Ah, the 1970s - a decade of psychedelic polyester fashions, freakishly large moustaches, drugs, and free love. The Pill brought sexual liberation to women for the first time and, free from the fear of unwanted pregnancies, a generation of young women embarked on exploring lustily the sexual freedom men had always known. Likewise, the dawning of the gay rights movement following the infamous Stonewall Riots in New York in 1969 liberated gays - lesbians as well, but gay men in particular - to come roaring out of the closet, spawning a decade of sexual exploration and freedom unknown to the repressed gay population since Roman times. For many gay men in that idyllic, albeit temporary, nirvana, it was the first time in their lives they had friends, community, and sense of acceptance - and sex. Lots of sex.

Gay Sex in the 70s, a documentary by Joseph Lovett, is billed as a "steamy romp", but really, beneath the mirth at its surface, it is a very serious film. The film explores gay sex from sociological and historical standpoints in the decade between Stonewall in 1969 and the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in 1981, when Dr. Lawrence Altman first published an article about an unusual cancer that seemed to be affecting primarily gay men.

Lovett, who was 25 years old, just coming to terms with being gay, and living in Greenwich Village at the time of the Stonewall Riots, explores his topic through interviews, archival footage, and a plethora of photographs. He keeps his film on a mostly linear arc, starting with the liberation gay men felt after Stonewall, when for the first time they united and defiantly refused to stay in the closet, to the beginnings of the sexual excess that would come to permeate the gay scene over the next decade. He delves into the frenzied gay sex scene in New York City at its height - the public sex on the piers and in the backs of 18-wheelers; the gay utopia that was Fire Island in the summers, when everyone who was anyone in gaydom would flock to the island to party, enjoy unrivaled camaraderie, and have abundant sex on the beach and in the woods; the pick-ups - gay men initiating quick sexual encounters with a glance and a beckoning finger on the streets. Then there were the clubs – Paradise Garage, Studio 54, and the infamous Saint - which bred the disco scene, and the bathhouses, where a gay man could go for a weekend sex vacation without ever leaving New York.

This part of the film is a fascinating mixture of happiness, bittersweet nostalgia, and regret. The men being interviewed, of course, know what happens in the next chapter of the story; they lived through the horror of the early days of the AIDS epidemic. Looking wistfully at photographs from Fire Island, one interviewee notes in awe that every man in those photos is now dead of AIDS. Even so, each speaks of the freedom of that decade longingly. Lovett doesn't gloss over the sexual excess, and this aspect of the film, while it captures the reality of those times, is sure to freak out any conservative Christians who come within a mile of it (not that I would expect that demographic to just wander into a film called Gay Sex in the '70s, but I have no doubt that some Christian group or another will use Lovett's homage to sexual freedom as an indictment of homosexuality in general). This part of the film is about sex, sex and more sex. And gay porn, which could never quite live up to the real sex you could have right on the streets of Greenwich Village. The men in the interviews, indeed Lovett himself, speak so longingly of that time - it's almost as if they were all Lost Boys living in Neverland for that decade, and then Captain Hook rose up in the guise of the AIDS virus and finally defeated Peter Pan once and for all, leaving the remaining Lost Boys floundering for a while.

The AIDS epidemic, once it started decimating gay men - and once people realized that it was being transmitted sexually - did eventually put a damper on the party, but in its wake the gay community found a way to unite and grow stronger, rather than just whimpering, defeated, into the shadows. The brotherhood rallied, forming groups to push for money for AIDS research, promoting safer sex, and ultimately building a more robust sodality than the one that was founded on the shakier foundation of sex with strangers in the dark. Gay men learned to befriend each other, to support each other through the devastating years when it seemed their friends were literally dropping dead on the streets. They formed a united society that is still stronger today than anything that existed before the sexual freedom of the 1970s.

Lovett made this film in part, to document a unique time of incredible freedom - sexual freedom, yes, but also freedom from the guilt of a lifetime growing up in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s as a gay person, when just admitting you were gay could get you committed to an institution by your family or cost you your job. He also made the film to give young gay men a sense of the history that preceded them. If it’s true those who fail to learn from the lessons of the past are doomed to repeat them, then Lovett has made a film full of lessons for young gay men to learn from. Gay Sex in the 70s stands as both a warning of the dangers of freedom taken to excess, and a reminder that freedom, if not defended, could be lost.

Photo credit: Tom Bianchi, used with permission of Lovett Productions.