Before there was AIDS: looking at gay sex in the 70s

by Ryan Crowder

Watching Joseph Lovett’s “Gay Sex in the 70’s” is like glimpsing into a nostalgic photo album filled with memories of a world buried in the past. This documentary chronicles gay culture in New York’s Upper West Side between the summer of 1969 and the summer of 1982, the time period beginning with Stonewall and ending with onset of the AIDS epidemic. Stock photographs, a reflective soundtrack, and the heartfelt stories of the film’s historians detail a period of time that a new generation of young gay men are in danger of forgetting. It is a snapshot of their own history overcast by the death and destruction of the AIDS epidemic.

For many gay men, the 1970s was the decade in which sexuality was being renegotiated. Men were discovering themselves in a sexual community never available to them before. The film shows this new community in the best possible light, celebrating the sex, the activism, and the delicious youth of all the storytellers.

This film seems to have been made especially for the younger generation of gay men–men who need to remember that their sexual history is not all bad and that it includes youthful exuberance and the discovery of sexual freedom. Stories of naivete and light-heartedness, particularly one that takes place in a bathhouse, are memorable. And a commercial for Man’s Country, a gay gym, including the appeal “Come to Man’s Country to develop your body–or establish a relationship with somebody else’s,” doesn’t let viewers finish the film without at least a smirk.

Beyond the joy of the time period, the stories in the film, whether about sex on piers or bathhouses, attempt to give a balanced account of gay history. Discussions weigh in on both pleasure and danger, viewing the promiscuity as revolutionary but also reckless. The sexual revolution was held tightly by gay men, but their grip has loosened since the destruction of the AIDS epidemic. The film’s weakness lies in its structure. It is only willing to interpret history with a lesson learned, rather than to view it on its own terms. The movie fails to avoid the pitfall of claiming that the excess of the 1970s led to the downfall in the 1980s. This formulation of history implants fear and guilt around sex and experience, and paints a picture that is unfair to those who dared to be who they were/are and thrived on experience.

The promiscuity of the 1970s is described by one man as ‘foolish and revolutionary.’ Why do these men feel the need to reprimand themselves for not using condoms when theynever could have predicted what would happen to them? It’s as if the filmmakers are scared of letting promiscuity be what it was without also assigning the costs. They have to make sure that message is clear. Otherwise, young gay men might make the same ‘mistakes.’

While the filmmakers choose to focus on issues of sexual responsibility, they avoid discussions of race, class, or gender in the gay culture of the 70s. White gay men are given almost exclusive airtime. Still, it is worthwhile that these men’s stories are told, and it is important that they are the ones who are telling them.

The documentary is meant to teach and can be thought of as a primer for ‘what is’ gay culture. Issues of penetration (and calves), representation, image, cruising, and sexual discovery are shared with a mission to help young men avoid the problems of their older cohort. Sex is viewed as a healthy way to discover oneself. Each narrator lays their stories on the table for the audience to consume, whether talking about their first time bottoming or their problems with straight doctors.

Gay Sex in the 70’s serves as a guide for young men severed from their fathers. As a young gay man, I rarely imagine a gay world pre-AIDS, and I am eternally grateful that someone finally made this movie.

via National Sexuality Resource Center, San Francisco State University
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