Research Update – July 2021


Even amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the past year has been a remarkably busy and rewarding year of personal and collaborative research. In March 2021, Ben Weil (UCL) and I had an article, titled “‘Test Now, Stop HIV’: COVID-19 and the idealisation of quarantine as the ‘end of HIV’,” published in Culture, Health and Sexuality. The article explored the dissemination of messages about ending new HIV transmissions during the first-wave COVID-19 lockdown in England, UK, and its situatedness in the social histories of Western medicine, especially histories of hygienist health practices in the British context. This work has built on my doctoral research, which explores the social and cultural implications of ‘post-AIDS’ health promotion strategies in the UK and US. As I near submission in the autumn, this co-authored piece presents a helpful lens into understand the political nature of messages about ‘ending AIDS’ as a public health strategy across local, national and global contexts.

A co-authored book chapter with Kristian Møller (IT Copenhagen), titled “Viral Hauntology: Specters of AIDS in Infrastructures of Gay Sexual Sociability,” was finally published in June 2021 in the edited book collection Affects, Interfaces, Events (ed. Bodil Marie Stavning Thomsen, Jette Kofoed and Jonas Fritsch). In this chapter, we explored the hauntologies of AIDS knowledges within social media apparatuses – particularly how old intervention epistemologies continue to inform the construction of sexual social media platforms and how users interact with HIV/AIDS prevention knowledge in these spaces. The chapter builds upon previous theories of viral hauntologies – largely from cultural studies – in order to create formative links with science and technology studies and the digital humanities.

Following an informal discussion with culture and media studies scholars, about the release and dissemination of Russell T. Davie’s (2021) television series It’s a Sin, Ben Weil and I submitted for publication a rapid response paper concerning the health promotion pedagogies embedded in the series’ framework and some of the associated press that followed. It is under consideration as part of a forthcoming cultural commons section in the European Journal of Cultural Studies.

Accepted for publication in July 2021, a co-authored article with Jaime Garcia-Iglesias, titled “‘Who cares if you’re poz right now?’: Barebackers, HIV and COVID-19,” is forthcoming in Sociology of Health and Illness. This online ethnography explores how gay and bisexual men on a popular online sex forum discussed HIV and COVID-19 prevention strategies during the early COVID-19 lockdown in 2020. Our findings included careful assessment of short-term changes to sexual practices, including reduction of partner numbers, as well as position sorting to exclude face-to-face contact where possible. The authors will disseminate these findings at the British Sociological Association online medical sociology conference in September 2021.

My original article about retroactivist histories and the futures of HIV prevention in Robin Campillo’s (2017) film 120 Beats per Minute, based on research presented at a conference in 2019 and one of my doctoral thesis chapters, is still under consideration for a special issue of Modern and Contemporary France.

In addition to original research articles, I published an assortment of book reviews, including a review of Christophe Broqua’s (2020) excellent ethnography of ACT UP Paris – the English translation of his 2006 monograph on the same subject. See my online CV for additional book reviews recently published.

Looking ahead, I have a few publications in the work. First, I had a book chapter abstract accepted for publication in Marsha Morton and Ann-Marie Akehurst’s (2022) forthcoming collection Capturing Contagion: Visual Culture and Epidemic Disease since 1750. In this chapter, titled “Reliving Hygienist Histories in Post-AIDS Visual Cultures,” I will explore how logics of contamination, quarantine and social hygiene are revisited and contested within popular AIDS media, including Russell T. Davie’s (2021) television series It’s a Sin and Luke Davies’s (2018-19) web series The Grass is Always Grindr.

Additionally, I have a co-authored book chapter with artist Ash Kotak, titled “Crafting the London AIDS Memorial,” accepted for publication in Daniel Fountain’s (2022) forthcoming edited collection Crafted with Pride: Queer Craft and Contemporary Activism in Britain. The chapter will use interviews with Ash and archival research to articulate contemporary politics of memorialising AIDS crisis in London – and the struggle to create a unified movement to remember HIV/AIDS experiences throughout the UK.

In autumn 2021, I will submit my PhD thesis. At the same time, I will prepare a monograph proposal, titled “Speculative Health Promotion: The Politics of Promoting the ‘End of AIDS’ in the US and UK, 1994-2021”. The monograph will draw together my research on health promotion practices, cultural perceptions of the ‘end of AIDS’ in the Global North, and ethnographies of perceived ‘futures’ of HIV/AIDS in the US and UK. The monograph will build upon recent research about the social problem of ending new HIV transmissions by increasing biomedical surveillance and employing disease modelling to eradicate HIV. It will present original findings about the social significance of constructing an ideological future through biotechnological apparatuses – and how the negotiation of a biotechnological future(s) is perceived, reproduced and/or contested by populations impacted by HIV/AIDS.

