The bisexual bench in HIV/Aids health promotion work

One of the never ending issues for graphic designers is 'how to show bisexuality without showing three (or more) people'. Most of them never work it out, so go for three people…

.. and sometimes, they add a bench!

I am not entirely sure which of the first two came first, but the Norwegian one is actually aimed at bisexual men, so…

A woman puts her arm around a man as they sit on one end of a bench as he puts arm out to hold hands with a man on the other side; a safe sex and AIDS prevention advertisement aimed at bisexual men by the Oslo Helser├ąd
The bisexual bench – 1990s Norwegian version – A2 sized poster

English translation of the text, with the help of Google Drive doing OCR and translation of images:

Men who have sex with men should have a health check regularly.

Men who have sex with men are today among those most at risk of becoming infected with the AIDS virus, HIV. Bisexual men who become infected through sexual contact with other men can then infect their female as well as male partners.

You should know if you are infected with HIV. Both because you are responsible for not infecting others, and for your own part. HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases do not always cause symptoms. Therefore, we recommend men who have sex with men to take regular health checks.

At the Counselling Service at the Oslo Health Council, we are happy to talk to you about safer sex. You can take the HIV test (anonymously if you wish), be screened for other sexually transmitted diseases and offered Hepatitis B (jaundice) vaccine. You decide which of the offers you want to take advantage of. And all consultations are free.

The counselling service for gays is a special part of the Oslo Health Council. We who work here have broad experience and are particularly concerned with gay and bisexual health problems. Here you will meet understanding at the same time as you get professional help.

Welcome Tuesday and Wednesday at 16.00 – 18.00. There are no appointments. For further information call: [phone number].

Oslo Health Council
St. Olavspl. 5, 4th floor

Note that the hand-holding of the men is literally behind her back, so there's no implication of this being a relationship that she knows about.

Unlike the Norwegian poster, the New South Wales, Australia one – probably first published in 1994 – is absolutely aimed at the female partners of bisexual men, despite having an almost identical central image:

A man sits with a woman on a bench looking out to sea while holding the hand of a man sitting on the end; an advertisement for The Women Partners of Bisexual Men Project
The bisexual bench – 1994 Australian version – A2 sized poster

Do you think your partner could be having sex with men?

YOU ARE NOT ALONE

The Women Partners of Bisexual Men Project [phone number]

AIDS Council of NSW [phone number]
AIDS Hotline [phone numbers, including TTY for deaf callers]
Family Planning Association [phone number]

Thanks to all the women who have been involved in the project. Thanks to models Tim, Tegan, Michael. Photographer Patrick Earle. Design: David Hodge & Partners London

Here, there's no information beyond 'you're not the only one (being betrayed?)' and a referral to a group. Interestingly, some of the design decisions – the gap between the woman and the 'other man', the way he has a sleeve rolled up (so you can just see the hair on his arm?) and the woman has short sleeves (so you can just see that there isn't any hair?) – are identical.

Given the design was from a London agency, I wonder if there were uses of the 'three on a bench' imagery in the UK and if they were responsible (but uncredited) for the Norwegian one too.

Also from 1994, there's the 'one person in two separate twosomes' (and a dog!) version of the bench from France:

Two halves - in the top one, a male/female couple walk their dog past an empty bench in the day; in the bottom, the same man is talking to another man siting on top of the bench at night
The bisexual bench – 1994 French version – slightly smaller than A2 poster

I have two lovers, I protect myself

Because this one has just the headline, it is only about protecting the bisexual man rather than his partners. How he protects himself isn't stated: condoms? making sure his partners never meet? having a dog to put off muggers?

Again, the implication is that his female lover does not know about the male one..

.. even if the dog does.


