Safe Text: The Messages That Are Changing Our Sex Lives


The public awareness campaigns surrounding HIV/AIDS have been a staple of urban billboards, bus shelters, and LGBT magazines for decades. The messages promoting prevention and testing have taken every possible tack. But which message works best? Do the menacing ads promote stigma? Do the ads with muscled, smiling men reduce the urgency of testing? The images’ transformations over the years tell the story of developing priorities and innovative strategies, and a growing awareness that HIV doesn’t discriminate.

Smart Card
The Play Smart cards are one new strategy that uses provocative art — sexy pin-up images from queer artists including Paul Mpagi Sepuya and Slava Mogutin — to combat HIV. The packs include two trading cards (the reverse side of each has safer sex information), a sticker, and condoms and lube. Visual AIDS (, which supports HIV+ artists and fights AIDS with art, began producing Play Smart four years ago in conjunction with The Men’s Sexual Health Project (M*SHP), an organization that promotes sexual health in MSM, and provides free testing.

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Amos Mac for Visual AIDS, Rocco, 2012; Chritopher Schulz for Visual AIDS, Rigo, 2012

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Luna Luis Ortiz for Visual AIDS

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Aaron Cobbett for Visual AIDS

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Greg Mitchell for Visual AIDS

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Inked Kenny for Visual AIDS

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Jayson Keeling and Carmine Santaniello for Visual AIDS, Nightwing, 2013; Jayson Keeling for Visual AIDS, Untitled, 2013; Carmine Santaniello for Visual AIDS, Embrace, 2013

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The Big Bang
Brightly colored images sourced from around the world by and for the queer community and produced at the height of the AIDS crisis visually jump from catalog for San Francisco’s Center for Sex & Culture exhibit, “SAFE SEX BANG: The Buzz Bense Collection of Safe Sex Posters.” Bense, a graphic designer and safe sex activist, has been producing and collecting posters for decades. Highlights include the well-known Bleachman campaign (right) which was created by the San Francisco AIDS Foundation to reach intravenous drug users at risk. Safe Sex Bang: Buzz Bense Poster Collection Book, $25,


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“Condom Use It”, Bleachman, San Francisco AIDS Foundation, SF Department of Public Health, 1989

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“Everybody’s Doin’ It!” Condon Resource Center, Art Direction: Buzz Bense, Illustration: Chris Hansen, Calligraphy: William Stewart, 1986

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Left: “Positive negative [+/-} Jackback”, Artist: David McDiarmid, Courtesy of Acon Health Unlimited, Australia

Center: “Outliving”, 1993, Compass Project, SF AIDS Foudnation Funded by San Francisco Department of Public Health, Photo: Stan Musilek, Design: Scott Sidorsky, Digital Imaging: Texas Unlimited Inc, 1993

Right: “Safe Sex Is Hot Sex”, Red Hot Organization, Photo: Steven Meisel, 1991

Posters in the collection of Center for Sex and Culture, San Francisco. Catalog cover illustration: Martin Schapiro