The monograph will be produced in tandem with ongoing research about ‘post-AIDS’ health promotion in Scotland. In June 2021, I submitted a funding app to the Glasgow Medical Humanities Network Early Career Foundation Awards to analyse how recent health promotion in the Scottish context has either integrated or might integrate ‘post-AIDS’ perspectives in engagement with local communities. This foundation award will provide a scoping analysis to determine to what extent further engagement with local communities is needed to interrogate the perceived ‘end of AIDS’ in Scotland. It is my hope that this project will lead to further work working with community members to discuss perceived social futures with less HIV transmission, including interviews, workshops, and creative projects articulating the strengths and limitations of appealing to the ‘end of AIDS’ before curative technologies are developed.

For more information about my ongoing research, please visit my online CV.

Action=Vie (2020)

Book Review, HIV/AIDS, LGBT

Broqua, Christophe. (2020). Action=Vie: A History of AIDS Activism and Gay Politics in France. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 340pp.

Action=Vie is a comprehensive ethnographic analysis of AIDS activism in France. It focuses on responses to the HIV pandemic during the 1980s and 90s, through the lens of Act Up-Paris and their myriad contributions. More broadly, the book follows the emergence of gay community politics in the French context. Broqua helpfully traces the pathways of intellectual, cultural, and sociological ideas exchanged across the nexus of United States, United Kingdom, and French crises. The book is wonderfully accessible, comparable to the writing of media scholar Dion Kagan (see Positive Images, 2018), and will be of interest to both students of HIV histories, gay liberation politics and sociology of health activism in France, and general audiences.

The book is structured in chronological order but highlights key themes that hold together AIDS and gay politics in France. For instance, both Chapters 2 and 10 carefully detail how liberation politics were entangled in Parisian AIDS activism, which helped to draw out not only a unified image of ‘gays against HIV,’ but more broadly a cultural legacy of a unified homosexual front that emerged from tensions between French republicanism and communitarian debates. Chapters 3 and 4 consider the etiologies of AIDS and their relationship to gay liberation politics in France, crucially highlighting the development of gay community politics as a result of AIDS activism (a topic which Broqua deepens and contests by assessing the transformation in intellectual movements in Chapter 10). Broqua draws on interviews he collected in the 1990s and 2000s, during/after his time participating in Act Up-Paris, and thus reflects not simply as a researcher on the political dynamics of AIDS activism but usefully illuminates an insider view of the day-to-day tensions that re-created AIDS activism through personal and identity politics.

Action=Vie is exceptionally smart and meticulously researched. The book presents a refined lens to interrogate Act Up-Paris for Anglophone audiences. Alas, this is material we have not seen explored at length in English since David Caron’s AIDS in French Culture: Social Ills, Literary Cures (2001). It thus reasserts the importance of interrogating the international and global spread of AIDS activism(s) within media cultures, sociology, and health promotion histories. Broqua has provided a beautiful array of secondary texts (largely in French) that help to piece together the complex political histories of AIDS in France. He dutifully stitches these materials together for a truly captivating read. I hope more of Broqua’s work will appear in the Anglophone world very soon.

Reframing Bodies (2009)

Book Review, HIV/AIDS, LGBT

Hallas, R. (2009). Reframing Bodies: AIDS, Bearing Witness, and the Queer Moving Image. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 319pp.

Reframing Bodies is an expansive study of queer AIDS media, examining trends in testimony and the AIDS film archive in the US and UK from the 1980s and 90s. Ranging from small-scale video activism to experimental art film, Hallas argues that AIDS film across genres has redefined forms of testimony through sound, movement and embodiment, and mise-en-scene. Most notably, the book establishes a precedent for the historical transition from gay cinephilia preceding the rise of consumerist film in the 1990s and the emergence of an archivist media ecology in the 2000s. The latter has (re)captured formative images of queer activism through new media practices – particularly through the use of online databases, streaming platforms, and large-scale Internet pirating practices that enable larger distribution both of narratives about AIDS testimony (and witnessing) and the political drive to change access/consumption practices of queer historical media.