Credit: A woman puts her arm around a man as they sit on one end of a bench as he puts arm out to hold hands with a man on the other side; a safe sex and AIDS prevention advertisement aimed at bisexual men by the Oslo Helser├ąd. Colour lithograph, ca. 1990. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0)

Credit: A man sits with a woman on a bench looking out to sea while holding the hand of a man sitting on the end; an advertisement for The Women Partners of Bisexual Men Project with the telephone lines of the AIDS Council of NSW, AIDS Hotline and Family Planning Association. Colour lithograph, [1994]. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0)

More Health Education Authority memories

In 2018, some academics got eleven people who'd worked in the HIV prevention sector in the UK for a two hour discussion* on some of the history.

In this extract, they remember the 'hands' ad. Interestingly, the only one to get much more space is the 'iceberg and tombstone' "Don't die of ignorance' one.

'Ford' is Ford Hickson, part of Sigma Research, responsible for multiple surveys and research projects on gay and bisexual men.

'Lynne' is Lynne Walsh, talking about her time as half of (also known as 'in charge of') the press office for the Health Education Authority (HEA).

'Dominic' is Dominic McVey, talking about having been an HEA researcher. His line elsewhere about "Much of my work involved developing and evaluating the HEA gay and heterosexual public health interventions" accurately shows how much the HEA cared about bisexuals…


Ford: It is the case that any disease outbreak is an opportunity to marginalise the people who are suffering, ignore the structural factors, and the government and lots of people in the country took the HIV epidemic as an opportunity to suppress being gay, not having safe sex, just don't do it, and the things Thatcher said in public really reinforced that. That she thought the way to solve HIV was to not be gay, not to use drugs, and Section 28 is what rode on that. Section 28 for me, it really clearly ties to the HIV epidemic and an opportunity to try and stamp out homosexuals.

Lynne: But we did manage to have a press ad that had two men holding hands.

Dominic: The Bisexual Ad.

Lynne: At the time we called it a bisexual ad.

Dominic: Which went into Time Out and places like that, it wasn't just in the gay press.

Lynne: It went into the Telegraph, it's a visual of two men holding hands and it says, "If a married man has an affair it may not be with a woman." So clearly, Thatcher wouldn't have been delighted with that.

Ford: That's interesting, isn't it? Because who is that targeted at? Isn't that targeted at the wives of men, it's, "Be suspicious of your husband."

Lynne: At the time, the rationale was that it was targeting men who may have sex with men, maybe married to women. We particularly wanted to do some stuff with the Telegraph and the Sunday Telegraph as well, not just advertising but to get editorial. That was in the context of the Sunday Times having a massive campaign against us led by Andrew Neil who insisted that there was no heterosexual risk at all. So, whereas we would have been able to run things in the Sunday Times as we did sometimes with the Observer, we had this barrage, every Sunday we had something that was attacking, so that was the context trying to do something.


"At the time" it was a bisexual ad?? It wasn't good, but it couldn't be anything else.

I'm also not convinced about Ford's framing of it as being targetted at wives. There were ads targetted at the female partners of bisexual men, but neither of the versions of the 'hands' ad is.. unless it's to get them to point it out to their partner.

Although he wasn't a co-author of Sigma Research's "Behaviourally Bisexual Men: Identifying needs for HIV prevention", he should also have been aware of it and known that there is a high level of disclosure…


* Published as Nicholls and Rosengarten (eds.) (2019). Witness Seminar: HIV Prevention and Health Promotion in the UK. Disentangling European HIV/AIDS Policies: Activism, Citizenship and Health (EUROPACH).

The Health Education Authority's bisexual and 'definitely not' bisexual ads

Even governments sometimes realise that spending money on health promotion – enabling people to increase control over, and to improve, their health – can be better than dealing with the consequences of not doing so.

In the UK, the Health Education Council (greatest hit: the 'pregnant man' campaign with its "Would you be more careful if it was you who got pregnant?" strapline*) ran government campaigns between 1968 and 1987, before a reorganisation (not entirely coincidentally following a row about a politically embarrassing publication about health inequalities) led to its replacement by the Health Education Authority in 1987.

When the UK government decided that Aids was in fact worth doing something serious about (about three years after gay and bisexual men in the UK started dying from it, followed by similar epidemics amongst IV drug users and then haemophiliacs), one of the things that pushed it towards that position was the way that Aids activists had deliberately chosen to emphasise the risks of bisexual men being responsible for the spread of the epidemic into the presumed heterosexual population.

