Safer Sex

Little did I know what amazing adventures were in store for me in early July, 1992. Lyon Martin Women’s Health Services had just hired me to be the HIV Prevention Project Coordinator for a two year American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmFAR) grant. This was the first grant in the country to target three high-risk groups of lesbian and bisexual women. The most successful intervention that garnered local and national notoriety was created for women who attended the women’s dance and sex clubs. The recruitment flyer went out to the community, and to all the local sex divas I knew. There are quite a few of us.

pssst, the flyer beckoned.

pssst, I want your attention.

pssst, this is a hot opportunity

dedicated to demolishing denial

Are you a hot talking mistress of latex, a velvet voiced vanilla queen of plastic wrap, a fashion diva with color coordinated gloves and condoms, or a temptress with toys who has been looking for the opportunity to show what you know? Are you a serious safer sex positive woman with a commitment to creative exhibitionism and erotic play?

Are you interested in joining the Peer Safer Sex Slut Team (pssst) that will not only conduct brief interviews, but will perform the how-to’s of hot sexually explicit safer sex for the educational benefit of our curious and less experienced sisters who attend the women’s sex and dance clubs? mmm, mmm, mmm, honey WE WANT YOU.... in fact, WE NEED YOU ON OUR TEAM!

In the summer of ‘92 as the sun was going down, I stood outside the door of Ecstasy Lounge, a new San Francisco women’s safer sex club trying my best to look relaxed and nonchalant. After all I was only doing research for my new job. I nervously fingered the business cards in my pocket. As the anxiety levels rose in my chest, the card took on greater and greater importance by the second, as if it was my official ticket to continued respectability. A non-stop, “What if somebody I know sees me?” loop played like a broken record in my head. My heart beat wildly, and I caught myself saying “Breathe.” Taking a deep breath, I rode an ancient wave of “good catholic girl guilt/shame/fear,” and opened the door to the hustle and bustle of set-up activities. A woman perched on a ladder waved, “Hey Lani, nice to see you. How’ve you been?” “Hey,” I thought to myself, “she’s in a sex club too! Well, duh Lan...” So I laughed at myself and eased into yet another “virgin” experience.

The majority of women attending Ecstasy were fairly new to the idea of public sex, and for that matter safer sex. For many this was a “field trip” to check out the scene. I volunteered to work registration where each guest had to answer one safer sex question before entering the club. Smiling as they approached the window, I’d look them directly in the eye and purr, “If you had your fingers inside me what would you do beforehand? And honey, I’m not talking technique!” More than a few responded, “Oh, I don’t need to answer the safer sex question because I’m not going to do anything,” to which I’d reply, “Watching is the safest sex of all. You have total permission to watch; however, you still have to answer the question.” Each attendee would be probed in a different area: “If we were using sex toys would we need any protection?” These questions provoked laughter and a sassy response, or produced a vacant - “Holy Toledo, what have I gotten myself into?” look in their eyes. To which I’d immediately confess my own earlier panic. This always did the trick. The atmosphere was friendly, playful, and sexually charged.

Later in the evening there was a brief safer sex demonstration. And though the demo was humorless, difficult to see, and lacking verbal instruction, what I did see sparked my juices in more ways than one. An endless array of theatrical possibilities for the Safer Sex Sluts filled my imagination.

· · · · ·

Who would’ve thought that within the next three months I would be introduced as the Head Slut and educating cheering crowds of women? Who could have imagined that the 16 women who responded to my flyer would be the talk of the town just weeks after their training?

For me, the main thrust of the peer safer sex slut team (pssst) was our motto – dedicated to demolishing denial. The Sluts learned quickly that the more outrageous we were, the more women talked. Our maiden skit took vulnerable baby slut steps up an 8 foot ladder for the pleasure of viewing Sluts enjoying the ins and outs of water-based lube, gloved fingers, and a condom-covered dildo. Of course we provided hot talk and plenty of information before and after the show. We loved to hear the gossip: “Did you hear about the Safer Sex Sluts?” The more talk, the more exposure, the more controversy, the better job we were doing. Our philosophy – all information to all women without judgement or assumptions – guided us; it was, however, our lust for eroticizing barriers and safer sex that drove us.

We were in the business of giving women positive imagery that could be incorporated into their lives, and sexual fantasies. Women told us they never learned by reading – they needed to actually see how to make sex safer. Others had tried to incorporate various barriers into their sex lives but weren’t sure if what they had been doing was effective and had nowhere to find out. Some women picked up new ideas and techniques. Women especially loved the camaraderie and our sex- and body-positive attitude.

In the research component of this grant, we were charged with conducting 900 1-on-1 interviews asking women four questions regarding their knowledge of HIV and safer sex. Our black SAFER SEX SLUTS tee shirts gave us high visibility in the dance clubs several nights a week, and once a month at Ecstasy Lounge. Our “uniformed” presence provided women with the opportunity to broach the topic of safer sex and challenge the rampant denial.

