The hotly anticipated miniseries It’s a Sin came to HBO Max this week, almost a month after airing in the United Kingdom. Written by Russell T Davies (who made television history with Queer as Folk), the show follows a group of friends throughout the 1980s, from the liberation and community they find in London’s queer nightlife scene, to the real-life tragedy of the AIDS outbreak.
Personally speaking, whenever I consume any media about queer life set in this time period it can feel a little like I’m watching a horror movie. Even in the show’s funny, sexy, neon-hued opening episode, there is a lurking sense of dread in the background; LGBTQ+ viewers have been conditioned by now to know what’s coming and how this particular story is doomed to end. As such, I found no real narrative surprises in the plot of It’s a Sin. Instead, I was bowled over by the writing and performances, which imbue these characters (many of whom are based on real people) with so much life that it’s impossible not to feel affected by what happens to them.
It also offers one of the frankest depictions of what it meant to live through the AIDS crisis ever seen in mainstream media, with perhaps the widest reach: It’s a Sin broke viewing records in the UK and became the most-streamed show in the history of Channel 4’s on-demand platform. This presumably means some viewers were learning about this dark chapter of queer history for the very first time, and having conversations about a subject which is still considered taboo by many.
Approximately 32 million people have died in the AIDS pandemic, and yet for years common perception of the virus has not been as a public health issue, but rather a niche concern for high-risk populations such as gay men and intravenous drug users. Gigi Engle, a certified sex educator and clinical sexologist, appreciates It’s a Sin‘s dramatization of the AIDS crisis itself, as well as the ignorance that surrounded it at the time, and which continues to this day.
“I think it perfectly illustrates the ways we actively harm society by not providing education,” she says. “When we have a crisis like the HIV epidemic happening in an already stigmatized community, it causes further isolation and shame. This furthers the spread of the STI and puts more people at risk. We have a backwards idea that information pushes people into being more sexual or less safe when, in fact, the exact opposite is true. With comprehensive sex education, people are equipped to make conscious choices about their sexuality and their sexual health.”
I grew up in England under Section 28, a piece of government legislation which prohibited teachers from even acknowledging the existence of same-sex relationships. So as you can imagine, the curriculum my peers and I received around sex and relationships amounted to “here’s how not to get pregnant,” some cautionary chlamydia tales, and a vague intimation that HIV was something that happened in developing countries. Sex was framed as something that happened between a man and a woman who loved each other very much—not something that might be accessible to two men who had just met and kind of liked each other.
When Section 28 was repealed in November 2003, I was 16, but it’s not as if the classroom suddenly became a whirlwind of glitter and poppers. What little I knew of gay life came from magazines like Gay Times and Attitude, which I nervously browsed in newsagents before placing them back on the top shelf, next to the straight porn. It would be years before I was able to enjoy anything remotely resembling a healthy and informed sex life.
I am just one in what I can only assume is an entire generation of queer people who cobbled together their own own sex education from surreptitiously skimmed magazine articles, from chatrooms we scrubbed from the search history on the family computer, and most frequently, from porn (an art form which prioritizes fantasy over fact and as such has a tendency to skip several key steps in gay sex, like douching, putting on condoms, and the importance of lube).
It is my understanding that schools are getting better, albeit slowly, at providing more inclusive health and relationship information to their students, although such advances are debated in bad faith every step of the way by conservative voices who believe that simply learning queer people exist is enough to convert an otherwise cishet-by-default adolescent.
It shouldn’t be the responsibility of entertainment to provide services like sex-ed, although It’s a Sin and other recent shows like Netflix’s Sex Education are certainly helping to spark dialogues about consent, safer sex, and identity. And in the case of It’s a Sin, that storytelling has translated to a very real public service.
Following the broadcast of It’s a Sin in the UK (with Channel 4 directing viewers to its sexual health support webpage during the closing credits), sexual health charity the Terrence Higgins Trust reported a “four-fold” increase in orders of at-home testing kits during National HIV Testing Week in early February, a figure that has been attributed at least partially to the show’s success in raising awareness of the issue.
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