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Stayin' Alive: The Invention of Safe Sex - A Personal History Hardcover – 28 May 2003
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This is where Staying Alive comes in. Aside from Martin Dubermann's "Hold Tight Gently: Michael Callen, Essex Hemphill, and the Battlefield of AIDS," there is not an extensive discussion outside of these two books of what it was like in the trenches with early safe sex proponents Michael Callen and Dr Joseph Sonnabend.
The companion movie to this book, Sex Positive, is worth watching for sure. In both, we get to see Richard's colorful personality come alive, sometimes in ways that the lure of celebrity can coax with inflated promise; Richard's shyness runs countercurrent to his bold emotions, but we see that his efforts were selfless and heroic, despite how troubled his personal life became.
All that aside, we learn of the sense of betrayal of Berkowitz for his critiques of men's lack of sexual safety responsibility, and how he was shut out of so many groups then, and future health activist organizations for his promotion of safer sex behavioral practices. This is similar to Larry Kramer's experience with questioning gay men's unsafe sex, except that Larry had financial resources, social prestige, and a writing career which off-the-grid working class Berkowitz did not. We owe an enormous amount to Berkowitz for his determination to pioneer sex protection strategies. He is not an apologist that played by mainstream expectations, which could have problematized his credibility with future activist health work. But who are we without our complications?
It's hard to imagine now, but there was a time when using condoms was unheard of. There was, apparently, a time when they were quite difficult to obtain because no one used them. That's all well before my time -- back when God was a child. By the time I was old enough to know about sex, safe sex was already the watch word.
But back in the time before time, safe sex was unknown. However, once the direction of the epidemic became obvious -- and more importantly for the author, after a scare of his own -- Berkowitz details how he found ways to continue his work as a hustler, and yet stay safe. His experiences became the basis of the safe sex advice now routinely given out by clinics, educators, and doctors.
What I found most interesting about this book, however, was that it is the first time I've ever read or heard anyone take responsibility for their own behavior and how that behavior unwittingly contributed to the AIDS epidemic. Basically Berkowitz argues that, given the huge number of STDs that many gay men were being infected with in the late 70's and early 80's (infected, and reinfected, and reinfected) people should have realized that such promiscuity was going to have consequences greater than a quick shot of penicillin could cure. He's not laying blame, he's taking responsibility, an important difference, but it's the first time I've read a book where someone had the courage to do it.
This is a short read, but worth a few minutes of your time. Especially if, like me, much of this is history for you.