Safe Sex Bang: The Buzz Bense Collection of Safe Sex Posters, co-curated by Alex Fialho and Dorian Katz, was on view from November, 2013 through January, 2014 at the Center for Sex & Culture (CSC). The exhibition featured a selection of nearly one hundred of the one hundred and fifty posters donated to CSC by graphic designer and safe sex activist Buzz Bense. CSC's poster collection spans from 1982 into the 2000s, from San Francisco to New York City stateside and internationally to Australia, Germany, Denmark, and Canada. Located in San Francisco, the CSC is a community center that provides judgment-free education, cultural events, a library/media archive, an art gallery and other resources to audiences across the sexual and gender spectrum. They serve a nationally significant function, adding to the few accessible resources for sex education available to the public, not just academics or specialists. They have acquired various collections of books, papers, art, erotic material and personal collections from notable individuals within the sex-positive community such as Patrick Califia, Midori, Annie Sprinkle and Larry Townsend. The Center for Sex and Culture Gallery exhibits contemporary art that addresses sexuality and sexual identity, especially outsider or minority sexual identity as well as visual materials and ephemera from CSC’s Special Collections. A Safe Sex Bang exhibition catalog is now available, which includes images, essays and an interview between Bense and Fialho, excerpted below. ("Gay Stashing: How Buzz Bense Built His Safe Sex Collection." SAFE SEX BANG: The Buzz Bense Collection of Safe Sex Posters. Center for Sex and Culture: San Francisco, CA. Pp. 5-13.) For more information and to purchase the publication, click here.

Alex Fialho: Let’s start at the beginning, Buzz. What were some of the first posters you had a hand in designing, and what made you get involved in HIV prevention campaigns in the first place?

Buzz Bense: I got involved doing graphic design for a couple of different AIDS service organizations. My first project was in 1986, and I was hired to do the graphic design for the roll out of the HIV testing sites. One of the members of our team was (queer activist and film historian) Vito Russo. It was our job to set up town forums, publicize and put out ads in the newspapers. And my job was to do all the typography and graphics for that particular project. I was a contract worker for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation.

As a result of that, I got a couple of little jobs from the STOP AIDS Project and I also worked on a HIV prevention piece with Dr. Clark Taylor called The Hot and Healthy Times. That was a four-page newspaper format specifically targeted towards gay men. We left stacks of that publication on the top of the cigarette machines right next to the Bay Area Reporter and the other newspaper publications at the time. I also took a training at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Human Sexuality, which is where I met the Center for Sex & Culture’s Dr. Carol Queen, and got more expertise. I then continued on to work with other clients, Mayer Labs and National Condom Week.

AF: Can you talk a little about those early projects for National Condom Week, “Everybody’s Doin’ It!” and “Keep a Rubber on Hand!”?

BB: National Condom Week had been staged for a number of years before I got involved. Karen Mayer was the co-founder. I designed for them for two years, in 1986 and 1988. Both years they had the artwork –the line drawing– in hand, and we designed the slogan and the rest of the art around the line drawing. Along with it, we produced a publication called Condom Sense. There are films of Condom Sense in the SAFE SEX BANG display case. It was a 12 page news print formatted publication, and we printed many thousands of copies. The National Condom Week target audience was college students, both men and women, gay and straight. There was an Ask Isadora sex advice column (Isadora Alman’s syndicated column began in 1984); reviews on which condoms were best; articles about lubricants. It was very comprehensive at the time.

AF: How about your work on Mayer Laboratories “Kimono Condoms” campaign, which was particularly interesting because these were targeted towards gay men.

BB: I started to work with David Mayer of Mayer Labs –Karen is his wife– as he was presenting a new product. He was importing thin, high quality Japanese condoms. And he needed to build the product brand from the ground up. I had this amazing opportunity. I proposed the name of the condom, and my friend William Stewart did the calligraphy that is still used as the logo for the condom, that we still see in Walgreens and other drug stores. I designed the packaging, and the instruction pamphlet on the inside I did again with Dr. Clark Taylor. Part of the campaign was the poster as well as ads that were published in the gay publications. The Kimono Condoms poster, packaging blueprints and instruction pamphlet are all included in SAFE SEX BANG.

David made the big decision at that particular time that the target audience that he was going to focus on was gay men. He did not do a comparable advertising campaign with a straight couple; he just put the advertising out for gay men in San Francisco. I think it has been really one of the only ones to do so; the major condom manufacturers have shied way away from doing that.

