Safer sex messages: Australian HIV/AIDS campaigns 1985–2014

Safer sex messages: Australian HIV/AIDS campaigns 1985–2014

HIV Australia | Vol. 12 No. 3 | December 2014

L. K. Chan and Raymond Donovan present a retrospective of Australian health promotion materials.

Some of us are in love … David McDiarmid’s extravagant pro-gay and pro-sex images pushed the boundaries of eroticism in HIV/AIDS campaigns.

His series of five posters focused on community, drugs, discrimination, relationships and safer sex.

The motif of the square-headed everyman inscribed with the positive and negative symbols challenged the notion that safer sex messages should primarily be addressed to gays who are HIV-negative, because ‘everyman’ is at risk.

Poster © ACON, 1992.

HIV/AIDS was first described as a condition of North American male homosexuals in 1981.

The United States Public Health Service announced the official start of the epidemic in 1982.

The World Health Organization (WHO) proclaimed HIV/AIDS a worldwide pandemic in 1987.

Medical orthodoxy characterises the syndrome as a fatal condition caused by a pathogen or a virus which insinuates itself into and irrevocably damages the body’s immunologic defences.

The Australian HIV/AIDS epidemic has largely been confined to gay and bisexual men.

The first Australian case was diagnosed in Sydney in November 1982, and the second in Melbourne in April 1983. Both were homosexual men: the first a 27-year-old American resident in Sydney, the second a 43-year-old Australian who had been living in the United States.

Over 3,000 individuals in Australia were infected with HIV each year during the mid-1980s.

HIV infections steadily decreased to 656 in 2000, but increased to 930 in 2005. This represented a 41 percent national increase during the four-year period. More than 1,000 new cases were anticipated during 2006.1

In 2012 the number of newly diagnosed HIV infections totalled 1,253 cases; a 10 percent increase over the cases in 2011.2

The primary method of HIV transmission continues through contact between men.

In media, political and religious discourses, tainted bodily fluids have been metamorphosed into corporeal realities – the ‘innocent’ and the ‘guilty’ – and so-called carriers are signified as polluters who, by opening-up the flood gates of promiscuity, place the ‘general’ public at risk.

HIV/AIDS is resonant with images of suspicious viral bodies contrived as ‘carriers’ of lethal contaminants such as blood and semen.

It is in this sense the epidemic is not merely a medical phenomenon. It is also a cultural production so far as the syndrome is synonymous with collective memories about pathogenic bodies – homosexuals, people who inject drugs, and sex workers – previously ‘known’ or suspected to be morally polluted, sexually aberrant, and socially disreputable.

During the first two decades of the epidemic, posters were the most widely used medium for delivering information about safer sex messages.

Over the years the internet, social media and online dating sites have influenced how people socialise and engage in sexual activities.

New strategies and approaches are required for reaching and communicating with wider populations in HIV awareness and prevention campaigns.

Great sex! Don’t let AIDS stop it.

In one of the first safer sex campaigns devised by a non-government organisation, the graphic ‘camp’ style of the early 1980s was adopted.

Displayed in gay clubs and saunas, this poster summarised what was known at the time about HIV/AIDS risks.

It provided gay men with clear and direct information about safer sex practices and the assurance that the virus need not dampen sexual enthusiasm if sensible precautions were taken.

Poster © Victorian AIDS Council/Gay Men’s Health Centre, 1985.

Safer Sex Messages: Australian HIV/AIDS Campaigns 1985–2014accompanies an exhibition which surveys campaign graphics produced by Australian federal and state governments, non-government agencies including state AIDS Councils, and community organisations.

A variety of graphic materials have sought to draw attention to safer sex awareness through intervention strategies and prevention campaigns.

Useful as they are, graphic representations of the epidemic are inevitably problematic in the sense that the virus is an abstraction – in everyday terms it cannot be ‘seen’ – yet it manifests itself in complex and diverse ways as a ‘mysterious’ and, ultimately, fatal syndrome.

An additional complication is the contentious manner by which those who are affected are classified, identified and portrayed in graphic representations as belonging to one of the original epidemiologically constructed ‘risk’ groups.

If they are to be effective, heterosexual graphic representations of HIV/AIDS need to address the plurality of contexts and practices likely to lead to infection but which – given that most public health campaigns are the products of the advertising culture – largely gloss over the ‘facts’ about safer sex in favour of textual and visual euphemisms presumed to be publicly acceptable imageries about the epidemic.

Gay graphics included in the exhibition were not intended for viewing by the ‘general’ public. They were devised for particular communities and were mostly displayed in gay bars and saunas.

In contrast to campaigns devised for heterosexuals, selected distribution meant that posters intended for gays could express sex-positive messages in straightforward images and vernaculars.

The exhibition concentrates on ‘milestone’ campaigns in the documentation of Australia’s responses to the development of the epidemic.

It focuses on the changing styles of public health campaigns from 1985 to 2014, and explores how successive campaigns have differed in approaches and how messages have been tailored to address a diversity of audiences during the past three decades.

Safer Sex Messages: Australian HIV/ AIDS Campaigns 1985–2014and the exhibition were commissioned for the International AIDS Conference, Melbourne, 20–25 July 2014.

The curators wish to thank Simon Donohoe and the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations (AFAO) for the invitation to curate the exhibition.

Safer Sex Messages: Australian HIV/ AIDS Campaigns 1985–2014and the exhibition are outcomes of the Australian Socio-Graphic AIDS Project (AGAP) at The University of New South Wales.

AGAP is a continuing research project which documents the material culture of the Australian HIV/AIDS epidemic.

AGAP was funded by UNSW and Australian Research Council grants, including ARC Discovery Project (DP0344814).


1 Male-to-male (homosexual) contact was reported in 86 percent of those with newly acquired HIV infection, compared to heterosexual contact of 9 percent, during 2001–2005.

It is estimated that the cumulative number of HIV diagnoses at the end of 2005 was 22,360, and that of these 15,310 were living with HIV infection.

The number of AIDS diagnoses in Australia declined from 672 cases in 1996, to 209 cases in 2001, and has remained relatively stable at 240 cases per annum over the past four years.

National Centre in HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research (NCHECR). (2006). HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis and Sexually Transmissible Infections in Australia Annual Surveillance Report 2006, NCHECR, The University of New South Wales, Sydney; and Richters, J. (ed.) (2006). HIV/ AIDS, Hepatitis and Sexually Transmissible Infections in Australia: Annual Report of Trends in Behaviour 2006, National Centre in HIV Social Research, The University of New South Wales, Sydney.

2 Men who have sex with men constituted 67 percent of new HIV diagnoses during 2008– 2012, in contrast to heterosexual contact of 25 percent. Eighty-eight percent of diagnoses of newly acquired HIV infection was attributed to men who have sex with men.

The Kirby Institute (2013). HIV, Viral Hepatitis and Sexually Transmissible Infections in Australia Annual Surveillance Report 2013, The Kirby Institute, The University of New South Wales, Sydney.

The curators of the exhibition are the research directors of the Australian Socio-Graphic AIDS Project (AGAP): Associate Professor L. K. Chan, Faculty of Art & Design, The University of New South Wales, Australia and Dr Raymond Donovan, former Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, National Centre in HIV Social Research, The University of New South Wales, Australia.