The Hotties of Harm Reduction (HOHR) was born, like so many good things in the harm reduction community, during an inebriated conversation at a house party. This one was in Albany, CA during the summer of 2003 among a group of friends/comrades/colleagues who worked or volunteered at some combination of the Berkeley Free Clinic (BFC), Needle Exchange Emergency Distribution (NEED) of Berkeley and (the original) Points of Distribution (POD) of Oakland and San Francisco.
During the party the conversation turned to the fact that there were so many HOT people in the harm reduction community! Full consensus was immediate- with various people confessing to a variety of crushes on people that they knew from the local/ national/ international harm reduction scenes. A recent news story of a nude charity calendar had been in the press and someone, lost to the mists of time and inebriants, suggested “Wouldn’t it be funny if there were a nude calendar for the harm reduction community?” to many giggles and much excitement.
The conversation soon turned to other topics but the idea, however, stuck with Catherine Swanson, co-founder of the Hepatitis Testing Education and Vaccination (Hep-TEV) section of the Berkeley Free Clinic, member of NEED and primary founder of Points of Distribution syringe access program and Kasper Koczab a long-time member of the Gay Men’s Health Collective at the BFC, occasional NEED volunteer and photographer.
Together they decided to make the project a reality and invited a variety of folks to model and/or volunteer for the initial calendar that was photographed in a warehouse in southwest Berkeley in the spring of 2004. Like harm reduction itself, the HOHR project was inclusive from the very beginning; the project included volunteers, board members, researchers and outreach workers of every race, sexual orientation, gender expression, ability and body type.
This inclusivity encompassed the models and volunteers but also the spirit of the calendar which included major holidays from all the world’s major religions as well LGBTQ+, international and harm reduction and public health holidays. The calendar also took a very catholic approach to drug use- including information about all varieties of drugs when much of harm reduction was exclusively focused on injection drug use.
Indeed, being a sexy medium of harm reduction information was always one of the fundamental goals of the Hotties and hours were spent ensuring that all of the information the calendars contained was fully vetted by drug users and scientists-representing the best in harm reduction practice.
Kasper took the photos and Catherine did most of the writing, organizing and model and volunteer engagement. In later years she was able to transfer much of the latter to Arielle McKee, an otherwise unconnected member of the public who heard of the project on social media and brought her vast organizational talents as a professional executive assistant to bear for the good of the project.
The initial 2005 calendar premiered at the Fifth National Harm Reduction Conference “Working Under Fire: Drug User Health and Justice” in New Orleans and was a great success. That calendar benefitted several syringe access programs including POD, NEED and the Haight Ashbury Youth Alliance (HYA).
As the years progressed the project was refined and morphed to include retail sales, bulk sales, international sales and a large, annual premier event in the Bay Area.
The last calendar in what we are now referring to as HOHR 1.0 was 2009. Produced in 2008. The year the American economy took a beating, the housing market fell apart and no one was buying charity calendars.
Between the lack of sales, the fact that Kasper was moving on to other things- such as the amazingly illustrated Gay Agenda– and the fact that Catherine’s “small side project” had morphed into a full-fledged organization that ate up dozens of hours a week, the HOHR quietly went to sleep.
However, many of the cast of characters behind the calendar have remained in each other’s lives and most of us remain friends. Though some of us have moved on or changed our career focus we all remain committed to the principles of harm reduction in our daily lives. We’ve all felt some sadness and nostalgia over the loss. We’ve also heard many stories over the years of how the Hotties touched and educated people in ways we would never have anticipated, and we have wanted to bring that back to life.
In 2016 Catherine met the amazing photographer Nigel Brunsdon at the 12th National Harm Reduction Conference in San Diego. As so often happens in harm reduction they got on well immediately and found they had much in common. For one thing Nigel had been in love with the now long sleeping Hotties of Harm Reduction ever since he’d run into photos from the 2008 calendar featuring harm reduction messages on bodies.
Though they made jokes in San Diego it wasn’t until 2018 and the second New Orleans National Harm Reduction Conference that they started talking in earnest about collaboration on the HOHR 2.0. Arielle McKee soon joined these conversations. Former members of the project, including Kasper Koczab and some of the original models and their family members, were contacted to get blessings and permissions which, thankfully, everyone gave.