As former a sexual health educator and current sexuality studies professor, I meet students whose ideas about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) have been shaped by the ‘scary slideshow’: that series of full-color, close-up shots of the worst infections.
(Not safe for work–explicit images of STDs)
Are these images representative?
Consider the likely socioeconomic status of the men and women whose genitals are used to ‘educate’ the rest of us. Think about the guy who takes out his penis each time he needs to urinate, sees yet another new wart growth and doesn’t seek treatment — isn’t it likely that he has little or no access to healthcare, never received comprehensive sexual health education, and may have larger life stresses (poverty, hunger, homelessness) that have led him to make STD treatment a low priority in his life?
Some sexual health programs have tried to temper these scare tactics by using STD cartoons in place of graphic photos. For example, the University of Bath website features “Warty”:
However cute “Warty” may be, I’m not sure that the University of Bath students are any more likely to understand their real risks of contracting HPV.
The ‘scary slideshow,’ though, prevails as the dominant series of educational images. But, as horrified as students are by these images of disfiguring diseases, they are also reassured by them. After all, it must be easy to avoid contracting a STD — just avoid having sex with people who have ‘cauliflowers’ of warts sprouting from their genitalia. The truth about these epidemics is far scarier: most of us who are infected are undiagnosed, diagnosed but unclear about risks of transmission, asymptomatic and believing our lack of symptom equals being cured, or in denial about the reality of our symptoms (e.g., “Isn’t that just a pimple?”).
If we want to accurately strike fear into the hearts of sexually-active individuals, then we might want to develop a STD awareness campaign that visually speaks the truth. Imagine a series of tasteful nude images of beautiful, sexy men and women whose genitals are clearly devoid of sores, lesions, and warts: tag lines below each photo might read “I don’t know that I’m infected with genital herpes” or “I know I have cervical HPV but my doctor never told me I’m contagious.”
A few websites post PG-13 versions of these types of images to accompany posts about sexually transmitted infections:
But, it may take more explicit images to drive home the point that no matter how ‘healthy’ a potential partner’s external genitalia appear to be, s/he might still be infected.