Talk to Her

Without the innovations in sexual negotiation pioneered by AIDS activists, we wouldn’t have the vital consent discourse of today.

Queer couples kissing, a Silence = Death banner at a rally.
Photo illustration by Slate. Stills from Gay Men’s Health Crisis safer sex short, “Midnight Snack,” 1989, directored by Gregg Bordowitz & Jean Carlomusto, and from Gregg Bordowitz’s 1993 autobiographical film, Fast Trip, Long Drop. Image copyright of the artist, courtesy of Video Data Bank at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

This piece is part of the Legacies issue, a special Pride Month series from Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read an introduction to the issue here.

In the spring of 1988, about 300 queers of many genders and sexualities ambled across Greenwich Village with signs and slogans, kissing one another—sometimes on the cheek, sometimes with tongue, sometimes just an air kiss—eventually amassing enough PDA to block traffic on 6th Avenue.

From the outside, the scene might have looked a bit chaotic. But according to Gregg Bordowitz—who, with AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), helped organize the “kiss-in” in order to “promote queer visibility and counter the false information that HIV could be spread through kissing”—participants had been trained in advance to negotiate each kiss, to discuss and find out what each of their kissing partners were comfortable with.

“We said, ‘Slow it down, look the person in the face, sense what the other person wants or doesn’t want, but don’t even make it guesswork,’ ” Bordowitz recalls. “What was important and relevant about this [was that] we were in the middle of trying to figure out how to teach people to negotiate safer sex. So this was a kind of model or metaphor: How do you negotiate condom use? How do you slow down a sexual encounter?”

In the late 1980s, the kind of consent discourse we hear today—about the importance of consent that is enthusiastic, verbal, and continuous—was still far on the horizon. But marginalized communities were already talking about sex in new ways. Feminists and BDSM practitioners, for example, posited sex as something that both partners could negotiate to create a more pleasurable experience. Activists in the AIDS movement were listening to those conversations, and they gradually figured out how to translate them into the public health sphere. We often credit LGBTQ AIDS activists with the invention of “safer sex”; what’s less appreciated—but equally important—is how their attention to sexual negotiation advanced the cause of consent.

Bordowitz—an artist, activist, and poet who is now a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago—was heavily involved with AIDS activism and safer sex education during this period. He tested positive for HIV in 1988, at 23, but had already suspected he had the virus; he waited until 1988 because before that year HIV tests were not anonymous, and HIV-positive people were not protected under the law. The year of his diagnosis, he began working with Gay Men’s Health Crisis to produce videos about safer sex.

GMHC was one of the first organizations to publish literature on safer sex; an early example was the 1983 pamphlet How to Have Sex in an Epidemic. In this pamphlet, you’ll find discussions about sexual negotiation that are interesting to compare to the current discourse about negotiating sex and consent, both in terms language and in context.

In a section on bathhouses, for example, the pamphlet advises,

Safe sex does not require that you know your partner well, but it usually requires that you both agree before you have sex what you will and will not do … Talking is one way of instructing your partner about your sexual needs and can be quite erotic. If a potential partner becomes defensive or critical of your health concerns, it’s probably because he feels you are implying that he might give you a disease. Since this is exactly what you are implying, be polite and move on. Find a partner who will be reassured by your concerns—not put off by them.

Seven years later, in 1990, the “Womyn of Antioch,” a group of undergraduates at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, echoed this thinking when they demanded a policy that would more effectively combat campus rape. “The Policy,” as it came to be known, included a new definition of sexual consent. For there to be consent, there needed to be talking—a verbal agreement to each sexual act from all partners. In a 1999 essay, Kristine Herman, one of the policy’s authors, connected it directly to the “safer sex” conversation and the AIDS crisis:

Anyone who is currently sexually active must be aware of the dangers of STD/HIV/AIDS infection and the necessity to talk about safer sex. This alone makes the idea of nonverbal sex both outdated and dangerous. Communication is a vital component of sexual interaction. When verbal communication is not a central part of a sexual encounter, false assumptions occur that can result in a sexual assault.

Herman was defending herself and “the Policy” against the media’s mockery about the very concept of verbal consent. Comedy shows like Saturday Night Live and even news outlets like the Washington Post had questioned whether sexual negotiation would interrupt the flow of sex. The Post reporter even wrote that regret is “inherent” in sexual encounters.

These arguments haven’t gone away, even as the consent standard that the Womyn of Antioch pushed for—known today as “affirmative consent”—has become more common, being codified into California law in 2014. Even since the beginning of the current #MeToo movement (as it’s been known since Tarana Burke’s earlier coinage was turned into a viral hashtag in 2017), a wide variety of people—from New York Times columnists to Redditors—have argued that people (usually men hoping for sex from women) do have the implicit right to expect sex in certain contexts (e.g., both partners have agreed to go home together), and that if one person doesn’t want a certain kind of sex, it’s their responsibility to say so, and not their partner’s responsibility to get a clear “Yes.”

These people are woefully behind the times. Queer people began learning to negotiate sex—and realizing that these negotiations could even be sexy and fun—when both a larger culture of indifference and a spreading virus threatened to wipe them out. That was nearly four decades ago. Surely now, two straight people in the low-stakes scenario of hanging out at home after a date should be able to discuss what they do and don’t want to do.

The GMHC pamphlet that advocated for sexual negotiation was written at a time, says Bordowitz, when “the gay sexual culture was under attack. Bars and bathhouses were being closed, the very places where you could do very good AIDS education, were being attacked and being closed.” The possibility of mandatory quarantines or even identifying tattoos for AIDS patients was very real. The ACT UP Slogan “Silence=Death” referred to the government’s silence on the AIDS crisis, says Bordowitz, but also to individuals’ own silence about having AIDS or about being LGBTQ, or even silence about safety and condom use in a sexual encounter. Discussions around safe sex and sexual negotiation had an urgency and a goal that was unique to the moment: the survival of a people.

In today’s discussions of rape culture, the conversation about sexual negotiation has changed so much that you can’t always see the roots. For one thing, the #MeToo movement (as it’s been known since 2017) began with revelations not from a marginalized subculture but from Hollywood actresses. And when advocates against sexual violence talk about the importance of “affirmative” or “enthusiastic consent,” they don’t hinge the need for communication about condoms (though that should be part of the conversation). But the spirit of the ’80s carries through. It’s no longer a radical idea that willing, communicative sexual participation is valuable. The hope of thriving, not just surviving, in sex is available now to more people. And we wouldn’t be here without the AIDS activists who knew that in order to live, they’d first have to talk.

Read more of Outward’s Legacies issue.