Reframing Bodies, which was researched and published during the resurgence of AIDS activism narratives in the late 2000s and early 2010s – what cultural activist Ted Kerr and media scholar Dion Kagan call the “AIDS crisis revisitation movement” – presents a rigorous revisitation of the AIDS video archive that presents a baseline for rethinking the political potential and remaking of these works. It is appropriate not only for scholars interested in HIV/AIDS histories, with its intertextual readings of classic AIDS videos, but also for curious lay readers interested in gay and lesbian media practices, given the books accessible prose and willingness to welcome readers from many backgrounds into a diverse retelling of film histories across genres, narratives, and film styles.

AIDS TV (1995)

Book Review, HIV/AIDS

Juhasz, A. (1995). AIDS TV: Identity, Community, and Alternative Video. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 316pp.

Alexandra Juhasz’s book AIDS TV explores the world of AIDS activist video in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The analysis is doubly academic reflection on film conventions, particularly those of “alternative” activist media production amongst women living with and/or impacted by AIDS crisis in New York. It is also about the affective and interpersonal experiences that occur during video production, AIDS support groups, and the formation of friendships, working relations, identities, subjectivities, and awareness of the world through the moving image.

Juhasz’s book can now be considered “classic” insofar as it is more than 25 years old. As such, it serves as an essential text for understanding the visual histories of HIV/AIDS, women’s experiences of the crisis in the United States, as well as feminist film theory in the 1990s. It might best be situated as a queer feminist theory of film, though it is regularly overlooked in queer theoretical lists. Indeed, AIDS TV might be thought of as a quintessential queer AIDS history which presents a baseline for understanding AIDS activism, queer community and coalition building, and the processes of memory and memorialisation (the latter of which are commonly drawn out from Douglas Crimp’s work, which is, of course, carefully cited and included in Juhasz’s book).

AIDS TV is a remarkable book. Readers interested in activist histories, film theory, queer cultural history, and video production will find it compelling. Equally, those looking for sustained engagement with ethnographic film practices and the tensions between theory and praxis will find this work challenging and deeply rewarding.

Socialising the Isolation Period


During a time of semi-enforced social isolation and distancing, a variety of academic and popular culture platforms have disseminated critical reading lists about the COVID-19 pandemic (see below for a list of COVID-19 syllabi). These lists have amassed scholarship from over the past 50 years in order to understand the biomedical, psychological, historical, cultural and social implications of global health and viral epidemics. In this post, I have honed some of these lists and gathered other materials from a medical sociology, HIV/AIDS history, and queer cultural theory perspective, in order to think about the relationship between sexual health and COVID-19 (following my own areas of expertise; see my curriculum vitae for more info). All the materials herein are from open-access journal sources or can easily be acquired from your local book distributor. Each entry includes an annotation adapted from the source abstract and/or my own reflections and responses. I acknowledge that this reading list is partial and necessarily incomplete; I welcome any suggestions that may improve this brief (aka limited) digital resource, which may appear in subsequent blog posts.

Prior to the reading list, I want to provide a brief reflection on sexual health conditions, parallel epidemics, and the socialisation of isolation. Sexual health professionals remain divided on the best approaches to having (or refraining from) sex during the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike the provocative pamphlet from the early AIDS crisis, “How to Have Sex in an Epidemic” (1983) by Richard Berkowitz and Michael Callen, some public health officials have recommended avoiding sexual encounters where possible. COVID-19 has not been detected in semen or vaginal fluids; however, some studies have suggested that the virus is detectable in cough droplets, excrement, and blood (see: Van Beusekom, “Study: COVID-19,” 2020). Thus some professionals have argued that abstinence might be an effective intervention technique given that transmission, while not detected in semen or vaginal fluids, cannot easily or simply be contained by the use of prophylactic measures like condoms or non-anal/vaginal play; other routes of transmission are difficult to avoid during sexual encounters (see: NYC Health’s “COVID Sex Guidance,” 2020). Social worker David Stuart (56 Dean Street, London, UK) has cautioned sexual health professionals against discouraging sex and intimacy during COVID-19 crisis, favouring messages about education and agency over negative messages about avoiding in-person sexual encounters (see: Stuart, “Coronavirus, Chemsex & Hooking Up,” 2020). Clinical services, which provide critical support for sexual health communities, are severely restricting hours and access to physical clinical interactions as well as (for clinics here in Edinburgh, UK) stopping the distribution of at-home tests, foregrounding urgent consultations over non-urgent STI screening or other regular check-ups (see: Lothian Sexual Health, “Service Update,” 2020). I have talked to a number of gay men in my communities, both on hook-up apps and other social media platforms, who have sustained sexual play, particularly with dyadic or polyamorous partners, for the purposes of emotional and mental support. They have also sought to maintain a sense of “normalcy” in a time(s) of uncertainty. In sum, as these above sources describe, the relationship between COVID-19 and sexual health remains particularly dynamic and, indeed, nonuniform. This uneven social and political dynamic has proliferated many ethical considerations about ambiguous policy decisions, which have suspended local communities between the poles of social isolation and near-normal sexual practices.

