Sexually Transmitted Infection Campaigns that Promote Sex. YES.

I sometimes wonder if I downplay the risks of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) when I talk to kids about sex and to parents about sex-positive parenting.

It’s not that I don’t want people understanding that STIs are a real risk.  It’s just that protecting ourselves requires more than a condom.  It requires a belief that we are deserving of sex without negative consequences.

There’s a lot of historic shame for us to overcome to believe that.   So many of the messages create a strong association between supposedly depraved sexual behaviour (sex outside of marriage, non-monogamy, gay sex) and contracting STIs.

What does protecting ourselves look like?

Protecting ourselves when it comes to sex is fundamentally about individual power and autonomy.  Protecting ourselves is about knowing ourselves and acting in ways that don’t compromises our values.  It’s about gaining knowledge and understanding the risks and minimizing said risks.  It’s about taking individual responsibility and collective care.  It’s about having access to health services without judgement.

We are all entitled, yes, have a right, to sexual pleasure if we wish it. And if we protect ourselves in all these ways, we are very likely to achieve such pleasures without coming to harm.

Health promotion campaigns around HIV and other STIs have typically been vilifying and reproachful.  Where the campaigns don’t outright shame individual behaviours around sex, they often assume that people have the self-esteem and the access to information and supplies to ensure that protecting themselves sexually is a no-brainer.

If the message is ‘if you are going to do shameful things, at least wear a condom’, the opposite outcome seems a real possibility.  When we internalize shame, we often don’t feel entitled to things like safety or respect and so don’t seek them out. In other words, shaming will not achieve the outcomes that are sought.  Sometimes the message is ‘if you don’t wear a condom, you may get a disease and die’.  Some may then wear a condom since we can be motivated by fear but in sexual liaisons that lack honesty, communication and mutual respect, there may be a multitude of fears that people face.  So, fear isn’t the answer either.  Sure, incidences of STIs may decline when comprehensive promotion campaigns utilize shame and fear but this will only work where survival is the goal.  Real, holistic and comprehensive community health occurs when we support lives that are about thriving.

Thriving requires that we rid ourselves of shame and minimize fear.

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It requires that we stop treating STIs like the absolutely worst thing in the world to contract. They are not fun, and can carry with them some significant, if not dire, consequences, but they are not a reflection of our goodness or our virtue.  Goodness and virtue are not related to who we choose to have sex with and what that sex looks like.

If we teach something different, people will learn something different.

If I’ve downplayed STIs its because I abhor the usual connections made between them and ‘shameful’ sexual behaviour.  I’ve downplayed them because there are far too many voices that disregard sexual autonomy and power and the role that access plays in keeping people from STIs and frankly, from thriving.  I’m ready to teach something different.

The International HIV/AIDS Alliance’s new campaign is ready too.  This campaign celebrates sex as something that is life affirming, not deadly.  It’s a campaign that works from the premise that safe, satisfied and healthier communities are possible where we strive to thrive, not merely survive.   This campaign knows that using a condom is the tip of the safe sex iceberg.  Condoms are incredibly important and help create the possibility for positive sexuality when communication, mutual respect and pleasure are sought.

The new campaign ad can be seen here. (It’s worth seeing)

Please consider supporting it or other efforts that promote positive sexuality. Here are a few based out of North America:
Scarleteen                                                                           Options for Sexual Health
Planned Parenthood                                                        The Centre for Sex Positive Culture
Woodhull Sexual Freedom Alliance                             Centre for Positive Sexuality

Talking to young kids about STIs (you don’t have to wait til they’re teens)

Fundamentally, if we talk to our kids about communication, respect and pleasure, we are covering the more important elements of safe sex. Still, specifics about STIs – what they are, how they are contracted, symptoms and impacts as well as how they are tested and treated – are important.

A shame-free and not scary way of introducing STIs to younger kids (under 10) is to help them understand just how many bacteria and viruses there are.  For instance, when was the last time you or your kid were in a crowd?  Live music and dancing, maybe?  A science centre or playland?  A networking event?  Or maybe you take public transit to work or school?  These are typical places where people contract infections.  Us humans, we are spreaders of bacteria and viruses.  We pick them up when we are fully clothed and… we pick them up when we aren’t.

  • A lot of bacteria are actually necessary for us to live.  Our bodies are full of bacteria that help digest food, keep our mouths free of disease and maintain vaginal health.
  • A lot of bacteria and viruses make their home or way into our bodies through the warm and moist places that we have.  In our nose, ears, mouth and throat, for instance.  When people are sexually intimate, warm and moist places include the vulva, penis and anus.
  • Sometimes we can’t tell if we have an infection.  Other times our bodies hurt or have other signs that something is different.  Its always a good idea to pay attention to signs in ourselves and others.  Sores, sniffles, etc.  Where we see signs, it’s a good time not to hug, kiss, share forks or straws unless you know it isn’t something that will make you feel similarly.
  • Healthy bodies are often very good at managing many bacterias and viruses that aren’t helpful to us.  One of the jobs our blood does is destroy or figure out how to stop many harmful bacterial and viral intruders.
  • In some cases though, our bodies can’t stop the infections that enter.
    • Bacteria can usually be treated with antibiotics with curative results.  It’s important to get the treatments though because without it, the bacterias can hurt our bodies permanently.
    • Vaccines teach our bodies how to keep us healthy if certain viruses enter our bodies.
    • There aren’t vaccines for all the viruses though and if our body can’t figure out how to stop a virus, the virus may be in our bodies forever.  Sometimes that can be dangerous.
  • Bacteria and viruses that are contracted through sexual activity are the same as all the other bacterias and viruses that aren’t supposed to be in our body.   If our body can’t manage the infection on its own, we need to see a doctor and get treatment.  This will ensure that we keep our bodies as healthy as possible and help to stop the spread of the infection.

As our kids get older, we can tell them about each specific STI so they learn the lay of the land. Planned Parenthood is my trusted source of up to date and accurate info.

This is a great article to share with teens too.  And have a read though, there are likely lessons for most of us.

Finally, a great site with the goal to eradicate STD stigma by facilitating and encouraging awareness, education, and acceptance through story-telling and recommending resources.

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  1. […] A brilliant piece about the importance of sex-positivity in sex education, especially for young people. […]

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