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CONTAGIOUS METAPHORS: AIDS and the construction of promiscuity in New York’s Gay Community, 1981-1984

Smith, Anthony K.J. (2016) CONTAGIOUS METAPHORS: AIDS and the construction of promiscuity in New York’s Gay Community, 1981-1984. Honours thesis, Murdoch University.

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The emergence of the AIDS epidemic in New York ignited debates about the perceived centrality of ‘promiscuity’ in gay men. Prior to the epidemic, sexual adventure and numerous concurrent sexual partners were understood to be an essential characteristic of gay identity, however, with the presence of AIDS - immediately linked to sexual transmission - gay men’s sexual behaviour and identity were fractured. This thesis offers an analysis of social constructions of promiscuity in New York’s gay community, through the close reading of texts between 1981-1984. I focus on newspaper and magazine articles, epidemiological reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a safe-sex booklet by AIDS activists Richard Berkowitz and Michael Callen, and selected works by AIDS activist and literary figure Larry Kramer. What emerges in this thesis is an exploration of the discursive effects of power/knowledge in relation to gay men, medicine and disease, and sexual norms. The label ‘promiscuity’, despite its relative incoherence, is shown to be a powerful apparatus, circulating through metaphors of sinfulness, psychopathology, contagion, and the socially downtrodden. I argue that these metaphors of promiscuity exacerbated panic about AIDS, slowed down effective sociopolitical interventions for the epidemic, and treated those living and dying with AIDS as less than human.

Item Type: Thesis (Honours)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Arts
Supervisor(s): Moody, David
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