It’s the 1980s and everyone is dying in Sex Positive, the latest documentary to tackle the decade in which over 100,000 gay men perished of AIDS. The film is the story of those men, but it’s also the story of Richard Berkowitz, an S&M hustler and safe-sex pioneer. The headstrong activist was one of very few contemporaries to acknowledge promiscuity as a dangerous lifestyle for gay men. Berkowitz's unsavory identity angered other gay activists — “conservative activists,” the film calls them — and created a divide between those too scared to politicize promiscuity as a lifestyle and those who wanted to change that lifestyle.
Even more interesting than the opposition to Berkowitz’s campaign is his seemingly one-hit wonder activism. Compared with someone like Michael Callen, whose legend lives on in song and community centers, Berkowitz has been tucked away into the folds of obscurity. He lives on disability, accepts donations from former clients from his hustling days, and has to ask permission to film inside the aforementioned Michael Callen Center, a building dedicated to the man he once knew and loved. Director Daryl Wein utilizes dark rooms, hanging light bulbs, and street corners as backdrops to isolate Berkowitz against a world that has now forgotten his contribution to the fight against AIDS, encapsulated in the first-ever safe sex pamphlet: "How To Have Sex in an Epidemic."
This kind of social rejection have left Berkowitz broke and suffering from a nasty drug habit. He’s still headstrong and articulate, but his eyes hold the look of defeat. And that's no wonder, since the AIDS epidemic is now killing more people -- gay and straight -- than it ever did back in 1980. Although condoms are less of a taboo topic, they still often fail to make it to the bedroom or the classroom. And even if there were a dialogue on safe sex — one that didn’t involve kitschy commercials or women’s magazines — it wouldn’t change the fact that gay men still can’t get married in most states and gay boys are beaten to death, their corpses tied to fences. When interviewees — some of whom work in gay activist centers — are asked about Richard Berkowitz, the response is, "Who?"
Sex Positive could have been a fascinating character study of a subversive activist whose life’s work has been shelved by both the gay community and society at large. Instead, Daryl Wein makes the mistake of the novice documentarian, portraying his subject as hero rather than human. Yes, Berkowitz peaks openly about his poverty, but Wein glosses over his controversial (and scientifically unfounded) belief that CMV -- not HIV -- causes AIDS. His addiction doesn't come up until the end of the film, with virologist and close friend Joseph Sonnabend confessing that Berkowitz’s drug habit probably ruined his political career. But Wein quickly ditches that angle, too, and opts for a parting shot of Berkowitz saying, “I just wish someone would say, 'good job.'” The film ends as a figurative slap on the back that is too heavy-handed for a subject so complicated and tragic.