“The issue is disease – not sex.”

       The beginnings of the AIDS epidemic were filled with uncertainty and many questions. However, within a year, it was understood that AIDS – known as GRID [Gay-Related Immune Deficiency] at the time – was sexually linked.  Richard Berkowitz and Michael Callen, however, chose to focus on the subject of disease in a section of their paper, How to Have Sex in An Epidemic. They state: “the issue is disease – not sex” (573). This message is repeated three times within the section, almost verbatim, to place an emphasis on the misconceptions of the AIDS epidemic and the misdirection of the ‘safety guidelines’ during the era.

         While it is true that AIDS can be transmitted through sex, the act of sex itself was not the problem. As the paper points out, the epidemic is about disease and its focus should be on the prevention of the spread of the disease. With the statement: “the issue is disease – not sex,” Berkowitz and Callen highlight the dangerous misdirection of placing sex at the forefront of the AIDS epidemic. They are not arguing that people practice what we may now consider as ‘unsafe sex,’ however. What they argue is that instead placing the focus on sex – specifically how many partners should one have, who should one have sex with, and how many times should one have sex – the focus should be on the nature of the disease. As they point out in their writing, even if a man limits himself to one partner a month, he can still contract the disease from one of them (572). By placing sex at the forefront, the importance of understanding the spread and prevention of the disease is undermined. 

         By focusing the discussion on sex, the discussion turns towards the sex practices of gay men. The name ‘GRID’ itself was explicit in identifying one group: thereby, changing the topic away from the disease and towards gay men. Which then gave the government, medical practitioners, and media an excuse to scrutinize and violate the lives of people within the community. In other words, instead of discussing how many lives were taken and discussing the prevention of more deaths, the discourse focuses on scrutinizing sexuality. What I believe the authors’ purpose in repeating this message was to bring our attention to this problem. The discussion is not focusing on the correct topic – disease and the spread of the diseases is the issue, not sex.

2 thoughts on ““The issue is disease – not sex.””

  1. You did a great job analyzing the arguments of Callen and Berkowitz in this post. I did a project on the AIDS epidemic last year, and a lot of my research centered around looking at how people used the epidemic to corroborate their preconceived notions about the sinfulness of homosexuality. There was widespread critique about the promiscuity of gay men during this time period; as you state, however, sleeping with fewer people does not protect you from AIDS. The message of limiting sexual partners takes the focus away from the search for solutions to AIDS as a disease and perpetuates the narrative that the sexual practices of gay people are inherently deviant.

  2. Hi Jules, I think you’re completely right! And I think there can be a lot of parallels made between what you are talking about and the pandemic we are living through today. The term GRID implies that immune-deficiencies originate in sexual orientation instead of disease. Unfortunately, there is a likeness in terms Trump has created such as “Kung Flu” and “China Virus”, which have led to a spike in Asian blame and hate. Like GRID and gay men, Trump’s anti-Asian terms turns blame on the virus to blame on people who are Asian. The issue isn’t sexual orientation or race– the issue is indeed the diseases.

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