AF: How about your Marin county campaign, which is targeted to the most diverse range of communities of any of the posters in the exhibition?

BB: The Marin AIDS Support Network had community health outreach workers for Latinos, African-Americans, gay men, and people in prison. I was hired specifically to do outreach for the gay population. I pitched the idea of doing a poster because the Marin population needed to be broadly targeted. We photographed members of the community: there is a clergyman, a lesbian, a couple of gay guys. As you said, it’s a very diverse population; older and younger people. The slogan “How many Marinities does it take to spread an epidemic? Two. But One can prevent it. Be the One. Prevent AIDS” was developed collectively.

When you work as a designer, you serve the client. There were very different needs. I was always trying to come up with something that would be visually memorable, visually striking, and also appropriate to the audience. For the National Condom Week, we went for something fun and whimsical, lighthearted. For some of the other posters in the exhibition, there is a more confrontational tone that art directors and educators chose.

AF: When and why did you start collecting posters? Because you were designing and were interested in this material as a result?

BB: Absolutely. And I started collecting at about the same time. When the posters would come out there would be full page ads and articles in the Bay Area Reporter and it would be a big deal. I can remember specifically when “Dress for the Occasion” came out. I saw the ad and the article in the BAR and I knew immediately that that poster was just going to be snapped up. I can remember getting on my bicycle and riding like crazy to get to some place that I knew had them so I could snap up three or four before they all went away.

AF: When you say snap up, were the posters not all wheat pasted on walls?

BB: They were also left at bars. There would be 20 here, 20 there. They were distributed all around the city; they would be up as well, but there would be stacks of them put out for people to take home and put elsewhere. I would keep them in my graphic design office. I would put one on the wall, and then squirrel the others away.

AF: In the beginning did you always think of what you were compiling as a collection?

BB: No, I was just finding posters that I liked, and storing them away. After a job was run, I would get a box with the films, proofs and the original artwork in the box. And those are the boxes that are now in the Center for Sex & Culture archive. It was a very convenient, protective carrier to just slip additional posters in and keep them in good condition.

AF: How about the large-scale bus shelter posters, I’m sure there is a story behind how you collected those?

BB: Well, somewhere along the line, people started to know that I liked posters and that I collected them. For example, The Brothers’ posters were given to me by an African-American man who was an employee of mine at EROS. With the bus shelter posters, I had contacts at the time so I could call the Education Director of the STOP AIDS Project or the SF AIDS Foundation. I knew when they came out of the bus shelters, they mostly just got thrown away. I would call up and say “I would like to post them in my club after they came out of the bus shelter, could I have one of them?” Their response was usually “Great, we will get more coverage. The guys in the sex club will see them for more months.” The posters would come down, I would have to get my butt to the agency very quickly so that they didn’t go out the door. And I would show them at EROS.

AF: Alex: “Gay stashing” is a phrase I conceived of and have developed extensively in my research in a number of academic papers. I use it to discuss when sexually explicit visual artworks, paintings and such, are not shown for quite some time, and are instead held out of sight –gay stashed– until they become historically relevant or it is more timely and less controversial for an artist to show their most graphic work. Often this occurs only after decades, and once an artist has become quite prominent. One of my favorite parts about the collection is that they were stored for quite a while at EROS, the safe sex club in the heart of the Castro that you founded?

BB: Yes, they were at EROS for about 15 years, in the attic. And we first showed an exhibition of the collection, in much smaller form, at EROS around 2000 as well.

AF: Talk to me about founding EROS: When, why, and if that inflected the focus of the collection at all?

BB: I was involved in managing a space before EROS that was called 890 Folsom, at the corner of 6th and Folsom Street. This began in September of 1986. Simultaneously, the San Francisco Jacks (a “fellowship of men who like to jack-off in the company of like-minded men”[1]) were looking for a home because they had lost space after space after the bathhouses were being closed down. I leased the space; the front second story was my design studio, and the whole rest of the building was rented out for sex parties. For example, we staged the world’s first Jack and Jill-off party, as published in Playboy magazine.[2] (laughs) Dr. Carol Queen and Dr. Robert Lawrence, CSC’s co-founders, were both a part of organizing that. That’s when I first met Robert.