Where the UK government has alluded to the need for social and physical sequestration, a great deal of confusion about what kinds of social and sexual behaviours are permissible has proliferated (see: Cole, “Please Masturbate,” 2020; Davids, “How to Have Sex in COVID-19 Pandemic,” 2020). Some social scientists have reflected on the histories of epidemiology to consider how public health authorities responded to past epidemics (see: Nicolson, “Exceptional Public Health Emergency,” 2020). Others, including US activists, have attempted to make sense of the COVID-19 outbreak by comparing responses to practices of “responsibility” and “negotiated safety,” paralleling COVID-19 with the HIV/AIDS crisis in the late 1980s and early 1990s (see: Prager, “HIV Crisis Survivors,” 2020). To this end, they have illuminated what Kane Race (2001, p. 168) has called the “politics of responsibility”: simply, reflections (especially related to class) on who has access to particular medical resources, clinical spaces, pharmaceutical technologies, and how citizens can respond to and participate in public health interventions. Aligning COVID-19 with HIV/AIDS is appealing, first, because it reminds us of the bioethics of social struggle, the authority and expertise of science, especially related to healthcare policy and public health campaigns, and the timeliness of technological interventions (see: Epstein, Impure Science, 1998; Nuffield Council on Bioethics, “Public Health: Ethical Issues,” 2007). Such thinking also validates a long history of struggle, signalling, especially for queer folx deeply impacted by AIDS crisis, the resilience and possibility of change through lay intervention(s) into and exchanges with public health initiatives and biomedical advancements (see: France, How to Survive a Plague, 2016). Yet paralleling these epidemics reveals some significant differences, namely the scale of infectiousness and transmission vectors of the virus and adequate prophylactic interventions (see: Cohen, “The Paradoxical Politics of Viral Containment,” 2011). Hence, a critical departure from this kind of historical reflection brings us to the public health issue of social distancing and sex in isolation.

Sex in isolation, or isolation sex, sounds like a fetish in its own right. Masturbation, self-massages, toys, rubbing surfaces, fantasising: these sexual acts fall within the remit of sex-in-isolation, or what we’ll call self-play. They don’t require others, but when enforced by a period of government-sanctioned quarantine, they take precedence over direct contact with others. Different than the stigmatised histories of homosexual encounter(s), isolation sex is systemic across all sexual practices and temporary. Thus, isolation sex has a time frame and, I suggest, potentialises the socio-sexual body. We know that formal contact with other bodies serve as “risk vectors,” and thus any interaction opens our bodies to anxious critique, or worse, a fearful self-imposition of the politics of responsibility. Yet, we need not moralise isolation sex because it is bound up with confused political rhetoric and uneven government sanctioning. Rather, in thinking about isolation sex as self-play, we create a discursive and body-centred space in which to re-think and re-pleasure the body. This assertion emerges from the general fact that a lot of adults turn to others for sexual gratification without coming to know (i.e. self-recognising) their body’s own sexual, emotional and psychological desires. We illuminate the pleasures our bodies are capable of in an isolated space, trying and practicing – and sometimes failing! – to make sense of our own pleasures and desires, which are specific to each body. It’s a trial run, of sorts, where we might remain with ourselves, seek out those pleasures we seek from others, and, if we are lucky, find those sweet spots some of us lust after but never quite find. We can find greater meaning in how we value the sexual nature of the body by using this period to self-recognise, to put forward a self-sex politics that makes sex both during and after COVID-19 possible. Put differently, we can socialise the isolation period by observing highly active and interactive forms of self-play. This may, at base, resemble measures we have already taken: masturbation, fingering, or the use of toys. But it may also open us up to intellectual, psychological and pleasureful questions about our relationship to our corporeal and psychic bodies, our use of technology to facilitate healthy sexual practices, and the centrality or peripherality of pornography to our socio-sexual wellbeing. Equally, the use of digital encounters in isolation sex might help us to create more formative and less-stigmatised views about encounters with our long-term partners and our casual pals, especially those we fool around with in the bedroom and shy away from using innuendo in the pub. In short, isolation sex as self-sex can be a positive, public health intervention. Conceptualised as such, it might deepen our understanding of “community,” especially sexual community, through honest and sexy encounters on digital platforms, in turn potentialising rich social cultures against the moral strictures of respectability politics. (For more on LGBT health in the UK, see: HIV Scotland, “PrEP & Coronavirus, 2020; and PrEPster, “COVID-19, HIV & LGBT Health,” 2020).

