Topping Corpus: On Sex and Life Across Cultures

I looked forward to seeing Bill Condon’s Kinsey (2004) from the moment I spied its trailer which, appropriately enough, preceded another film about social convention and sexuality, John Waters’ A Dirty Shame (2004). Like most people, I learned of Alfred Kinsey’s work on human sexuality in a college psych class where, as one is wont to do in the classroom, we dissected the flaws in his methodology. Still, Kinsey and his team studied sexuality in the 1950s! Something of the wonder of such an endeavor struck me despite (or maybe because of) its shortcomings according to psych practice. Yet watching Kinsey left me depressed, not because it’s a poor film, but because the story feels oppressively relevant 50 years later.

The film documents Kinsey’s personal and professional experiences with special attention to the strong relationships that he developed with both his wife and one of his researchers as well as the vehement backlash against his unwillingness to define “normal” human sexuality in terms of heterosexual monogamy. In our recently painful presidential election, anti-gay legislation in the form of “marriage protection” was clearly designed to bring out the voting clout of America’s religious conservatives in eleven states, many of which were crucial swing states. The tactic succeeded, contributing strongly to George W. Bush’s second term in office. As demoralizing as the results of these elections have been, it is doubly important to recognize that positive change has been effected over time, even without the dramatic element of regime change. For one thing, John Waters is a household name — well, he is in my household, anyway — and after watching Kinsey, I went home to my own sexual education task: to write about a public health periodical published by AIDS Project LA (APLA), Corpus.

Corpusis in its second year of production. Issue 1.1 was published in the spring of 2003. Issue 2.1 followed last winter while the third issue is in press as you read. Will there be a fourth issue? Were it not for the social and political climate within which we survive today, I might not need to ask such a question. But sadly, I do. More than just a safe sex/cautionary diatribe, Corpus is an exercise in public health that bucks a growing trend to distance responses to HIV/AIDS from gay sexual pleasure. Recognition among the general public of the impact of HIV/AIDS on the diverse populations that it touches, such as heterosexual women, is certainly important and valuable. A risk, however, is that such a tendency to disconnect the infection from gay men may signal something more than legitimate concern over whom this disease affects. I would wager that it is also an erasure. Despite the proliferation of queeny gay best friend characters and style gurus on television, men having sex with each other is still a “sensitive” issue in today’s cultural climate.

George Ayala, Director of Education at APLA and the person responsible for the concept behind Corpus, begins the premiere volume by observing that “These days, finding gayness in the HIV/AIDS industry is like looking for Waldo.” Across the page in deep-wine ink, Ayala repeats: “En estos dias, encontrar al homosexualismo en la industria del VIH/SIDA es como buscar una aguja en un pajal” (v). Corpus is for people who think in Spanish as much as for those who think in English, and for those who read intimacy across the imagery and cadence of both languages. Multi-racial in terms of imagery and contributors the publication strongly reflects Latino, black, and Asian perspectives on the relationship between public health, eroticism, and the communities to which both are vital.

Why create a document like Corpus to promote HIV prevention? Because writes Ayala, “As we debate the validity of new social categories, gay men see less and less salience in HIV prevention campaigns as those campaigns become watered down and fail to address the subjective experiences of gay men in visible and affirming ways” (v). Visibility is a key quality of this hybrid publication. Its designer, artist and HIV preventionist Patrick “Pato” Herbert, explained to me that Corpus is simultaneously far behind design standards in the arts publications and light years ahead of much public health work. Together these extremes foster the feeling that you don’t know whether you’re holding a lifestyle magazine, an arts journal, erotica or a medical guide. So what exactly does Corpus look like and what it does it contain?

The front cover of issue 1.1 features a painting by Timothy Cummings entitled “Tattoodle Hybrid”. The painting depicts a heavily tattooed sailor, naked but for his ink, his sailor cap, and his stare. The sailor’s tattoos include spider webs of connectivity criss-crossing his body and an anchor just below his navel that points downward to genitalia obscured by modest hands. On the back cover, squiggles of Pointillist-style sperm swarm to the right of the page in a reproduction of Kehinde Wiley’s “Infinite Mobility (Midway).” There, too, is a flurry of connectivity. Both artists are featured within the premier issue of Corpus, along with poetry by Omar Baños and Justin Chin and a series of memoirs like Joel Barraquiel Tan’s “The Undetectable Strain: Notes on Being Negative”, short fiction by Corpus editor Jaime Cortez, and a graphic novela by Belasco.

The volume also embeds advice on how to have safe sex; whether this be the appropriate use of condoms to prevent STD/HIV (re)infection, or how to avoid dangerous situations while cruising. Issue 2.1 gets underway with a grainy night vision photo detail of three young men in a sensuous embrace from Jaime Cortez’ photonovela, Burning Bush. “Cruising the parks at night,” reads the text, “feels like being in a movie. / It can be a mystery. / Mostly it’s a silent movie. / We gesture sentences / occasional haikus. / ‘Fuck me.’ / ‘Hold me like I’m precious.’ / ‘Condoms?’ / ‘Make my life simple.'” (67-74). Not surprisingly, several contributions like Javid Syed’s “My Funk About Spunk” and Robert Vázquex-Pacheco’s “Cum Essay” focus on men’s relationship to bodily fluids because their significance is so overdetermined by the epidemic. Other themes range from community and loss to sex work and dance club fun.

We have the likes of Kinsey to thank for revolutionizing our knowledge of human sexuality. By approaching sexuality from a scientific perspective, Kinsey, his team, and the hundreds of thousands of study participants who shared the details of their intimacies helped strip away obscuring and damaging social convention. A half century later, Corpus faces a different though not unrelated challenge. With HIV/AIDS discourse rendered as medical abstraction, its task has been to reintroduce the intimate. To connect in this case with young men of color, men whose lives are at stake in HIV prevention, Corpus strips the science to get at the sex.

What I take from the knowledge gleaned from the pages of Corpus is courage. Although there is a long way to go before we all can be safe and comfortable in the bodies that we share with others, seeing the legacy of Kinsey’s work in Corpus’ innovative strategy suggests that there is a history and a future of successes to be had. I certainly don’t wish to downplay the critical mass of gender and sexual activism that come between these two points, or to suggest a simple causal link. But there is a resonance. There is a link. And if research into human sexuality in the 1950s could contribute to the energies that brought about a project like Corpus, then there’s a chance that when we tally the progress of our steps forward and the various instances of backlash that appear to undo them, we might just come out tops.