The Appeal of a Virus
Elsewhere in society, the viral hypothesis found a ready audience. Gay communities in general and AIDS organizations in particular were little inclined to dispute the causal role of HIV. As early as December 1984, in an information packet distributed to local health care providers, the San Francisco AIDS Foundation made its views plain: "A multiplicity of theories concerning AIDS causation has given way in most quarters to the conclusion that a specific retrovirus is the causative agent." More often, as Dennis Altman has pointed out, politically liberal groups have tended to endorse environmental, multicausal models of illness and to criticize the "single bullet" approach. In this case, however, AIDS organizers had good reason to find the HIV hypothesis attractive. Increasingly, gay men had been under attack, accused by various right-wing spokespersons of pursuing a "promiscuous" lifestyle that was in reality a "deathstyle." Fears that they would be quarantined en masse had become widespread among gays. Indeed, Dr. Edward Brandt, Reagan's assistant secretary of health in 1983, has since indicated that the Reagan administration gave serious consideration to the idea of a mass quarantine
at that time. But while the talk about lifestyle had seemed to lay the groundwork for victim blaming in the larger society, the viral hypothesis had more neutral moral implications. Pursuing a lifestyle was seen as a choice; contracting a virus seemed more like plain bad luck.
Not that the acceptance of the viral hypothesis served to sever altogether the popular connections between etiology and culpability. On the contrary, AIDS still was all too frequently perceived as a phenomenon whose very existence demanded a guilty party. But attention now tended to focus on the virus itself and the question of its origins. Had HIV originated in Africa, as many Western scientists maintained (to the displeasure of many Africans)? Did Cubans fighting in Angola bring the disease to Haiti? Was HIV the product of genetic engineering by the CIA or the U.S. Army, as fringe groups in the United States, along with official Soviet media sources, proposed? Had HIV or a simian form of it been unwittingly introduced into Africans via vaccines (against smallpox, malaria, or polio, depending on the theory) prepared from monkey tissue and administered in WHO vaccination programs in Africa? But while debates over these and other theories about origins of the virus raged and sometimes held various parties, nations, or continents culpable for the origins of the virus, to a significant degree they left gay men unscathed.
Furthermore, the viral hypothesis provided gay communities with an important repertoire of responses to the widespread panic over casual transmission of AIDS. Opinion polls in 1983 and 1984 suggested that large numbers of people in the United States believed that AIDS could be transmitted by coughs and handshakes, drinking glasses and shared toilet seats. Many people acknowledged that they were shunning contact with gay people against the possibility that those people might have AIDS, and gay rights groups were reporting a rise in cases of antigay discrimination in the workplace, in housing, and elsewhere in the society. Increasing knowledge about the highly specific routes of HIV infection offered a ready answer. The solution was not to avoid the risk groups , AIDS educators asserted, but to avoid the risk practices —principally, sex without a condom and the sharing of syringes. Given the near-total protection of the blood supply with the advent of the antibody tests, AIDS advocacy groups could plausibly claim that it was easy to protect oneself from getting AIDS. More radical public health measures such as quarantine were therefore unnecessary.
Finally, the viral hypothesis resonated with the "safe sex" (or "safer sex") strategies that were already being promoted in gay male communities
by 1983. Although many commentators had continued to stress the importance of limiting the number of sexual partners, others had focused on a different solution: taking standard steps to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, such as using condoms or avoiding ejaculation inside the body. Michael Callen and Richard Berkowitz had emphasized these points in a forty-page booklet, "How to Have Sex in an Epidemic," that enjoyed considerable circulation in gay communities on both coasts.
Given evidence that HIV could indeed be blocked by condom use, the viral hypothesis solidified a "sex-positive" AIDS education strategy. While mainstream public health officials continued to counsel monogamy, the fledgling grassroots AIDS organizations put forward a different message that was both pragmatic and scientifically based: have as much sex as you like, as often as you like, with as many different people as you like, and as long as you follow a set of rules to prevent the transmission of HIV, you will be (almost entirely) safe. (Monogamy, by contrast, was a far less credible prevention measure, the grassroots AIDS educators pointed out: especially in communities where HIV was prevalent, monogamous unsafe sex might be quite dangerous, while monogamy in the context of safe sex was essentially redundant.)
Despite frequent opposition from government funders concerned about sexually explicit language and images, the grassroots AIDS educators set out to "eroticize" safe sex—to make it seem not only normative behavior, but attractive and sexy. Techniques of safe-sex education and even the precise definitions of safe sex became, in effect, a "zone of control" that emerging community-based organizations carved out of the larger terrain of the viral hypothesis. That they were experts on safe sex was acknowledged early on: in the midst of the 1984 controversy over whether to close down the gay bathhouses in San Francisco, a state superior court judge who heard arguments on the case mandated that the San Francisco AIDS Foundation would define which activities practiced in bathhouses were safe and which were not. Yet to a significant extent, assumptions of their expertise came to depend on the widespread acceptance of claims about HIV transmission and its causal role in AIDS. Without the belief in HIV as the cause, AIDS organizers could have continued to promote their safe sex guidelines, but only as plausible measures that seemed likely to work. With HIV, the idea of safe sex rested on the shoulders of scientific authority.