These thoughts are necessarily incomplete, yet they open up a critical discussion about the relationship among the COVID-19 public health crisis, community health initiatives, and sexual politics. I turn now to a critical reading list, which ultimately has informed my own understanding of sex in epidemic times. It also has, crucially, helped me to reflect on, what Eric Rofes once called, methods for reviving “cultures of post-AIDS”: namely, how do we negotiate social and sexual conditions after viral pandemic? As Rofes suggests, even before the technical “end” of viral spread, we can take from our critical reflections on crisis the ability to work together to build new social structures as an aftermath. We are, at the present time, temporally distant from such an aftermath; yet it is useful to conceive of the potential for change – social, economic, cultural, biological, technological – as a means of achieving the future we inevitably long for and thus desire. This is what I hope to convey in providing these reflections and these resources.

A Critical Reader List

Items in this list are alphabetised according to the author’s surname and are formatted in Harvard style.

Anonymous Queers. (1990). Queers Read This! New York: Queer Nation.

This pamphlet was distributed at the New York City Pride March in June 1990 in response to police brutality, homophobia, oppressive social and economic structures, and other political sanctions on local gay and lesbian communities. Written by anonymous queers, the pamphlet has ties to the U.S. AIDS activist organisation Queer Nation, a direct-action and non-hierarchal political intervention group which broke away from ACT UP New York and sought to disrupt anti-gay violence in U.S. arts and media. This source is sometimes used in university courses to teach the histories of political intervention and the struggles of the gay liberation movement since the mid-20th century. It is also regularly called upon as an emblematic resource for illuminating the classed, gendered and raced dimensions of homophobia, discrimination and violence toward minority sexual populations. It’s an excellent resource for the activist, sociologist or historian interested in historical tactics for social change.

Cohen, E. (2011). The Paradoxical Politics of Viral Containment; or, How Scale Undoes Us One and All. Social Text 29(1), pp. 15-35.

This article is guided by the question: “How do we contain emerging viral epidemics?” It reflects, specifically, on biomedical interventions, scientific authority, and who/what “contains” these epidemics. Hence it is a social theory of containment, thinking through and against the boundaries of epidemiological and public health knowledge of what can and cannot be contained through the medical gaze. Cohen critically examines the use of “scale” to think about “transformations at the levels of molecules, cells, organisms, individuals, populations, species, ecosystems, technological infrastructures, political economies, and networks of global finance”. In a traditional STS critique, Cohen looks at the relationship between individuals and social structures, examining how science and biomedicine “naturally” articulates its understanding of boundaries “within the political ontology of modern capitalism”. The author suggests that we are inherently paradoxical beings that cannot easily be contained by such thinking, and we must remain attentive to how biopolitics “parse[s] the life world[s]” of the human and viral containment.

France, D. (2017). How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS. New York: Penguin.

A definitive history of the successful battle to halt the AIDS epidemic, How to Survive a Plague expands upon David France’s (2012) documentary to deepen the story of grassroots activists whose work helped to bring about effective intervention strategies and technological developments in the United States. The contents of this book are regularly taught in college seminars on the histories of HIV/AIDS and sexuality studies. Though the book is a massive 656 pages, you’ll find the prose at times witty, at others harrowing, to the effect of emotive and inspiring writing that feels more like a 200-page novel. Highly recommended for the average history buff.

French, M., and Mykhalovskiy, E. (2013). Public Health Intelligence and the Detection of Potential Pandemics. Sociology of Health & Illness 35(2), pp. 174-187.

This article considers contemporary developments in public health intelligence and health events of pandemic potential. As a sociological study, it discusses how public health official conceive of and “actualise” pandemic events. This article may be of interest for those interested in the theory and methodology behind “creating a pandemic,” especially thinking about the threshold between epidemic and pandemic, which has been a subject of interest in WHO’s initial hesitation to classify COVID-19 as a global pandemic (see: CDC’s “Epidemic Disease Occurrence,” [2012]).

