Safe Sex Poster Show Unveiled

by Matthew S. Bajko
Friday Nov 8, 2013

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.

"There are posters that caused community reaction and community conversation," said Bense. "Sometimes people were not happy, but it got them talking. I think that is the highest mark of a public health campaign."

A series of three posters from 1992 created by Scott Sidorsky for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation at first glance seems so tame as to be meaningless. One is just of a condom with the phrase "Right to Life," a second shows a couple embracing under "Family Values," and the third shows a group of guys under the heading "The Moral Majority."

Yet the trio is a clever rebranding of phrases used by anti-gay forces, such as homophobic Senator Jesse Helms and the evangelist Jerry Falwell, at a time when AIDS agencies were under attack for using federal funds to promote homosexuality.

"They were flipping the moral majority and right to life messages around so they were positive messages for gay men," explained Bense, who is now retired and helped curate the show.

Since the sex center is an 18 and over space, it is not restricted in the types of images it can show. Included among the posters are an 11-part series created by the Core Program based in West Hollywood with the tagline "There's More to Safer Sex Than Condoms ..." that depicts a wide range of sexual images.

There is also an infamous ad created in 1988 by SFAF that ran in the Bay Area Reporter that showed the hairy chest and legs of a man with a condom on his penis. The only text read, "Dress for the occasion."

"If we don't show graphic sexual images here they might not get seen," said Katz. "We can show as much cock and as much cunt as we want."

The show follows on the footsteps of recent safe sex poster exhibits mounted in New York City and at the University of Rochester in upstate New York. A Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign tied to the San Francisco exhibit netted nearly $8,500 to produce a companion catalogue, written by New York City-based art historian and curator Alex Fialho, that will be released in late January.

"As a writer and curator from a generation born in the 1980s, I have a particular stake in encouraging a younger audience to view the exhibition. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 2008 and 2010 HIV infections rose 22 percent for young gay men (ages 13-24)," Fialho, who is 24 and gay, wrote in an emailed reply. "The CDC reported that at the current rates, more than half of college-aged gay men will become HIV-positive by the age of 50. CSC may be exhibiting archival posters, but these objects also continue to provide essential safe/r sex and prevention messaging that is highly relevant to our present moment."

The opening reception for the show takes place from 7 to 10 p.m. Friday, November 8.

The CSC Gallery is open free to the public Mondays from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and by appointment. It is located at 1349 Mission Street near 10th.

To schedule an appointment to view the exhibition, email

For more information, visit

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