The Banality of Anal: Safer Sexual Erotics in the Gay Men’s Health Crisis’ Safer Sex Comix and Ex Aequo’s Alex et la vie d’après
Analyzing two harm reduction comics campaigns—one early in the AIDS crisis (the Gay Men’s Health Crisis’ [GMHC] 1980s Safer Sex Comix) and one more recent (Fabrice Neaud and Thierry Robberecht’s 2008 Alex et la vie d’après), I explore tensions between queer safer sexual erotics and national discourses of sexual norms/deviation raised by Cindy Patton and William Haver at the height of AIDS discourse theory in 1996, approximately halfway between the comics. Using these theorists’ reflections on the history of AIDS activism/representation as a hinge, I explore the manifestation/transformation a decade later of the ethical, educational, and erotic issues they raise. Both foreground the ways that HIV, safer sex, and/or eroticism pose difficulties for systems of linguistic and visual representation. Combining text and image, comics—a common harm reduction medium—epitomize this representational issue. While the GMHC addresses an immediate need for information about safer sex, Alex attempts to tackle the unrepresentability/unthinkability of safer and/or seropositive sex(uality). Safer Sex Comix, while largely prioritizing directness above formal experimentation, employ strategies of transgressing the borders of the comics panel to emphasize a plethora of lower-risk sexual acts. The most visually inventive moments in Alex represent Alex’s feelings of unintelligbility post-diagnosis, but the comic restricts its representation of sex only to anal intercourse, and it proves unable to visualize alternative formulations of the erotic, turning to more normative narratives and images as earlier, visually explicit unsafe sexual encounters are replaced with more a/illusive representations post-conversion, literalizing the unrepresentability of seropositive erotic life.
KeywordsHIV/AIDS Graphic medicine Safer sex Educational comics LGBTQ Harm reduction
This paper has benefited immensely from the support and thoughtful comments and suggestions of the special issue editors, Rebecca Garden and William Spurlin, and the external reviewer.
1 We might characterize it as a graphic novella: about forty pages plus back matter.
2 Rosengarten makes this point in “The Challenge of HIV for Feminist Theory” (2004, 213). Along with Eric Mykhalovskiy, she also associates this historical moment with “enhanc [ing] the vulnerability of HIV to [the] closure of thought and inquiry” she identifies in a turn away from discursive and cultural scholarship on HIV, effectively linking the decline in theoretical fecundity after 1996 to its role as a biomedical pivot point (Mykhalovskiy and Rosengarten 2009, 189).
3 See, particularly, Law’s Desire and Governing Sexuality.
4 My thanks to my reviewer for pointing out that the emphasis on anal sex in harm reduction material can inspire some people to avoid it. This is certainly true, though it seems to be a minority response. As Dowsett has observed (2009, 231), sexual behavior surveys indicate an increase in the prevalence of anal sex among MSM over the last quarter century, indicating that those scared away by its centrality to safer sex campaigns are less numerous than those who practice it. Dowsett’s focus is Australia, but the material he draws from suggests a broader Western trend.
5 Mainstream/sub-cultural categorization is necessarily complicated. Kramer was a founding member of both GMHC and the AIDS activist group ACT-UP. However, he was ejected from GMHC for his views before Safer Sex Comix were published, and The Normal Heart, his play about AIDS, which was very critical of MSM sexual cultures, achieved wide-scale praise from the (straight) mainstream.
6 Most criticisms of PrEP present the greatly diminished risk of seroconversion offered by prophylactic anti-HIV medication as prospectively increasing “promiscuity,” echoing conservative US objections to, for example, vaccinating girls against HPV lest it “encourage pre-marital sex.”
7 The story in this issue (and a number of others) is credited to a writer who goes only by “Greg,” with no last name provided. Some of the artists are also credited by first name only. Safer Sex Comix are not paginated.
8 All translations mine.
9 Alex interacts with a number of other positive characters who tell him their stories.
10 While I do not have space to explore the issue of risk reduction rather than risk avoidance in this article, Alex is consistently opposed to common risk reduction strategies. The comic emphasizes the risks of super- and co-infection, discouraging serosorting. A common risk reduction strategy for MSM who practice unprotected penetrative sex is strategic positioning; since the receptive partner is statistically at greater risk of infection, partners determine sexual role based on HIV status. Alex’s infection, as the penetrating partner, implicitly dismisses this strategy. The back matter of the comic emphasizes the risks of unprotected oral sex and penetrative sex with a partner whose viral load is undetectable. While Alex’s viral load eventually becomes undetectable, its effect on his risk of transmission is never discussed in the storyspace.
11 As Rosengarten argues, the introduction of HIV viral load testing, with a possible result of “undetectable,” complicates such distinctions even further, as it is then possible to be HIV-positive while having no detectable virus in the peripheral bloodstream (2004, 213).
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