The result was the first big 'Don't die of ignorance' campaign by the Department of Health and Social Security – the 'icebergs and tombstones' one – following which the HEA ended up with the responsibility to do national HIV/Aids health promotion work.

Here's are the ads that they did aimed specifically at bisexual men rather than 'gay (oh.. and bisexual) men'.

The 'hands' ad #1

Safety in Numbers by Edward King reckons this was first published in spring 1990. The HEA operated on the principle, given to them by their ad agency, that if they ran it, once, in about half a dozen magazines – the TV/radio listings magazine Radio Times, some car thing, etc etc – then 90+% of men in the UK would (have a chance to) see it.

The first HEA 'hands' ad - close-up photo of two white middle class men holding hands

If a married man has an affair, it may not be with a woman.

According to the dictionary, a bisexual man is simply 'one who has sex with both men and women.'

As a way of life, however, bisexuality can prove to be anything but simple.

Yet few of the problems bisexual men have faced in the past can compare to the one that confronts them now.

HIV. The virus that causes AIDS.

The Human Immunodeficiency Virus is transmitted when infected semen, blood or vaginal fluid enters the body.

And of all sexual activities, unprotected anal intercourse presents the highest risk.

Even using a condom won't make it completely safe.

If you'd like more information about AIDS or safer sex, ring the special bisexual helpline on 0800 83 85 75.

This is open from 4pm to 10pm daily. All calls are free of charge and completely confidential.

It's hard to overstate how much the HEA loved this ad. Every time someone in the bi community pointed to some issue, like the implied class of the men photographed – look at the suit sleeves! – or their middle age or.. they'd point to the response from the advertising world who told them it was great.

They were working under some constraints. In particular, every. single. word. had to be signed off by a minister. Despite the personal behaviour of some politicians in the Conservative government of the day, at least one of them objected to a late draft of the ad which had the headline start "When a married man has an affair.." and insisted it be changed to something that didn't imply that affairs were normal.

The 'hands' ad #2

Although the first one may have had more than one run, in 1994 there was another run when a completely different body text was used. (As I say, the HEA loved the picture and the headline… and would not consider changing those.)

The HEA's 'hands' ad - close up photo of two middle class men holding hands

If a married man has an affair, it may not be with a woman.

It's not uncommon for some men to be attracted by the idea of having sex with another man.

Should these feelings lead to a physical relationship, the argument for safer sex becomes all-important.

Particularly when it comes to protecting against HIV, the virus that leads to Aids.

The safest way to have sex, of course, is where no penetration takes place at all.

And, therefore, no exchange of any semen or blood.

Other than that, using a stronger kitemarked condom such as Durex Extra Strong or Mates Super Strong significantly reduces the chance of HIV infection.**

With anal sex carrying the highest risk, it's certainly a precaution worth taking.

Moreover, along with personal protection, it's a way of protecting other partners as well, whether female or male.

To find out more, why not seek helpful advice from people who are easy to talk to.

Simply call the National Aids Helpline free on 0800 567 123, open 24 hours a day. Or, if you prefer, try one of the Bisexual Helplines. On Thursdays, the number is 031 557 3620, from 7:30pm to 10:30pm.

For other days of the week, ring 081 569 7500, from 7:30pm to 9:30pm.

Looking at assorted old files, I can see that we were told that this run would appear in Radio Times and TV Times (TV listings magazines) plus the Sunday Express / Observer / Mail on Sunday's "You" supplement (newspapers).

Discussions with the HEA about the cost of expanding the number of days that the London Bisexual Helpline would operate were happening in February 1994 and described the notice we were given about all this as "short".

By November 1994, the London Bisexual Helpline was back to opening on just Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, so the run must have been before then. They did tell us around then that they were going to run the ad again, but they didn't pay to have the London line expand to six evenings again, so if it did actually happen – around Christmas? – the text may have changed slightly to reflect that.

