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Vintage safe sex ads might hold clues to solving today's STI uptick




A photo shows the car ad logo used by Clean Needles Now, an L.A.-based volunteer organization that ran a needle exchange program (ca.1990)
A photo shows the car ad logo used by Clean Needles Now, an L.A.-based volunteer organization that ran a needle exchange program (ca.1990)
ONE Archives Foundation

A retrospective of jarring, creative and groundbreaking safer sex campaigns is now on display in the exhibition "Lost and Found" at the ONE Gallery in West Hollywood.

Most of what can be seen spans the 1980s and 1990s.

"They are powerful images and probably some of the most powerful media campaigns around public health," says USC professor Nayan Shah. "People today who are public health practitioners now look back and say, 'Wow, can we do a campaign that’s as impactful as those campaigns were?'"

The biggest concern surrounded the spread of HIV, of which little was known at first, so public health activists used methods that went beyond traditional PSAs to get people's attentions.

"This was about tactics that we’re presenting, whether it be through comics, posters, videos," says the exhibition's co-curator David Evans Frantz. "It was about raising awareness and telling the public that this is a crisis about all our lives."

A panel from the comic
A panel from the comic "Chicos Modernos." It was commissioned by health officials in LA County as a way to educate the public about safer sex.
ONE Archives Foundation

Comic books were one method, as seen in "Chicos Modernos," created by artist Joey Terrill and commissioned by L.A. County health officials.

In Spanish, the main character mistakenly talks about how he can't contract HIV from another man who's straight. His friend then educates him on the realities of how the virus is transmitted.

Since it’s a comic and in Spanish, the message is more accessible to both younger people and to L.A.’s diverse community.

"A kind of history that we’re also really looking to chart in this show is how AIDS activists were looking to really broadly reach beyond the gay community or specifically the white gay community especially in Los Angeles," Frantz says.

Also on display at “Lost and Found” exhibit are several artifacts from the group Clean Needles Now, a volunteer organization that ran a needle exchange program throughout the streets of L.A. in the '90s.

Several photographs of them are on display, though few show people’s faces. 

"There was anonymity involved," says co-curator Hannah Grossman. "There was sensitivity around people’s identity because of the illegal nature of what they were actually engaging with."

A diagram created by the L.A. organization Clean Needles Now shows how to disinfect needles so as to prevent the spread of HIV.
A diagram created by the L.A. organization Clean Needles Now shows how to disinfect needles so as to prevent the spread of HIV.
ONE Archives Foundation

During this time, there was a lot of opposition to let intravenous drug users trade used needles for clean ones. Some public officials argued that it just encouraged drug use.

So CNN operated in secret, while also distributing things like comic books, calendars and pamphlets.

The exhibition “Lost and Found” also features objects like tarot cards redrawn to feature ways to have safer sex, and several ads of couples just kissing – some same-sex, others of different races.

A poster created around 1989-90 by the AIDS activist organization ACT UP features different couples kissing.
A poster created around 1989-90 by the AIDS activist organization ACT UP features different couples kissing.
ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries

Even that was bold for its time.

"People were hostile because it was showing these positive images of same-sex or opposite-sex multiracial couples," says USC professor Nayan Shah. "Couples showing care and  tenderness – that was as challenging to some people as much more graphic imagery."

But it’s messaging like this that was revolutionary, and an important lesson for today.

In 2016, a quarter-million Californians were infected with either syphilis, chlamydia or gonorrhea. When it comes to HIV, there are more than 1,800 new cases of it each year in Los Angeles County alone.

So to bring down the rates of STIs that affect Southern Californians, today's public health activists might want to look at the creativity and bravery of the past.

A pamphlet with tarot card-like drawings that illustrate ways to have safer sex, made by Kim Abeles in 1992.
A pamphlet with tarot card-like drawings that illustrate ways to have safer sex, made by Kim Abeles in 1992.
ONE Archives Foundation/Ian Byers-Gamber