule Press, 1992), 173.
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  18. Richard Dyer, "Male Gay Porn: Coming to Terms," Jump Cut, no. 30 (March 1985): 27.
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  19. Valli Kanuha, Memorandum to Margaret Reinfeldt, April 24, 1989, GMHC Records, New York Public Library Manuscripts and Archives Division.
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  20. Ibid.
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  21. Quadland et al, 14. The term "healthy sex" was used regularly in early AIDS education materials, but was later changed to "safe sex" in order to be less stigmatizing. Public health organizations would later go on to adopt the term "safer sex" in order to emphasize risk reduction rather than elimination.
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  22. Michael Helquist, "Safe Sex: Guidelines That Could Save Your Life," The Advocate, August 6, 1985, 39.
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  23. Sander L. Gilman, Picturing Health and Illness: Images of Identity and Difference (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 145.
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  24. Marita Sturken, Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, the AIDS Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering (University of California Press, 1997), 197.
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  25. Thomas Waugh, The Fruit Machine: Twenty Years of Writings on Queer Cinema (Duke University Press, 2000), 223, https://doi.org/10.1215/9780822380948.
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  26. Simon Watney, Policing Desire: Pornography, AIDS, and the Media (Continuum International Publishing Group, 1987), x.
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  27. The longer version of this essay discusses the third segment in Chance, which featured an interracial encounter in a S/M club. Within a climate of sex negativity, this depiction of commercial sex establishments as an integral part of gay sexual culture affirmed public sex and leather practices in particular as both desirable and healthy. While this portrayal of anonymous public sex represented an effort to speak to a broader range of sexual practices, I suggest that this scene ultimately disavowed the elements of risk that were often intimately associated with the desirability of these very practices.
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  28. Susan Wendell, "Unhealthy Disabled: Treating Chronic Illnesses as Disabilities," Hypatia 16, no. 4 (2001): 17–33, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1527-2001.2001.tb00751.x.
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  29. Ibid, 22.
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  30. Chris Bell, "I'm Not the Man I Used to Be: Sex, HIV, and Cultural 'Responsibility,'" in Sex and Disability, ed. Robert McRuer and Anna Mollow (Duke University Press, 2012), 226, https://doi.org/10.1215/9780822394877-011.
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  31. Robert E. Penn, People of Color memoranda to Margaret Reinfeld, August 9, 1990, GMHC Records, NYPL Manuscripts and Archives Division; Eroticizing Safer Sex workshop evaluation, n.d. [circa 1990] GMHC Records, NYPL Manuscripts and Archives Division.
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  32. AIDS Prevention Programs for POC Vision and Programs, 1990/91, GMHC Records, NYPL Manuscripts and Archives Division.
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  33. GMHC Board Minutes, October 16, 1988, GMHC Records, NYPL Manuscripts and Archives Division.
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  34. Love Boat, Video recording, 1993, GMHC Records, NYPL Manuscripts and Archives Division.
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  35. Crimp, 259.
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  36. Gregg Bordowitz, interview by author, Chicago, IL, September 19, 2014, tape recording.
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  37. Ibid., 180.
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  38. Juhasz, 40. As part of a larger group of video activists dedicated to an ethos of sharing footage, resources, and skills, Bordowitz and Carlomusto first met at the first ACT UP protest in 1987, going on to form the Damned Interfering Video Activists (DIVA TV) with a number of other media activists in 1989, an affinity group of ACT UP engaged in media activism such as police counter-surveillance during protests.
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  39. Jean Carlomusto, "Focusing on Women: Video as Activism," in Women, AIDS, and Activism (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1990), 215.
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  40. Bordowitz interview.
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  41. Bordowitz interview; Carlomusto and Bordowitz,180.
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  42. Juhasz, 23.
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  43. Carlomusto and Bordowitz, 180; 179.
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  44. Richard Fung, "Shortcomings: Questions about Pornography as Pedagogy," in Queer Looks: Perspectives on Lesbian and Gay Film and Video, ed. Martha Gever, Pratibha Parmar, and John Greyson (New York: Routledge, 1993), 357.
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  45. Bordowitz interview.
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  46. Bordowitz interview.
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  47. Another short geared toward Latinos was headed by Ray Navarro but the project was not completed because of Navarro's illness.
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  48. Bordowitz interview.
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  49. Marlon M. Bailey, "Gender/Racial Realness: Theorizing the Gender System in Ballroom Culture," Feminist Studies 37, no. 2 (2011): 254.
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  50. Cindy Patton, Fatal Advice: How Safe-Sex Education Went Wrong (Duke University Press, 1996), 147.
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  51. For example, Gregg Bordowitz writes about how his own experience testing HIV-positive in the spring of 1988 led him to grapple with a new set of questions about representation in relation to "the uncertainties inherent in the experience of being a person with HIV, uncertainties regarding sexuality, agency, and death." Gregg Bordowitz, The AIDS Crisis Is Ridiculous and Other Writings: 1986-2003 (MIT Press, 2004), 88.
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  52. All videos featured amateur actors (including well-known AIDS activists Peter Staley and Blane Mosley) with the exception of Law and Order, which starred professional S/M actors Keith Ardent and Joe Simmons, and Current Flow, which starred well-known porn actress Annie Sprinkle.