The absolutely not bisexual, really, honest 'torsos' ad

The HEA's 'torsos' ad, showing a male and female upper body, both topless

Which do you find more attractive? If you're not certain, read on.

For some people it's not always clear cut which sex they are attracted to.

If that sounds like you, you may have felt unsure for as long as you can remember. Or maybe your uncertain feelings are a relatively new thing. You might even be in a heterosexual relationship when such feelings began.

Whatever the case, it can seem very confusing, and discovering your sexuality may take time.

To help you sort out your feelings, it's quite likely you could have a sexual encounter or two with a member of your own sex.

Of course, this should still involve safer sex. Sex, that is, where there is little or no risk of HIV transmission through exchange of blood, semen, or vaginal fluid. This could include massage, body rubbing, or mutual masturbation.

Penetrative sex can be more risky. But it is unprotected anal sex that's the riskiest of all. For either partner.

So if you do try it, you should always use stronger condoms, such as, Durex Extra Strong, Mates Super Strong, or HT Special.

For more information about safer sex call one of the numbers at the bottom of this page. You'll also be able to talk openly to someone about your worries.

You may still feel unsure as to who you're attracted to, but one thing is certain, if you practise safer sex, you know you're doing everything you can to protect yourself and your partner.

Whatever sex they may be.

For help and advice call the National Aids Helpline free on 0800 567 123, the Terrence Higgins Trust on 071 242 1010 or London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard on 071 837 7234.

This is screamingly obviously a 'bisexual' ad. By definition anyone attracted to more than one gender is bisexual, regardless of whether or not they are attracted "more" to one gender.

The HEA absolutely and totally refused to accept that. They did show the ad before publication to their bisexual advisory group, but only to say that it wasn't a bisexual ad: it's for "confused" people.

They also absolutely and totally refused to give the details of the bisexual phonelines on this one. They did have the number of the then very definitely biphobic London Lesbian & Gay Switchboard – typical response to bisexual callers: 'you're the only one' / 'you're lesbian/gay really' – on it though.

Marcus's response was a version that had a picture of a male chicken and a cat, and wondered if you preferred cock or pussy…

Looking back, the HEA's bisexual advisory group should have resigned en masse at this point, in the way that their gay men's advisory group – which included the bisexual David Burkle for at least some of its time as well as some rather less bi-friendly men – had done on being presented with a particularly awful ad aimed at young gay men*** that, again, the HEA loved.

I doubt anyone would have noticed if we had; the HEA continued to pay the expenses of a bunch of bisexual activists to get together to talk about bisexual health stuff; and the sandwiches they provided were excellent.

We should have still done it though – having looked at the (not particularly large) bunch of health promotion ads aimed at bisexuals, this could have been by far the best of them and yet the HEA insisted on the bisexual erasure.

 

In 2005, the Health Education Authority was in turn abolished in yet another health reorganisation, with the health promotion bits going to Health Promotion England (and its Welsh equivalent) with research etc going to the Health Development Agency (2000-2005). According to the National Archive, they lost the HEA's papers between 1994 and 1998. The HDA in turn would be replaced in yet another health reorganisation by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE). That in turn was renamed in…


* Created by the tiny agency that would become the global giant Saatchi & Saatchi, this was such a hit that the agency named its canteen/bar 'The Pregnant Man'. They did some other work for the HEC, then had to resign when they decided to work for a tobacco company instead.

** It turned out later, thanks to some research that was condemned in the Daily Mail etc, that 'strong' condoms don't provide any benefits compared with 'ordinary' ones. Using lube, especially for longer fucks, is far more important.

*** I don't think it was finally published, but the HEA's concept of an ad for young gay men on the gay scene – so many of them obsessed about looks – was a picture of a very old man – wrinkles, hair loss etc – with the headline something like "If you have safer sex, you could look like this".

!

The HEA loved it because it was so clever – 'How do you do, fellow kids? Have safer sex and you won't die young!' – but I would have loved to have been in the room when they presented it to people who had clue.