McKay, R. (2017). Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Richard McKay’s rigorous study of Gaétan Dugas, a gay man whose skin cancer diagnosis in 1980 rapidly developed into posthumous assertions that he was AIDS “patient zero” in North America, provides a unique approach to understanding the political, media and scientific significance of assigning the role of “patient zero” to particular individuals in history. Clearly of great epistemological value during COVID-19 crisis, this book illuminates the long histories of contagion and (enforced) social isolation in the United States and, more broadly, within the history of western medicine. As the university press description suggests, this book “untangles the complex process by which individuals and groups create meaning and allocate blame when faced with new disease threats”. As such, it serves as a critical text for understanding parallel epidemics as well as how to avoid uncritical public media campaigns and how to maintain a dynamic understanding of the social, cultural, biomedical and political consequences of epidemiological and public health intervention.

Schulman, S. (2019 [1990]). People in Trouble. New York: Vintage.

Drawing on Sarah Schulman’s own experiences of AIDS crisis in New York City, this seminal novel provides an intimate look into the life-worlds of several urban dwellers responding to corrupt landlords and politicians, providing emotional and physical support for friends and community members in need; it also helpfully lays out a social critique of U.S. social structures and demands a sobering look at the oppressive structures of class-based economics and welfare. Readers may be familiar with the mid-1990s stage production RENT!, which takes from Schulman’s novel and stages the oppressive social conditions for large audiences. Schulman addressed this blatant lifting and infringement of her novel in her later book Stagestruck (1998), which, as a source of reflection in 2020, might help us to recognise the relationship between viral crisis and creative/artistic production. Simply put, this extraordinary and semi-fictional history proliferates critical discussions about U.S. social change, public health intervention, creative practice and intellectual property, and the possibility/problem of community during times of crisis.

Rofes, E. (1996). Reviving the Tribe: Regenerating Gay Men’s Sexuality and Culture in the Ongoing Epidemic. New York: Harrington Park Press. AND. Rofes, E. (1998). Dry Bones Breathe: Gay Men Creating Post-AIDS Identities and Cultures. New York: Harrington Park Press.

The late Eric Rofes, a public health specialist in San Francisco, USA, published a number of helpful texts about sexual community health after AIDS crisis. Specifically, his two books Reviving the Tribe (1996) and Dry Bones Breathe (1998) use accessible and image-driven language to discuss social and sexual behavioural management in the “aftermath” of AIDS crisis. Kane Race has suggested that Rofes was the first thinker to envision “post-AIDS” as a method for re-developing gay-male sexual life in the United States. These books, while notably dated, provide a fascinating blend of public health praxis, history of western medicine, the sociology of health and illness, queer ecology, and the psychology of gay sex in a period deeply impacted by viral epidemic. These early post-AIDS texts enact a threshold between the devastation of viral death and the post-crisis politics of safer-sex intervention practices and remain fundamental portals into the social histories of homosexuality in the 20th century.

Singer, L. (1993). Erotic Welfare: Sexual Theory and Politics in the Age of Epidemic. New York: Routledge.

A highly contentious book about the politics of sexuality, and the mechanisms that control sexuality during times of crisis, Linda Singer’s Erotic Welfare explores the “ways in which epidemic logic and heightened [political] regulation affect women’s efforts to secure reproductive freedom, the construction of femininity within the media, and various efforts to displace the hegemony of the nuclear family in the cultural imaginary”. In other words, it is a text which recognises the implications of Michel Foucault’s work on the cisgender female body. The book was compiled posthumously by Judith Butler and Maureen MacGrogan, and has served as a source on the history of sexual politics for many scholars in sexuality studies, gender studies, and feminist studies. For readers interested in the relationship among epidemic, containment and sexuality, this book will be especially illuminating.

Watney, S. (1987). Policing Desire: Pornography, AIDS and the Media. London: Methuen.

This groundbreaking text holds accountable the media representations of HIV/AIDS and gay men during the early AIDS crisis in the UK. Simon Watney is a leader in the field of HIV/AIDS cultural studies and historical analysis, far-reaching in his criticism of the politics of outing and a resounding activist against the essentialisation of homosexual behaviour. As he states early in the book, “AIDS is effectively being used as a pretext throughout the West to ‘justify’ calls for increasing legislation and regulation of those who are considered to be socially unacceptable [i.e. homosexuals]”. Such political critique is especially cogent in a time when conservative political leaders continue to align viral spread using racial, classed and gendered metaphors. Watney’s book reminds us of the power and consequences of sexual identity politics in mainstream media and can serve as a source of reflection for resisting uncritical claims about the “source(s)” of viral spread, and the popularisation and misuse(s) of epidemiological knowledge and intervention strategies.

