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Gender RedesignerSex in an Epidemic

a documentary by Jean Carlomusto
61 minutes, color, USA, 2010


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This film is available for rental at Public Screenings. Please send your inquiry to info@outcast-films.com.

By focusing specifically on the need for honest comprehensive sex education, this engaging documentary provides a sociocultural perspective on the history of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and its ongoing impact on the most effected populations including the gay, African-American and Latino communities. Incorporating interviews and media footage from the earliest days of the AIDS panic through the present, SEX IN AN EPIDEMIC reminds us that, though the world has been living with the realities of HIV/AIDS for nearly 30 years, ignorance and prejudice about the disease must still be combated.

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SEX IN AN EPIDEMIC is a pioneering documentary about the history of “safer sex” in the United States.  Few concepts have had as great an impact on sexuality over the past decade as that of “safer sex.”  Yet, as a concept, it is important to remember two things:  first, safer sex had to be invented amidst a terrifying lack of information that existed before the discovery of HIV. Secondly, safer sex as a concept had to be sold by the persistent and creative persuasion of community‑based groups all across the country. This ground-breaking film places the history of safer sex education on a trajectory with current HIV prevention \while exploring the personal, political and structural challenges that have continually hampered the best efforts of HIV educators and community groups to curb HIV infection rates in the United States

SEX IN AN EPIDEMIC consists of 4 chronological segments.

Rare Cancer - NYC 1981  It was impossible to say with medical certainty what was causing a “rare cancer” in gay men. and how to prevent it.  Publishing factually accurate sex recommendations was extraordinarily difficult in the atmosphere of fear and blame that pervaded the gay community.  Yet Dr Joseph Sonnebend, and his patients, Michael Callen and Richard Berkowitz, write HOW TO HAVE SEX IN AN EPIDEMIC -- the first book on safe sex.

To Promote and Encourage  In 1984/5 HIV is identified as the cause of AIDS and a reliable test for the virus is developed.  GMHC creates playful safer sex workshops and erotic videos such as Chance of a Lifetime to reach the community.  Energized by the political message of Act Up, 800,000 lesbians and gay men march on Washington for equal rights on October 29, 1987.  Two days later, Senator Jessie Helms attacks GMHC’s Safer Sex Comix on the senate floor.  His rant leads to the Helms Amendment prohibiting federal funding for any educational material condoning sodomy or the “homosexual life style.”

Preaching Abstinence  Despite scientific evidence from the CDC citing the ineffectiveness of abstinence-only education and the recommendation of his own Surgeon General, George W. Bush repeatedly increases funding for these programs.  Americans from all walks of life challenge government funding and promotion of abstinence-until-marriage based sex education.

Prevention Justice Despite growing numbers of infections among African Americans, Latinos, and gay men, funding for evidenced-based interventions effectively decreases.  In the face of government inaction, groups like Act Up Philadelphia and CHAMP use AIDS activism to advocate for effective HIV prevention programs that examine the structural inequalities driving up HIV infection rates in populations most affected.

Each segment of SEX IN AN EPIDEMIC speaks openly and honestly, with both courage and hope, about the challenges of HIV prevention. 



what they're saying


"Sex in an Epidemic performs the important work of remembering a lineage of queer AIDS activist work that aims to de-stigmatize sex and that continues to have relevance now even as it must be transformed by work in a range of different communities, including people of color, prisoners, and those outside the U.S.
Ann Cvetkovich, Professor, University of Texas, Austin 

In "Sex in an Epidemic," Jean Carlomusto, a doyenne of AIDS activist video, creates a haunting and elegiac history of US safer sex (video) activism and education. Taking up (and using clips from) the form of Carlomusto’s earliest activist work for GMHC’s groundbreaking cable access show, “Living With AIDS, ” Carlomusto re-animates the lost AIDS activist community of the 1980s and 1990s by editing their radical accounts and actions into a vibrant testimony to one community's radical efforts at life-saving education. "Sex in an Epidemic" is a moving testament to the power of remembering, representing, learning, and activism.
Alexandra Juhasz, Professor of Media and Cultural Studies, Pitzer College, or AIDS TV: Identity, Communtiy and Alternative Video (Duke 1995).

Sex in an Epidemic makes a crucial contribution to our knowledge about the emergence and subsequent explosion of AIDS in the US and the many forms of activism it engendered.  This beautifully crafted documentary, as moving as it is intelligent, is a must-have addition to our libraries and classrooms.   Jean Carlomusto’s important film tracks a history of AIDS panic and AIDS activism that is compelling and provocative, exactly the kind of work my students are eager to engage.  I immediately plan to add it to the syllabus for my courses at USC.  There is a new generation of young people who are hungry for this history in all its emotional and political complexity.  The film brilliantly incorporates archival media footage and visual images from the earliest days of AIDS with astute and inspiring commentary from several generations of AIDS activists.   I can’t wait to share this documentary with my students!
David Román, Professor, Department of English and American Studies, USC
 Author of Acts of Intervention: Performance, Gay Culture, & AIDS

“’Sex in an Epidemic’ explores the social and cultural history of HIV/AIDS in the US and its impact on the gay community, linking the emergence of the disease in the early 1980s to contemporary sex education approaches.  Including interview footage from frontline gay activists and news reports from the early 80s through the late 2000s, this is a powerful and urgent look into the political controversies surrounding AIDS education.  An early narrator explains that he wants people now to know what it was like then – the film succeeds admirably in that regard, reminding us both of the panic surrounding AIDS in its early days as well as our nation’s ongoing ambivalence about sex education.  Offering a compelling social justice argument throughout, this film is perfect for classroom use.”
C. Lee Harrington, PhD, Professor of Sociology, Affiliate, Women's Studies Program, Department of Sociology & Gerontology, Miami University

“Sex in an Epidemic acts as an important primer on the past three decades of the AIDS crisis and the activism it has prompted. Made by Jean Carlomusto, long intimately involved on the front lines of AIDS activism and documentation, this video reminds viewers of the early uncertainty and panic that surrounded the disease’s mysterious symptoms, the invention of safer sex, and the controversies surrounding sex education and policy reform. Especially for younger viewers who were born after AIDS already existed, this video offers essential lessons in a history that is too often obscured. The film also alerts us to more recent efforts to influence local policy change and demand national and international strategies to continue battling the epidemic.”
Lucas Hilderbrand, Professor, University of California-Irvine