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  53. Richard Fung, "Center the Margins," in Russell Leong, ed., Moving the Image: Independent Asian Pacific American Media Arts (Los Angeles: UCLA Asian American Studies Center, 1991), 64.
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  54. Fung, "Shortcomings."
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  55. Leo Bersani, "Is the Rectum a Grave?," October 43 (December 1, 1987): 206, https://doi.org/10.2307/3397574.
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  56. Waugh, 169
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  57. Fung, "Shortcomings," 364.
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  58. Ibid., 357.
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  59. Ibid., 365.
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  60. Bordowitz interview.
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  61. Gregg Bordowitz, "The AIDS Crisis Is Ridiculous," in Queer Looks: Perspectives on Lesbian and Gay Film and Video, ed. Martha Gever, Pratibha Parmar, and John Greyson (New York: Routledge, 1993), 213.
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  62. José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (NYU Press, 2009), 27; 35.
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  63. Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman, Sex, or the Unbearable (Duke University Press, 2013), 32, https://doi.org/10.1215/9780822377061.
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  64. For instance, Bordowitz explored the fantasy of unsafe sex and specifically of infecting a sexual partner with HIV in his writing and videomaking. See Bordowitz, "Dense Moments," in Uncontrollable Bodies, eds. Rodney Sappington and Tyler Stawlings (Seattle: Bay Press, 1994), pp. 25-43; Fast Trip, Long Drop, directed by Gregg Bordowitz (1993), DVD.
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  65. Jeffrey Escoffier, Bigger Than Life: The History of Gay Porn Cinema from Beefcake to Hardcore (Running Press, 2009), 133.
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  66. Gonzalez argues that barebacking needs to be separated from HIV transmission, since many barebackers employ risk reduction techniques. He also argues that the figure of the "bugchaser" has become a "panic icon" despite very little evidence of bugchasing as a widespread practice. Also see Michael Shernoff, Without Condoms: Unprotected Sex, Gay Men and Barebacking (Routledge, 2013); David M. Halperin, What Do Gay Men Want?: An Essay on Sex, Risk, and Subjectivity (University of Michigan Press, 2007); Kane Race, "Engaging in a Culture of Barebacking: Gay Men and the Risk of HIV Prevention," in Gendered Risks, ed. Kelly Hannah-Moffat and Pat O'Malley (Routledge, 2007), 99–126; Michael McNamara, "Cumming to Terms: Bareback Pornography, Homonormativity, and Queer Survival in the Time of HIV/AIDS," in The Moral Panics of Sexuality, ed. Breanne Fahs, Mary L. Dudy, and Sarah Stage (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 226–44, https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137353177.0022.
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  67. Tim Dean, Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking (University of Chicago Press, 2009), https://doi.org/10.7208/chicago/9780226139401.001.0001.
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  68. McNamara, 239.
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  69. Halperin, 11.
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  70. Gonzalez, 87; 91.
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  71. Ibid., 89.
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  72. My use of the masculine pronoun reflects the predominant cultural image of the barebacker as a cisgendered gay man, while acknowledging that individuals of all genders participate in activities considered to be more or less "safe."
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  73. Ibid., 104.
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  74. Scott O'Hara, "Safety First?," The Advocate, July 8, 1997.
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  75. Ibid.
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  76. Quoted in Gonzalez, 88.
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  77. Halperin, 89.
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  78. "Buttfucking Saved my Life! Unrepentant Guilty Pariah Confesses All in Shocking Exposé," Diseased Pariah News 7 (1992): 18.
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  79. Ibid.
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  80. Lauren Berlant and Elizabeth Freeman, "Queer Nationality," in Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory, ed. Michael Warner (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 197.
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  81. Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner, "Sex in Public," Critical Inquiry 24 (1998): 561, https://doi.org/10.1086/448884.
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  82. Tobin Siebers, "A Sexual Culture for Disabled People," in Sex and Disability, ed. Robert McRuer and Anna Mollow (Duke University Press, 2012), 37–53.
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  83. Halperin, 81.
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  84. Cathy J. Cohen, "Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?," GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 3, no. 4 (May 1, 1997): 437–65, https://doi.org/10.1215/9780822387220-003.
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  85. Sleazy Wisdom, "The Complete Welfare Queen," Diseased Pariah News 7 (1992): 4-5.
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  86. Gonzalez, 88.
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  87. Dave Holmes, Patrick O'Byrne, and Denise Gastaldo, "Raw Sex as Limit Experience: A Foucauldian Analysis of Unsafe Anal Sex between Men," Social Theory & Health 4 (2004): 332.
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  88. "Buttfucking Saved my Life!," 18.
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  89. Ibid.
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  90. Judith Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Duke University Press, 2011), 3.
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  91. Bell, 226. This negotiation of risk on the part of individuals has been at work since the early years of the epidemic, and is undergoing transformation with the development of more sophisticated treatment options along with the growing availability of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) medications such as Truvada. While a discussion of contemporary AIDS treatment and prevention options is beyond the scope of this paper, it is important to consider how older discourses around personal responsibility and community protection are being re-tooled and redeployed in current public health discourse.
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  92. Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings (Harvard University Press, 2005), 6.
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  93. Ibid., 1.
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