Other Reading Lists

Anonymous. (2020). #CoronaVirusSyllabus. Crowdsourced syllabus.

Anonymous. (2020). Queering the Pandemic. Crowdsourced syllabus.

Colom, S. (2020). Teaching Coronavirus—Sociological Syllabus Project. Crowdsourced syllabus.

Jenks, A., and Nelson, K. (2020). Teaching COVID-19: A Collaborative Anthropology Syllabus Project. Crowdsourced syllabus.

Lynteris, C. (2020). COVID-19 Forum: Introduction. Somatosphere. Special Issue. 6 Mar.

After/ing ACT UP: Forthcoming


Contributing to my understanding of “crisis” in my doctoral project about “post-AIDS” gay male culture(s), I’ve had an essay accepted for journal publication, tentatively titled “After/ing ACT UP: Viral Hauntology in Robin Campillo’s 120 Beats per Minute“. In this paper, I explore the relationship between representations of AIDS activism and “crisis-oriented” cultural production, calling upon Kane Race (2001, 2009) and Dion Kagan (2015, 2018) to describe and analyse the re-production of crisis as post-crisis for contemporary viewers. I ask: how might the revisioning of AIDS histories perpetuate the cultural production of crisis narration? By looking at what images of the histories of science are recycled and dramatised, I argue that 120 BPM recreates the AIDS past, using specific technical advances in both Western medicine and cinematography, to wager that the less-viral future exists just outside of the narrative’s frame. I stay with technical production (both medical and cinematic) in order to deepen our understanding of the nature of “crisis” in contemporary society; and ultimately, the paper extends recent thinking about “AIDS crisis revisitation” in order to understand how/why these re-visitations might be used to understand gay and lesbian negotiations of safer-sex initiatives.

See: 120 Beats per Minute. (2017). Dir. Robin Campillo. Paris: Les Films de Pierre.

– Kagan, D. (2015). “Re-Crisis”: Barebacking, Sex Panic, and the Logic of Epidemic. Sexualities 18(7), pp. 817-837.
– Kagan, D. (2018). Positive Images: Gay Men and HIV/AIDS in the Culture of “Post Crisis”. London: I.B. Tauris.
– Race, K. (2001). The Undetectable Crisis: Changing Technologies of Risk. Sexualities 4(2), pp. 167-189.
– Race, K. (2009). Pleasure Consuming Medicine: The Queer Politics of Drugs. Durham: Duke University Press.

Nurses on the Inside (2019)

Book Review, HIV/AIDS

Matzer, E., and Hughes, V. (2019). Nurses on the Inside: Stories of the HIV/AIDS Epidemic in NYC. Cincinnati: Tree District Books. 242 pp.

Nurses on the Inside (2019) is a multi-testimonial account of the AIDS crisis in New York City, USA. Haunting and prosaic, the book provides anecdotes of nurse-patient interactions, with a penchant for clear, technical language that helps to make sense of 1980s and 90s medical discourse(s). Matzer and Hughes, two seasoned nurses in some of NYC’s most trafficked AIDS clinics, demonstrate an unusual sense of emotional clarity and empathy. They impart a nostalgic, but commemorative, focus on the lives of their patients, attending to the most characteristic and rich elements of their interactions with those who died from AIDS-related complications. More than a graphic narrative about the immense loss of AIDS crisis, the authors illuminate the importance and impact of individuals (including patients, doctors, and other nurses) as they careen in and out of their professional and social lifeworlds. Perhaps most interesting about this collection is the ways in which the authors recall their involvement in patient lives. For example, in the final chapters, the authors return to the empty spaces of hospital wards, calling upon the dead to remember the at-times excruciating, but generally provoking, experiences of human resilience and determination.

Nurses on the Inside is an excellent portal into the histories of HIV/AIDS in the United States, particularly because it remains attentive to the time(s) and place(s) of affective, medical, scientific, social and cultural advances, which we now understand as seminal moments during the AIDS crisis. Nurses, doctors, and students of history, sociology, and medicine, will find this book appealing. Additionally, scholars interested in the discursive layers of HIV/AIDS histories will find this book useful for understanding how AIDS crisis is narrated using memory, testimonies, and technical expertise.

PrEP at the After/Party (2019)


Weil, B., & Ledin, C. (2019). PrEP at the After/Party: The “Post-AIDS” Politics of Frank Ocean’s “PrEP+”. Somatosphere. 4 Nov. [Online].