That particular time, from 1986–1991, was a huge transition in San Francisco around group sex environments. We were in the trenches, we were trying to figure out how to have a sex party, how to make it safe, how to dodge the problems with people acting inappropriately, how to inform people of what was expected and acceptable and what was not. We also joined with a group of educators and founded the Coalition for Healthy Sex. There were educators from AIDS services organization; the AIDS Foundation, STOP AIDS Project, etc. We met together as club operators and educators, and eventually we co-wrote Voluntary Guidelines for Group Sex Spaces, which was then endorsed by the AIDS Service organizations. That was five years of really transitional work.

One of the key steps for the Coalition for Healthy Sex was that Sandra Hernandez, who was one of the head of the AIDS office, was persuaded by Chuck Frutchey and other key people who were in the public health domain, Dan Wohlfeiler and Pierre Ludington, to dialogue with the clubs, instead of sending the police in to shut them down. Because what happened was when you shut down a club, it’s like stepping on Jell-O. It just squirts in another direction and finds another location, and there is really no change. We began a dialogue. And then the AIDS service organizations would come in and they would have their brochures, pamphlets, and bowls of condoms and they would be able to provide educational materials at the same time, instead of the clubs running and hiding.

AF: 890 Folsom was not technically a safe sex club; it was a space that was often rented out as one? Similar to the way that the Center for Sex & Culture operates now?

BB: Yes, exactly! It was like a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall for kinky people.

890 Folsom shut down in the fall of 1991, after five glorious years. Shortly after, I got a call from a friend who worked at the AIDS Foundation who told me he had found out about an empty building sitting on Market Street. The building had been vacant for over six months and had previously been a college of acupuncture. In one of the earlier meetings with our clubs, we made a dream list of what we would have if we could: a shower, a sauna, multiple bathrooms, massage rooms, rooms that could change size. I walked through this former college of acupuncture and, sure there were things it lacked, but it had 90% of our wish list, and it was on fucking Market Street across from the goddamn Safeway in the heart of the Castro! I went home that night and said to my partner “There is really a business opportunity here.”

We started talking with the landlord, and told him that it would be a safe sex venue, with sexual activities on the premises. We wrote out a business plan and slipped it in the mailbox and took off for a trip to Germany, which was where I snapped up all of the posters from the Deutsche AIDS Hilfe. The experience we had for five years at 890 Folsom was the foundation for EROS. I had developed terrific lines of communication with people in the key agencies. They knew who I was, that I was reputable, and that we were going to be doing something that was above ground. And when we had the opening night at EROS, which I think was on April 23, 1992, dozens of public health people showed up. They stayed in the social area, and didn’t go up to the play areas, but there were lots of men and women up in the play areas having a good time. There was an endorsement of the vision of the space.

AF: And then these posters were stored in the attic of EROS for how long?

BB: Well they had been there for years before 2004, until when I donated them to CSC in 2012. They soaked up all of the sexual vibrations of EROS (laughs).

AF: Why did you ultimately decide to take the collection out and donate it to the Center for Sex & Culture?

BB: I had sold EROS in 2005, and I thought it was my responsibility to find a home where they were going to be properly cared for. I made inquiries with other organizations, but most would only have been willing to take anything from the Bay Area. They were not interested in any of the other posters, from Germany, from Australia. To me, that was part of the beauty of the collection; that it had so many examples from different parts of the world. And then I knew Carol and Robert, who were interested in the entire collection, so CSC was where I decided to donate them.

AF: I think the collection aligns perfectly with the Center for Sex & Culture as a space. As you know, I have done a lot of research on other AIDS poster collections[3], and I think your interests inflect a sex-positivity to this collection in particular. There is such a vibrant sexual energy to the posters in this collection that aligns with CSC’s mission to “provide judgment-free education, cultural events, a library/media archive, and other resources to audiences across the sexual and gender spectrum.”

Let’s talk again about some of the specific posters. We already discussed the ones in which you were directly involved. How about ones that I know you like a lot, or those that were particularly controversial around the city. Tell me more about the controversy around “Dress for the Occasion.”

BB: Oh, was it controversial. A naked man, with an erect penis, with a rubber around it, in 1988. They were really pushing the envelope!

