When you say yesAustralia has long been considered a world leader in public campaigns to address the spread of HIV/AIDS. As part of their 30th anniversary celebrations, the Victorian AIDS Council and Gay Men’s Health Centre (VAC/GMHC) are putting on an exhibition of some of the most striking and memorable posters from Australian sexual health campaigns from the last three decades.

Secretary of the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives Graham Willett curated Passion! 30 years of Safe Sex, using the exhibition to show the diversity and scope of sexual health promotion in Australia.

“Sheridan Sheets at one point started to run ads which had naked men stretched out on a bed…the AIDS Council produced one very much similar, a naked man, strategically concealed, stretched on a bed with, ‘You’ll never forget the feeling of safe sex,’” Willett told Star Observer, recalling an early campaign featured in the exhibition.

“It stopped being, ‘do this, don’t so that’, and it started to emphasise what’s really important: that safe sex is erotic and fun and pleasurable and sexy. And I think that poster was one of the very first ones to do that very strongly and clearly.”

Willett said these kinds of campaigns were far more effective than the famous Grim Reaper ads of the late 1980s, criticised at the time for stigmatising gay men. He pointed out those ads were a rare example of a state-funded HIV/AIDS public health campaign—most were produced by and for minority communities.

“Fear actually didn’t work much, and I can’t think of any examples of it being used in the gay community,” Willett said.

“Very quickly it became clear that positive messages about looking after yourself, looking after other people, enjoying safe sex, worked much better to change initially gay men’s behaviour and then other groups in the community.”

The exhibition features a notorious ad booked to run in TV Week showing two men kissing and the line, “When you say yes, say yes to safe sex.”

TV Week refused to publish it, the advertising council agreed that it shouldn’t be published anywhere…almost immediately there was a protest about this kind of censorship,” said Willett.

“It was only an issue because it was public. Much more confronting stuff or provocative stuff or explicit stuff was being used all the time in the gay community, but as soon as you start to put it in TV Week…it becomes a problem.”

Passion! 30 years of Safe Sex opens at Public Record Office Victoria at the Victorian Archives Centre in North Melbourne on 12 July, running until 16 August.

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