The medical anthropology journal Somatosphere has published a co-authored article about Frank Ocean’s recent “PrEP+ Party”. In this essay, Ben Weil and I examine Ocean’s attempt to revivify the HIV prevention-access circuit party using HIV prevention history. This piece considers how the biomedical technology HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is employed, first, to recall dance cultures from the 1980s and, second, to construct an “inclusive” social space through the prism of HIV/AIDS history. We suggest that the co-optation of PrEP to create a version of the prevention-access circuit party in the late 2010s evokes a particular image culture that is “not-about-AIDS”.

In an effort to signify cultural inclusivity, Ocean’s circuit party over-simplifies the medicalised histories of the circuit party and thus re-constructs technological determinism through anachronism. Different than creating positive (+) social networks for people living with HIV, and those communities deeply impacted by HIV transmission, Ocean’s circuit party reifies and absolves the “post-AIDS” pharmaceutical and medical realities that continue to bar access to HIV prevention both locally and globally. Thus, we draw attention to the ways in which PrEP shapes or ought to shape life beyond the clinical experience. We counter Ocean’s mis/context by turning to video artist Leo Herrera’s (2018) “post-AIDS” project, which constructs a differently politicised queer-led healthcare reform using the prevention-access circuit party. We argue that Herrera’s project provides a more compelling revisioning of the prevention-access party and employs a critically-applied approach which scholars might use to better understand sociocultural context/s in medical anthropology. In our view, the contexts of PrEP far exceed the walls and gaze of the clinic, where PrEP is often framed as residing, and must be understood to include (queer) social, sexual and cultural spaces, like the circuit party, which are implicated in and can help to shape the politics of PrEP and prevention access.

The Journalist of Castro Street (2019)

Book Review, HIV/AIDS, LGBT

Stoner, A. (2019). The Journalist of Castro Street: The Life of Randy Shilts. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. 266 pp.*

Andrew Stoner’s (2019) biography follows the life of American journalist Randy Shilts. Notorious for his critically-acclaimed, and also critically-lambasted, book And the Band Played On (1987), Shilts was also known for being one of the first openly gay journalists in the United States. Stoner’s text provides a wide-ranging history of Shilts’s life, including testimonies from his siblings, professional journalists, gay activists, scholars and historians. The first half of the book reads beautifully, with a narrative that recounts his childhood and early career.

When Stoner recounts Shilts’s journalism coverage of the AIDS crisis, things get messy. Stoner provides extensive reflections on Shilts’s AIDS-related writing and seeks to defend his journalistic integrity over the questionable image of the mainstream (hetero-centric) “AIDS scribe”. Alas Chapter 10 (“Strike Up the Band“) reads as if it’s been lifted directly from a PhD thesis in its attempt/s to follow previous academic scholarship. As such, it sometimes seems unreadable. Elsewhere, his descriptions of academics, activists and medical professionals (e.g. Dr. Richard McKay) vary so widely as to be introduced to the same thinker/s fifty different ways throughout a single chapter. The book could use some polishing in a second edition. Overall, the text provides some helpful insights into the life of the “AIDS scribe” and details important – often conflicting – responses to Shilts’s mythology of “Patient Zero”. Readers interested in journalism history, gay and lesbian history, and HIV/AIDS history will enjoy this book. It is a good companion text with Richard McKay’s (2017) recent book Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic.

*I was commissioned to review The Journalist of Castro Street for Media History in October 2019. Full review available here.

The Mundane Virus (2019)

HIV/AIDS, Theory

Ledin, C. (2019). The Mundane Virus. The Polyphony. 11 Oct. [Online].

The online medical humanities journal, The Polyphony, has kindly published some of my research on viral bodies and sexual health education. The short blog post examines the embodiment of a sexually-transmitted virus, called “the bug,” in Charles Burns’s (2005) comic series Black Hole. I argue that Burns’s construction of the viral body is a seminal graphic representation of chronic HIV and thus a quintessential post-AIDS narrative. Hence, I begin to think about what lessons post-viral representations might provide for sexual health education today. I end with a reflection on the relationship between the viral body and, drawing upon Sara Ahmed, the affective body. In short, I suggest that Burns’s “mundane virus” provides scholars with an opportunity to examine the centrality of the affective body to the viral body. This work derives from the critical work which is central to my doctoral research at the University of Edinburgh. Further research on this topic will be explored in a forthcoming creative workshop as part of the Being Human Festival 2019.