In its January 1988 issue, Cosmopolitan—the highly popular women’s magazine then edited by Helen Gurley Brown, famous for its saucy content on women’s sex lives—published an article by Robert Gould, MD, titled “A Doctor Tells Why Most Women Are Safe From AIDS.” In the article, Gould, a New York City–based professor of psychology and obstetrics/gynecology, not an HIV or infectious disease specialist, claimed that men almost never passed HIV to women during vaginal intercourse, that it was impossible to contract HIV in the missionary position and that heterosexual AIDS was more common in Africa because “many men in Africa take their women in a brutal way” that “would be closer to rape by our standards.” (Ron Goldberg, who wrote about this in Boy with the Bullhorn, his excellent personal history of ACT UP New York, called this assertion “unbelievable racism.”)

Of course, Gould was flat-out wrong. The Centers for Disease Control had already confirmed that men could pass HIV sexually to women and had documented many such cases, even if they were not as numerous as cases among gay men. (It was women, in fact, who could not easily pass HIV to men, we would later learn.) HIV activists and educators were outraged at Cosmo’s publication of dangerous misinformation.

Anthony Fauci, MD, who was at the time the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the article was “really potentially dangerous” and characterized it as “clearly not based on the known facts."

The Women’s Caucus of ACT UP—the pioneering, heavily LGBTQ activist group that formed in New York City in March 1987—was also outraged and held its first action on January 15, 1988 to publicly expose Cosmo’s lies. To quote from Goldberg’s book:

The activists called [Gould] and arranged a meeting, bringing along a video camera to capture the interview. With tape rolling, Gould paraded his ignorance of biology and women’s bodies, and repeated his outrageous statement that the women who claimed to have contracted the disease through vaginal intercourse were all “liars.” With neither the doctor nor the magazine willing to issue a retraction, it was time for a little street agitation.

On a brutally cold January day, 200 demonstrators, both women and men, braved single-digit temperatures outside the Hearst [which published Cosmo] Building. Our fact sheet, headlined “Don’t Go To Bed With Cosmo,” explained the dangers of Gould’s article and asked readers to boycott the magazine, advertisers to withdraw their ads, and everyone else to call the editors to “voice their outrage.” While the rest of us picketed in chilly circles, Maxine [Wolfe] and a small group of women attempted to enter the building, only to be rebuffed by security.

According to Goldberg, police ended up arresting two of the protesters, at which point other members of ACT UP swarmed the police van to demand, successfully, their release.

Following the demonstration, media outlets reported on the criticism of the article, but the activists who had sounded the alarm and who were extremely knowledgeable about women and AIDS were often pushed aside. A few activists appeared on People Are Talking, a local New York City talk show to challenge Gould—but their questions were rebuffed, and they were ejected from the show. Activists were also blacklisted from an episode of The Phil Donahue Show on which Gould was a guest. The activists were also not invited to a Nightline segment on the topic with Helen Gurley Brown and Mathilde Krim, MD, the cofounder of amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research. Krim, fortunately, debunked the theories presented by Gould and Cosmopolitan

Two ACT UP Women’s Caucus members, Maria Maggenti and Jean Carlomusto, made a documentary titled Doctors, Liars, and Women: AIDS Activists Say No to Cosmo to shine a light on the demonstration. (In a 2019 interview, Carlomusto discussed the documentary.)

In 2002, in a video interview with Sarah Schulman for the ACT UP NY Oral History Project, Carlomusto reflected on how she and the other activists briefly disrupted the People Are Talking episode on live camera. (It was something ACT UP would do again, during the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather in 1991.) She said, “[Women’s Caucus members] Chris Norwood and Denise Ribble marched onstage and sort of just sat down there and said, ‘Why don’t you have any women on this panel? You’re making us invisible. This is the message. You are killing women by making us invisible.’... That was the first time I really saw our activism subverting dominant media messages, taking over shows…it’s sort of similar to just walking in the center of the street without a permit, and sitting down, and being carried off.”

The Cosmopolitan protest helped forge an alliance of activists dedicated to organizing around women and AIDS. In subsequent years, the fact that women could contract HIV from intercourse with men became better established thanks to their efforts.

According to UNAIDS, women and girls accounted for nearly half of all new HIV infections globally.

For more on the history of HIV and AIDS, visit AIDS is Everyday