Badpuppy Gay Today

Monday, 07 April, 1997

Policing Public Sex: Queer Politics and the Future of AIDS

Edited by Dangerous Bedfellows

South End Press; 416 pages; $20.00.

A Book Review by Jesse Monteagudo


The antisex crusade, which has been gaining ground since the emergence of AIDS in the early 1980's, has taken over Times Square. In 1995 the New York City Council passed a zoning law that bans adult-oriented businesses from most of the Big Apple, Times Square included. Meanwhile the New York Police Department, as part of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's anticrime crusade, began to get tough on sexually-oriented "crimes." Using an AIDS-inspired ordinance that banned anal or vaginal sex (with or without a condom in public venues) the NYPD raided and closed adult bookstores, bathhouses and sex clubs, driving Gotham's sex culture underground. Among the winners of Giuliani's largely successful war on crime and sex was Giuliani himself, who seems to be a shoo-in for re-election, and the big developers, who have taken advantage of a unique opportunity to acquire prime Downtown property relatively cheap.

New York City's war against sex has the support of conservative gay "leaders" who are alarmed by rising HIV rates, praised by Giuliani & Co. for saving promiscuous, diseased gay men from themselves. Though Giuliani might be popular with assimilationists, he's soundly criticized by queer activists who believe in sexual freedom, both for its own sake and as the basis for lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender liberation. (What use is the right to marry if a "sodomy law" "forbids" you from doing anything on your honeymoon?) Five activists---Ephen Glenn Colter, Wayne Hoffman, Eva Pendleton, Alison Redick and David Serlin---joined forces as Dangerous Bedfellows to produce "POLICING PUBLIC SEX: Queer Politics and the Future of AIDS."

"In calling this book Policing Public Sex, we have intended to be provocative," say Dangerous Bedfellows, in their "Introduction." "The essays collected herein will explore many questions brought to the fore by the debate over public sex and HIV prevention." What are the effects of the anti-sex crusade---in New York City--and elsewhere on activism, AIDS prevention, feminism, and progressive movements in general? Though much of the argument in this book centers around NYC's "sex wars", there are politicians in all 50 states who have antisex agendas of their own that would make Giuliani's seem moderate by comparison. POLICING PUBLIC SEX speaks to all of us.

The contributors to POLICING PUBLIC SEX direct some of their harshest criticism at the gay "spokes people" who conspire with authorities to ban public sex clubs and curtail queer sexual expression "for our own good." In New York a group of busybodies who call themselves GALHPA (Gay and Lesbian HIV Prevention Activists) worked with the police to close down the local sex clubs. Gay journalists Jonathan Capehart, Gabriel Rotello and Michelangelo Signorile joined the fray, criticizing their brothers for continuing to indulge in promiscuous sex 15 years into the AIDS epidemic. POLICING PUBLIC SEX condemns such "reactivism"--which it defines as "reactionary politics masquerading community-based activism"--for trying to control the lives of those that it seeks to "save".

"The essays collected in this volume document many aspects of the (public sex) conflict and show how and why the controversy over closing the sex clubs became the inspiration for rethinking priorities and reviving flagging energies within the AIDS movement," writes contributor Andrew Ross.

The essays are divided into four different but related themes: public sex, AIDS activism, policing sexuality and queer politics. Though some of the essays are repetitious, and some are boring, they are on the whole incisive and thought-provoking. Allan Berube's "History of Gay Bathhouses" is a classic, and should be read by all who view the baths as disease vectors and political embarrassments.

Lidell Jackson and Joceylyn Taylor discuss the importance of sex clubs to queer African Americans; Carol Leigh (a.k.a. Scarlot Harlot) talks about the politics of prostitution. Generation X-er Wayne Hoffman writes about "Coming of Age in the Sexual Devolution." In "Talking with My Mouth Full," (my favorite essay) gay sex worker, author and PWA Scott O'Hara begins by pointing out that "for gay men...having our mouths full of dick has been a political statement like no other" calls monogamy "unnatural behavior," and that "(h)aving AIDS has ...given me back my sexuality and my voice."

In all fairness, it should be said that only one side of the public sex debate is represented in POLICING PUBLIC SEX. Dangerous Bedfellows realize this, and admit that they "undertook this project largely as a corrective to the sex-negative (and overly hysterical) spin found in most mainstream publications around the topic of AIDS and sex." We live in a culture that allows limited expression, and whose idea of a "debate" on sex is one between conservative, antisex hetero Michel Bennett and conservative, pro-marriage (though not monogamous) homo Andrew Sullivan. Books like POLICING PUBLIC SEX provide a forum for views that are not heard anymore, outside of alternative publications and the Internet (at least until Clinton and the Congress have their way) is required reading for queer activists, AIDS activists, and all who value freedom.

________________________________________________________________________ Jesse Monteagudo's book reviews have appeared in Southern newspapers and magazines as The Book Nook since 1977. Monteagudo, since that time, has become widely recognized as one of the South's foremost gay and lesbian liberation scholars, archivists and activists, an indefatigable South Florida community leader.


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