Film

The Gay Man’s Guide to Safer Sex: How a tender, explicit sex ed film humanised HIV in the 90s

Patrick Kelleher February 27, 2022
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Two men kissing in a still from The Gay Men's Guide to Safer Sex. (Barbican)

Two men kissing in a still from The Gay Men's Guide to Safer Sex. (Barbican)

It’s 30 years since the trailblazing film The Gay Man’s Guide to Safer Sex was released on video in the UK – and yet it still feels daring and radical. 

Around 22 minutes into the film, there’s a beautifully-acted, erotic scene which shows two men kissing before having sex. One of the men says he wants to talk first. In a candid moment, he reveals that he is HIV positive. The ensuing conversation is remarkable – there’s no judgement, no discrimination – instead, they discuss how to have sex safely.

The film isn’t steeped in the medicalised language that we’re used to – instead, its contributors speak in the gay vernacular of the day. There’s talk about “f**king” and “sucking”, giving and receiving. 

Most striking of all is that the film is filled with real, gloriously erotic sex scenes. It’s not just a guide on how to have safe sex – it’s a powerful ode to intimacy that celebrates the resilience of the queer community of the day. 

The film was made in association with the Terrence Higgins Trust, one of the UK’s leading HIV charities. Richard Angell, campaigns director with the charity, says The Gay Man’s Guide to Safer Sex was “incredibly important” when it debuted in 1992.

“It was made by gay men for gay men,” Richard tells PinkNews. “It really is remarkable.”

The Gay Man’s Guide to Safer Sex humanised people living with HIV

To mark its 30th anniversary, The Gay Man’s Guide to Safer Sex will be screened at the Barbican in London on Tuesday (1 March). The screening will be followed by a discussion about its legacy.

The film is a fascinating look into a specific moment in time in the history of the AIDS epidemic.

“It shows people dealing with HIV, not only as real people – even if they were actors or models playing the roles – but it shows them as humans, not caricatures,” Richard says. “At the Terrence Higgins Trust, we’ve always worked to humanise the epidemic – this film is part of that history of personalising the epidemic and humanising it for other people.”

Of the scene in which one man tells the man he’s about the have sex with that he is living with HIV, Richard says: “You see a non-stigmatised conversation – instead, you see acceptance, which was very rare for very many people at that time. You almost saw in that conversation that consent is sexy and honesty is an aphrodisiac. He talks about his status and his partner is like: ‘I want to have sex with you even more now.’ It’s a remarkable thing to have shown at that point. To be honest, it would still be radical now. It was really ahead of its time.”

Two men kissing in a still from The Gay Men's Guide to Safer Sex.
Two men kissing in a still from The Gay Man’s Guide to Safer Sex. (Barbican)

Today, people with HIV who are on effective treatment can’t pass the virus on, and PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) prevents people from contracting HIV through condomless sex.

But things were very different in 1992. At that time, condoms were essential when having anal sex to make sure everyone involved was protected from the virus.

The film takes a revolutionary approach to safer sex by doing away with the usual trappings of the genre. There are no condoms being put on bananas here – instead, we see real people putting condoms on erect penises. Voiceovers talk about how sexy condoms are, from their smell to the act of putting one on. Could we learn a thing or two today from the approach taken in The Gay Man’s Guide to Safer Sex?

“I’m sure there are a lot of things we could learn from it,” Richard says. “Some of it will naturally move on. Condoms remain an important barrier method for people who want to have safe sex preventing HIV, pregnancy, or other STIs, but there are now other tools available. There’s obviously a long-lasting injectable if you want to prevent conception, there’s PrEP if you want to prevent HIV transmission, there’s regular testing too, which is an important part of the regime for a lot of people.” 

Not everything has aged well

Still, some aspects haven’t aged all that well, Richard points out, as would be expected of any film dealing with sex that was released three decades ago. 

“One is that, while it talks incredibly responsibly about the options available to you, you can see it’s in a context of gay men who fear anal sex. I know gay men of a generation a little older than I who had that fear of anal sex in particular because of everything from the tombstone [advert] forward. The message they got very early, and this is a message I was getting very early when I was coming out – not the homophobe, not the ally, but the head tilt of, ‘Oh, be careful.’ Basically like, don’t die from the sex you’re about to have. That was a pervasive message that lots of gay people coming out had to deal with. Of course, things are radically different now because people on effective treatment can’t pass on the virus – no ifs, no buts.”

The second thing that doesn’t age particularly well is just how white it all is.

“I think you have to wait 28 minutes before you see a person of colour,” Richard says. “We would not do that now. If you look at the campaigns we’ve done, you really see profiles that show the diversity of the queer community, but also the diversity of Britain as it is today.”

The Gay Man’s Guide to Safer Sex might not have gotten everything right, but it still had a massive impact on gay and bisexual men of its day. 

“It had a notoriety,” Richard says. “Particularly for men who have sex with men at the time, watching a 48-minute film must have been a huge, quite challenging thing if you lived with family, loved ones. This was a time where people at most shared one computer and one television in the house. At the time it was really welcomed – it was really impactful.”

The presenter of The Gay Men's Guide to Safer Sex.
The presenter of The Gay Man’s Guide to Safer Sex. (Barbican)

One thing Richard noticed rewatching the film is that one of the men says “I am HIV” to describe his diagnosis. That small moment speaks to the way the language around HIV has changed since the early 90s.

“You get this with people who are diagnosed longer with the virus, they see them and the virus as being fused together in their system,” Richard explains. “It’s quite an interesting use of language that you notice in people who are living with the virus longer. It shows how language has changed, and it shows how the film is of its time.”

That small moment also serves as an important lesson to those working in HIV advocacy about the way they talk about the virus. Today, we know that it’s possible to end HIV transmission – the UK government has even committed to doing so by 2030. 

“How we talk about that really matters. If we say we’re going to end HIV, there are people living with HIV who think that getting rid of them is part of the goal. We want to end new cases of HIV, and that distinction is quite important because there’s a group of people for whom the virus is intimately linked with themselves,” Richard explains.

He’s also struck, looking back at the film, by how optimistic its tone was. It was made before effective treatment came on stream, and at that time, getting a HIV diagnosis was seen as a death sentence. 

“To have made something that didn’t talk about this in despair is important and pioneering in its own right.”

The Gay Man’s Guide to Safer Sex will be screened at the Barbican Cinema in London on Tuesday 1 March at 6.30pm. Tickets are available here. 

More: HIV, sex education

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