Ditch Those Dams

Lesbians and HIV — no risk or low risk?

Lesbians and HIV —
no risk or low risk?

Who decides what's safer sex and what isn't? What happens when continents and communities clash over HIV prevention advice? Are there different activist strategies to resolve our differences, other than angry, noisy demonstrations? 

Ditch Those Dams follows the conflict between activists over safer sex advice given to lesbians. It illustrates the polarisation between these activists, and the response to those conflicts from the UK media.

Follow the story as it unfolds by clicking on the images to view the press releases, flyers and leaflets.

In summer 2018 WeRageOn returns to the scene of the conflict 26 years later to record reflections with people from all sides of the story. 

Come back soon to find out more about what we can learn from situations when activists find themselves pitched against well-meaning community organisations.

In July 1992 the International Aids Society (IAS) moves their annual conference from Boston to Amsterdam because of US immigration policies for people with HIV.

During a conference with a focus on immigration issues, members of international chapters of Act Up convene on a daily basis to plan for the next day’s activism focus.

Members of Act Up New York highlight their discontent with a poster published by the UK’s Terrence Higgins Trust (THT). The poster targets UK lesbians, with the headline Lesbians – Ditch Those Dental Dams!

The poster is accompanied by a leaflet providing more information about safer sex for lesbians. The leaflet is distributed in lesbian venues across the UK.

THT becomes the target of Act Up, in a tense and fraught stand off between Act Up and UK based health promoters. Act Up ‘zaps’ THT conference booth, removing posters and shouting at THT representatives and their allies.

Act Up’s press release claims that THT’s poster “denies that lesbians are vulnerable for the transmission of HIV disease as a result of woman to woman transmission”.

Gloves should be worn during sex during menstruation, whether or not ‘they turn you on’

Gloves should be
worn during sex during
menstruation, whether
or not ‘they turn you on’

Act Up make claims that THT’s leaflet “does not take into consideration annilingus which has always been considered a potential mode of HIV transmission”.


During the demonstration against THT, a counter demonstration of gay men calling themselves Arse Lickers of Amsterdam make counter claims against Act Up’s statement that annilingus (rimming) is a proven HIV risk.

An ally of THT says that Act Up’s approach to lesbians and HIV causes “unnecessary anxiety”.
A lesbian from Act Up retorts:


The demonstration is widely criticized – not least because of its targeting of a non-profit organization, when other potential targets are ignored.

Capital Gay reports on the “shouting match between THT and Act Up in full view of the world’s press” whilst reporting new figures that show “there had been no known transmission of HIV between women in this country”.

The Times newspaper refers to Act Up as “like lunatics taking over the asylum”.

The New Scientist says that Act Up members seem to have "lost touch with reality" and questions the credibility of the group.

When they return to the UK, members of Act Up continue the campaign against THT. Posters saying “Lesbians and THT. What information can you trust?” (a play on Terrence Higgins Trust) are produced and fly-posted in cities with active Act Up chapters.

Meanwhile, other community-based organisations join in the race to provide information about lesbians and HIV.

London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard print their own booklet: Lesbians HIV and Safer Sex – Low Risk isn’t No Risk.


Whilst Sheffield AIDS Education project’s leaflet says: “Let’s get serious. The risks for sexual transmission of HIV between women are minimal. Very few women have passed the virus to other women sexually”.

Act Up Norwich’s home-made booklet says that “for too long we as lesbians have been silenced about our sexual practices”.

The cartoon style information in their lesbians and safer sex pack includes two women determining they have no previous HIV risks… before covering up cuts with plasters (band aids), using latex gloves, and dental dams.

THT makes a number of public statements in the aftermath to defend their position. 

The fight continues for months after the conference. Simon Watney, writing in Gay Times says: Europeans started a counter-chant: Act Up! Don’t Read! Don’t Think!

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