The conversations and the common themes centered around: “My girl friend and I have been together for 3, 6, 12, 18 months and are monogamous so we’re not at risk.” – “Where are the statistics? When I see the statistics I’ll do something.” – “Lesbians don’t get HIV.” – “I just won’t have sex with a bisexual women.” (sic) – “The women I know would never shoot drugs.” – “I can intuit when a woman has been with a man. Besides I don’t know any women with HIV so it’s not my issue.”

The misinformation had been fueled by a deceptive quote in a late eighties mainstream media story. In it a doctor from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) was quoted as saying lesbians had little or no risk for HIV. This dangerously ignorant quote would reappear in other articles periodically. It fed the divisive us/them notion that self-identified lesbians don’t shoot drugs, don’t have sex with men, don’t engage in survival sex, or sex work, and certainly wouldn’t be pierced or tattooed or be injecting steroids for body building or thinking about donor insemination to get pregnant. What was never revealed in any story was the CDC definition of a lesbian as any woman who had not had sex with a man since 1977 and that the CDC does not collect statistics on female-to-female transmission. Also, “there have been no studies that have rigorously examined female-to-female sexual acts or cunnilingus as a risk for HIV transmission...”1. The silence perpetuated denial and created a false sense of “safety” that a lesbian identity would protect you.

We reminded women of this country’s record on women’s healthcare and posed the question: How can we make decisions about our sexual health if the information furnished by our government is grounded in homophobia, biphobia, and misogyny? We incorporated the invaluable anecdotal information from women including lesbians living with HIV/AIDS in our into our messages. The Sluts operated on the notion that the more data we have, the better choices we can make. Information is indeed power.

Despite all this the April 1997 CDC UPDATE states there are “case reports of female-to-female transmission of HIV, and well-documented risk of female-to-male transmission of HIV [that] indicate vaginal secretions and menstrual blood are potentially infectious and that mucous membrane (e.g. oral, vaginal) exposure to these secretions can potentially lead to HIV infection....Although female-to-female transmission of HIV is apparently rare, female sexual contact should be considered a possible means of transmission among women.” The statistics to keep an eye on, though, are “the percentage of cases among women that have been placed in the No Identified Risk category is double that of men” – and rising.

HIV risk for women who have sex with women, as for all people, varies depending upon our history, what we do, and how safe we are. HIV is transmitted when blood, semen, vaginal fluids, or breast milk from an HIV infected person enters the blood stream. Women can and do transmit HIV and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Safer sex and using barriers is not only about HIV, but STDs which are passed during unprotected vaginal, anal, oral, digital, and sex toy sex. Safer sex is about protecting yourself from, among other things, herpes, genital warts, and hepatitis. Chlamydia is rampant in most sexually active communities. Symptoms show up in 7-21 days after having vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone who is infected, but 60-70% of women (and men) have no symptoms. If not treated reproductive organs can be damaged, and the ability to have children can be affected. Get tested when you go for a check up.

You may ask how in the hell the Safer Sex Sluts kept it up with the overwhelmingly negative doom and gloom, the blame and shame, and the general misinformed head in the sand mentality for the two year grant period. The truth of the matter is, with our non-dogmatic information sharing, and role modeling approach affirming that sex is not only good, but healthy, we empowered women to make educated choices, to celebrate sex and respect their bodies. The Slut message was consistent, and didn’t add to the confusion. We brought our own inexperience and ourselves to the stage, learning many techniques as we went along. We took suggestions, enticed, and engaged people’s minds and bodies. We showed how to integrated safer sex with sexual desire. They left hungry for more, and so did we.

For months after the grant ended in July, 1994, Lyon Martin Women’s Health Services got requests for the Safer Sex Sluts to come do a workshop, a performance, a street fair, a health conference, a training, the Dyke March.

What the Sluts and I created was not only successful beyond our wildest dreams (and we had a few), but this endeavor captured the imagination and spoke to my political passion for meaningful work. I wanted to reach larger audiences, different audiences. I invited gay and bi men on the team, transgendered folks, and heterosexuals, older and younger people so we could reflect and present to a variety of communities. For schools, and people and cultures for whom the word “slut” prevents any possibility of education, I came up with The LATEX WARRIORS making the world safe for sex. The needs of every audience are considered so the information we impart is appropriate for where we are and whom we are trying to reach.

The Sluts celebrate the sacredness of sexuality. From raunchy to refined, from nude to fully clothed, we have gone forth and multiplied. There are over 25 sex positive divas of varying body types, ethnicities, proclivities, and persuasions who generously volunteer their time to titillate and educate the masses. Pssst, isn’t this public service at its best?


1 Journal of the American Medical Women’s Association, 1995; 50:103-107. [back to story]

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