Abracingly unsentimental and evocative documentary about AIDS politics in ‘80s America, Sex Positive uses the dual activist/sexual outlaw persona of “safer sex” pioneer Richard Berkowitz as a prism through which to view the life-and-death struggles of an era. Starting its history in the West Village of 1979, and hence functioning as a sort of East Coast sequel to The Times of Harvey Milk, Daryl Wein’s film doesn’t stint on chronicling Berkowitz’s carnal adventurism, and how it both fueled and hampered his aggressive campaign to change the Dionysian sexual practices of the urban gay male playground in the heart of an epidemic.
Widely credited with creating the gospel of using condoms and otherwise interrupting disease transmission during sex, the triumvirate Berkowitz formed with an independent-minded virologist (Dr. Joseph Sonnabend) and a tireless singer-composer with AIDS (Michael Callen) initially seems like a tale of unvarnished courage and uplift. But as Wein slowly reveals, Berkowitz was drawn to working as an S&M leather-top hustler before, during, and after his emergence in the media as a would-be savior of the community, and increasingly found himself branded a pariah for reasons both hypocritical and justified: his unsavory, media-unfriendly identity as a prostitute specializing in rough play; his inattentiveness to the cause due to heavy drug use; and his vulnerability to accusations of a “sex-negative” message that put the burden of AIDS on gay promiscuity, helping to confirm the talking points of homophobes.
Falling under the spell of illicit sex as a closeted teenager cruising the local HoJo, and of activist muckraking as the most strident gay student journalist on the Rutgers University campus, Berkowitz had been living in New York only a few years when AIDS began to explode, and his all-day, all-night pursuit of a good fuck in clubs and bathhouses—“It was our identity”—was followed by his own diagnosis, and after encountering Sonnabend and Callen, a determination to promote safe sex as “the only thing that could save my friends.” But his emphasis on the necessity of sybaritic men to take responsibility for their health was in many quarters an unwelcome one, and the doc draws some of its slyest humor (and notes of tragedy) from the way the framing of this debate centered on activists’ personalities and overweening egos. Prior to a joint CNN appearance in 1983, Berkowitz was warned by his adversary Larry Kramer not to use promiscuity as a club to beat gay men before a national audience; on-air footage shows Berkowitz speaking of little else.
In little over 70 minutes, Wein juggles his subject’s burgeoning hustling career—putting hooks in the wall of his apartment to accommodate restraints and fielding clients’ calls on two phones, Berkowitz felt like “a priest with his own congregation”—with the furor over his and Callen’s pamphlet “How to Have Sex in an Epidemic: One Approach,” which endorsed the view that the emergence of AIDS was “multifactorial” rather than solely attributable to the single virus that came to be known as HIV. (While Berkowitz grants the primacy of HIV, differing views on co-factors are presented by the film’s medical talking heads.) Discouraged by the lack of safe-sex education in New York two years after the pamphlet’s publication, Berkowitz fled to Miami and became a crack user; Sonnabend, still palpably angry today, unflatteringly compares his ally’s abandonment of the fight to Callen’s increased visibility in the last years of his life, blaming Richard’s whoring and addictions.
If Berkowitz’s prostitution- and drug-filled biography isn’t enough to disqualify him from a future Milk-style biopic, he hasn’t had the luck to be a martyr, seen at the doc’s end at age 51, still living in Manhattan with AIDS—an impoverished existence on disability checks. His tribute to Callen, spoken while visiting the medical facility that bears his collaborator’s name, doesn’t resonate as somberly as the words of Don Adler, a friend and former hustling colleague also living on a heavy regimen of AIDS therapies, always seen testifying from his bed. “Activism is dead. When everybody (in the community) was dying, we took care of people.” Sex Positive gives voice to an aging, largely forgotten band of survivors who call, wearily and without an abundance of faith, for a renewed fight for life, sex, love.