One of the themes that we are dealing with is the politics of AIDS prevention education. Right from the very beginning, when President Ronald Reagan was not willing to mention the word AIDS, funding for AIDS, particularly for prevention, had catches; that you were not allowed to promote homosexual behavior. Senator Jesse Helms was the first douchebag to fight for that. Congressman Tom Coburn later got on that bandwagon. That made AIDS organizations have to be very careful, and tippy-toe around a lot of issues. And any money that was received from the Center for Disease Control, you had to be able to prove that this money was not being used for a program that, in the eyes of Jesse Helms, promoted homosexual behavior. When suddenly there was a full-page ad in the Bay Area Reporter with a gorgeous man with a boner and a condom on it saying “Dress for the Occasion,” it was like Oh. My. Fucking. God. Jesse Helms is going to be spinning in Washington when his aid hands this to him!

AF: Let’s talk about the collaboration and crowd-sourcing of “Call for Entries.” How did that project come to happen, and what was your role?

BB: Call for Entries happened during one of those repressive times when the STOP AIDS Project was under severe investigation for a number of years.[4] The federal government squashed the creativity and ability of those agencies to really do their job, because the agencies were walking through a minefield. I was really fed up with it. It was the same time that we had the Bound & Gagged town forum-- I asked a group of educators from various agencies to talk about how federal politics was interfering with their ability to produce safe sex messages that would really speak to gay men.

I had the idea to recruit some partners and put on a contest, and have the community create posters, to see what they would come up with. I recruited the Bay Area Reporter, Better World Advertising, Magnet, and EROS as producers/sponsors. Better World Advertising created the poster, and we got 50 or so entries. They were evaluated by the sponsoring partners, and the grand prize was $500. There were a lot of interesting ideas, and then the winning entry, which was “Put It On,” was published as a full-page ad in the BAR for about a month. (Learn more here).

AF: I have spoken to numerous folks who have stressed the importance of gay publications as a distribution network during this time. Many of these posters were initially published in the Bay Area Reporter, and I love the full-circle way that yesterday you and SAFE SEX BANG co-curator Dorian Katz were on the cover in print of the Bay Area Reporter with the article “Safe Sex Poster Show Unveiled.”

BB: Yesterday’s Bay Area Reporter cover story was a thrill. Just a thrill.

AF: How about the poster that we at the Center for Sex & Culture affectionately refer to as “Peachbutt” because of the model’s fuzzy, plump behind. What is the story behind your collecting of the posters from the AIDS Hilf e.V. in particular?

BB: Peachbutt is part of the German stash. My partner Bob and I went over to Germany. I flew my mother over there too. I brought a roll of four or five posters with me and stuck the role in my suitcase. When we got to Munich, I found out where the offices of Deutche AIDS Hilfe were. One afternoon I went to the office, and said “Hi, I’m here from California and I have this gift of some posters for you. I was wondering if you have any posters, and if we could trade posters?” They said “Sure, all of our posters are in the next room, take whatever you want.” I had a present to offer and they said take what you want, and it was a bonanza! I think there are over twenty images that we have from Germany as part of that exchange.

AF: Did you take them all in your suitcase home?

BB: Yes, I rolled them all up in my suitcase. Packed my underwear around them!

Before I went to the Deutche AIDS Hilfe office, we went out to a leather bar one night, and I saw the poster that we call Peachbutt, the fisting poster, at the leather bar that we went to, and it was in red light. At first, I thought it was a photograph. And it wasn’t until I was able to see it in the light of day that I saw that it was an awesomely remarkable pencil drawing.

AF: I know you like the poster with Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, tell me more about it.

BB: Well, its not just Charlotte. She is just one of the many beautiful images in the poster. I love the play that was written about her, “I Am My Own Wife,” based on her autobiography also called I Am My Own Wife. But all of those portraits are so beautifully photographed, and have such a distinctive presence to them. The faces are so beautiful, and to me, it is a really remarkable expression of the beauty of gay men.

AF: I know you also like “Friend in Your Pocket,” produced by the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York City. I would love to hear more about that one too.

BB: I think that the text is just brilliant. “A rubber is a friend in your pocket.” It is so sweet and comforting. There is nothing medical, shaming, or finger-wagging about it. The illustration has the impression that that set of jeans always has a condom in that back pocket, because there is a circle just like someone has a snuff can in the back of his pocket in Oklahoma. The jeans, the image, the body, the coloration; I think it’s really a beautiful combination of both image and message.

AF: I am interested in the story behind the CORE series from Los Angeles, from which we displayed 11 posters in SAFE SEX BANG.

