Safe Sex Poster Show Unveiled
A new HIV social marketing campaign on a bus stop near the Center for Sex and Culture in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood had caught the eye of Buzz Bense. His immediate thought was how he could get his hands on one.
"It’s really unusual for public health messages to be on paper these days. Instead, it’s a banner ad on a website and there is nothing permanent about that," said Bense, 64, the former co-owner of safe sex club Eros in the city’s Castro district.
A graphic designer back in the 1980s when AIDS was rampaging through the city’s gay male population, killing indiscriminately and leaving health officials baffled on how to control the epidemic, Bense helped produce some of the first public campaigns urging gay men to practice safe sex.
In 1986 he created the slogan and art direction for the ad campaign of National Condom Week on behalf of the National Condom Week Resource Center in Oakland. The posters featured rainbow-colored rubbers dancing in a chorus line underneath the quote "Everybody’s Doin’ It!"
That year he also began collecting various HIV-related public service advertisements, eventually amassing a collection of 150 safe sex posters from various countries, including Australia, Germany, Denmark, and Canada. On last year’s World AIDS Day, held annually December 1, he donated them to the sex center for safekeeping and use by researchers.
"I was careful in keeping them well stored in boxes so they wouldn’t get damaged," said Bense, adding that when he and staff with the sex center sorted through them, "It was like seeing old friends."
More than 70 of them are part of a new show, titled "Safe Sex Bang: The Buzz Bense Collection of Safe Sex Posters," that opens Friday, November 8 at the sex center and runs through January 31.
"The living history of this archive presents the visual means through which the LGBT community has attempted to educate itself about safe sex practices during the height of an ongoing health epidemic that continues to effect all of us today," reads the introductory wall text to the exhibition.
It is the first time Bense’s posters have been shown to the public since 2004, when a selection was installed at the Department of Public Health’s offices at 25 Van Ness during an AIDS conference being held in San Francisco.
"It is really important for younger people to see these posters and celebrate the activism they represent. People and organizations dedicated so much time to try to bring about positive change through making the posters," said center gallerist Dorian Katz, 45, who is bisexual and lives in Oakland.
Having lived in the Bay Area since 1986, Katz recalls several of the ad campaigns represented in the show, such as the dancing condoms poster Bense helped create. She also recalls seeing the character known as Bleach Man, a superhero figure with a bleach bottle for a head who is depicted in one of the larger bus shelter ads in the show, walking through the Castro handing out condoms and mini bottles of bleach for disinfecting injection drug users’ needles.
The posters run the gamut from the sexually explicit, particularly those from overseas, to those that sparked controversy when first revealed, such as the Stop AIDS Project’s 2002 "HIV Is No Picnic" campaign that included one ad of a man seated on a toilet with the word "DIARRHEA" emblazoned over him.