"Sex in an Epidemic" w/ filmmaker Jean Carlomusto


12:00 am - 2:00 am

Event Type

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.

Jean Carlomusto’s films are unorthodox investigative reports on subjects that have been all but erased from history. Her documentaries have been exhibited internationally in festivals, museums and on television. In L IS FOR THE WAY YOU LOOK, she pieced together lesbian history using whatever scraps of gossip and memory she could find. In TO CATCH A GLIMPSE, she delved into her family history by trying to find out if the rumors about her grandmother’s death — from a botched abortion in 1939 –were true. Her celebrated work, SHATZI IS DYING, is a multilayered treatise exploring queer culture, AIDS politics, life and death, traced through the near-death experiences of a beloved rescue dog. In 1987, Carlomu sto began making videos for Gay Men’s Health Crisis after a stint as the projectionist for their Safer Sex Workshops. Her GMHC co-productions have helped to bring about positive change in the face of the epidemic, and include DOCTORS, LIARS AND WOMEN, AIDS ACTIVISTS SAY NO TO COSMO, SEIZE CONTROL OF THE FDA and SAFER SEX SHORTS. Her current documentary, SEX IN AN EPIDEMIC, is the outgrowth of over 20-years of making videos about the HIV/AIDS movement. She was a member of the Testing the Limits AIDS Video Collective and the Act Up NY affinity group, DIVA TV. Her interactive video altar, OFFERINGS, which commemorates AIDS activists, has been featured at the Fowler Museum in Los Angeles, The Museum of the City of New York, and has toured South Africa as part of the Make Art/Stop AIDS project.

Carlomusto is a professor of Media Arts at Long Island University.

SEX IN AN EPIDEMIC is a pioneering documentary that explores 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. It is a compelling history of the devastating early days of the epidemic in NYC, when men with “GRID” were a stigmatized population that died swiftly of a terrifying new disease. 

Few concepts have had as great an impact on sexuality over the past 28 years as that of “safer sex.” Yet, as a concept, it is important to remember two things: first, safer sex had to be invented amidst an alarming lack of information that existed before the discovery of HIV in 1984; and second, safer sex as a concept had to be sold by the persistent and creative persuasion of community-based groups all across the country.

SEX IN AN EPIDEMIC unfolds in four 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 Sonnabend 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 late 1984, HIV is identified as the cause of AIDS and a reliable test for the virus is developed. The first medical guidelines for the prevention of HIV transmission are written. Community based groups take these medical recommendations and develop a vernacular to market safer sex to their constituents. 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 that condones sodomy or the “homosexual life-style.” This amendment hampers efforts to educate gay and bisexual men at a critical juncture in the epidemic.

Preaching Abstinence
Funding for abstinence-based sex education started under the Reagan administration, but progressed rapidly under George W. Bush. Against the recommendation of his own Surgeon General and despite scientific evidence from the CDC citing the ineffectiveness of abstinence-only education, Bush repeatedly increased funding for these programs. This section explores the efforts by Americans from all walks of life to challenge government funding and promotion of abstinence-until-marriage based sex education.
Prevention Justice Approximately 60,000 Americans are newly diagnosed each year. Despite growing numbers of infection, particularly among African Americans, Latinos, and gay men, funding for evidenced based interventions has effectively decreased. In the face of government inaction, groups like Act Up Philadelphia and CHAMP have used AIDS activism to advocate for effective HIV-prevention programs that look at the structural inequalities driving up HIV infection rates in populations most affected.

Each segment speaks openly and honestly, with courage and hope, about the challenges of HIV prevention. SEX IN AN EPIDEMIC is a wakeup call for renewed engagement around prevention.


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 Carlomustos 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 cannot wait to share this documentary with my students!”David Roman, 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, 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