BB: I went down to Los Angeles numerous years ago, to go to the Tom of Finland erotic art show and sale, and bought a lot of original erotic art. I saw the CORE posters displayed in the gallery that had the erotic art sales. I wrote down the address from the posters and wrote to CORE, saying “I’ve just been down to LA and I would really like to show them in my club, could we have some?” They shipped an envelope full of them up to us! In terms of explicitness and dealing with controversial topics, there is nothing that tops that series.

I also went to national AIDS conferences, and the agencies would come and there would be spots that they would plop their posters down, and people could pick them up and take them home. I picked up the Danish one there; and I picked up some from Baltimore there; and there is an extensive series from Seattle that I picked up at a conference.

AF: So Buzz, this collection and exhibition has been decades in the making. What is your relationship with these posters now? Are they old friends? Do they have a brand new relationship to you because of their new exhibition context?

BB: They are definitely old friends. The Celtic holiday of Samhain just transpired. It is the same day as Halloween. Samhain is the precursor of Halloween. Samhain is the mark when the harvest is over and Winter begins. And like Day of the Dead, in the Hispanic tradition, it is the day when the separation between the living and the dead dissolves, when the veil between those worlds dissolves. The Celts celebrated their ancestors on Samhain.

This year, on Samhain, I thought about my AIDS ancestors. I have a list of 120 names, of people who I knew, who are not with us. Well, who are not in their bodies, they are with us. When I look at these posters, I think of those hundreds of people who labored and loved over these images, who were devoted to their community with these images. The thousands of people who saw them and touched them, and were touched by them. For me, they now have a new life. And I sit here and I just feel like the spirits of these many, many, many contributors are hanging all in the corners of this building, and they are laughing and smiling and applauding, and they are very, very, very happy.
[Looks to the rafters of the Center for Sex & Culture]
Hi kids.

Interview text excerpted from: "Gay Stashing: How Buzz Bense Built His Safe Sex Collection." SAFE SEX BANG: The Buzz Bense Collection of Safe Sex Posters. Center for Sex and Culture: San Francisco, CA. Pp. 5-13.

[1] San Francisco Jacks. http://www.sfjacks.com/pages/main.html

[2] Chapple, Steve and David Talbot. “Burning Desires Sex In America. Part One The World’s First Safe-Sex Orgy.” Playboy, April 1989, pp. 64–68, 78, 160, 163.

A particularly poignant contextualizing introduction from the Playboy feature article reads, “As the Eighties began, America was caught up in the most exuberant sexual carnival of modern times. But while the decade was still young, the country was swept by a wave of sexual terror. The resulting cultural collision between lust and contagion, hell-fire and saturnalia produced a strange and wondrous era. It was a time of safe-sex porn queens and misbehaving preachers, of jack-off clubs and recovering “sex addicts,” of phone-sex sirens and condom-delivery men. It was a time of fatal attractions, of desires you could burn for.

By mid-decade, the media, once so eager to sell the sexual revolution, were now announcing its demise. But the biggest untold story was the reinvention of sex. Back-yard tinkerers in the tool shops of Eros played with ways of combining sexual liberation and sexual hygiene-fueled by the grand human drive for life and pleasure.”

[3] The German Hygiene Museum in Dresden owns the world’s largest collection of AIDS posters, with over 9,800 items from more than 100 countries. Curator Vladimir Čajkovac is currently working on an exhibition of this material, to open at the Hygiene Museum in 2015.

A noteworthy recent display of AIDS posters was Graphic Intervention, 25 Years of International AIDS Awareness Posters 19852010, an exhibition that traveled to over 10 galleries and university museums from 2010–2012. This collection consists of over 3,600 posters initially collected byJames Lapides of the International Poster Gallery in Boston, who sold them to Henry S. Hacker. Hacker has since donated the collection to the Wolfsonian-Florida International University, where they are now held.

Additionally, curator Adrienne Klein has mounted numerous exhibitions from Dr. Edward Atwater’s collection of AIDS posters, which includes more than 6,200 posters that have been donated to and fully digitized by the University of Rochester. Klein’s exhibition Graphic Alert for the Gallery Association of New York State traveled widely, including a display at the Brooklyn Museum in 1988. Klein reprised Graphic Alert most recently for the MSB Gallery at New York University’s medical center in September 2013.

[4] “Pelosi Defends Controversial AIDS Prevention Group.”http://cnsnews.com/news/article/pelosi-defends-controversial-aids-prevention-group