Another nasty sex campaign
Why is the Department of Health getting its knickers in a twist about STIs?
Once upon a time the National Health Service had many important things to worry about: fixing legs, saving lives, paying nurses. Now it spends its time and resources commissioning glitzy gimmicks and flashy websites designed to warn what it calls ‘young people’ (adults aged between 18 and 30) about the multiple dangers of sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
The ‘Sex Lottery’ campaign has been launched in the run-up to Valentine’s Day, and involves a host of interactive adverts freely available on the NHS’s Playing Safely website (1). You can play ‘Iffy stiffy?’, ‘Scratch my box!’ or ‘One-arm bandit’ to see which of 25 STIs you risk picking up. In a spoof ‘Valentine’s store’, gifts for girls include Scratchy the teddy-bear, who ‘might look cute, but he’s got a nasty surprise hidden in that lovely fur – big lumps shaped on his genitals’ [sic], and gonorrhoea ‘Eau de Toilette’ (‘This is a smell she’ll get noticed for – it’ll be coming out of her bottom’). Gifts for boys include Hot Love Pants (‘Start the fire of genital herpes!’).
You can view the Sex Lottery page with ‘beer goggles’, which blurs everything except the slogans ‘Are you feeling lucky?’ and ‘See what you can pick up’; and you can click on a button which rapidly hides the page and throws up a false desktop. Presumably, to conceal it from your boss in the unlikely event that you’ll be browsing this website in your lunchtime at work.
Now the Department of Health has announced the launch of a ‘major public consultation’ on ‘how to tackle issues such as obesity, smoking and sexually transmitted diseases’, it might like to start with the following questions. Why does it think health professionals can get away with talking to young adults in these patronising terms about one of the most intimate aspects of their lives? And why is it getting its knickers in a twist about STIs in the first place?
The Sex Lottery campaign is objectionable in every respect. It is puerile, relying on the kind of toilet humour that would be considered immature by self-respecting fifth-formers, let alone adults in their twenties. It is infantile, substituting what looks like one of those revolting peer-to-peer projects beloved of school sex educators for any attempt to promote an adult message. It is too alarmist to be informative – screeching about the four STIs that are incurable without saying which these are, and flitting scant information across the screen in bite-size chunks, as if people worried that they might have an infection lose the ability to concentrate for longer than 10 seconds.
However much the new campaign cost, it is a flagrant waste of public money. There are initiatives that could potentially impact positively upon rates of sexually transmitted infection, from free condoms to greater sexual health provision to proper, considered information about symptoms and cures, but it is hard to see what this high-profile awareness campaign hopes to achieve at all. Unless, of course, the goal is simply to encourage people to view their partner with icky unease, as the sexual equivalent of a leper, in which case it’s pretty effective.
The portrayal of young sexually active people as filthy, thoughtless, depraved animals defines the Sex Lottery campaign, and represents a new low in government propaganda. Valentine’s Day used to be known as a kitsch, childish and generally innocent celebration where teenagers sent themselves cards and married couples enjoyed biannual conjugal relations.
Now, bright sparks throughout official departments share an anti-romantic penchant for taking 14 February as the ideal launch date for campaigns about disease, domestic violence, rape, stalking and all manner of other perverted activity, and the same departments compete to see who can show human beings at their most brutal and unattractive. A website that flashes up images of ‘Sexy sweets’ with ‘Flaming fanny’ and ‘My bush burns’ written upon them, and creates images of ‘Stress balls’ (a hand squashing a chlamydia-inflamed testicle) outdoes everything else in its presentation of intimate sexual relationships as utterly, utterly disgusting.
But then, isn’t that the whole point of this campaign? The days when the authorities felt confident enough to recognise that sex was quite a nice thing, but gave moral reasons for why people shouldn’t do it, are long gone. From the prime minister to the priest to the primary school teacher, no authority figure today is prepared to put forward a straightforward moral position about what they think people should and should not do. Instead, they hide behind scares about how this or that activity might damage your health, and expect this to frighten people down the path of good behaviour.
In terms of actually doing something about sexually transmitted infections, the evidence suggests that campaigns such as these do not work. As the public health campaigns about STIs have become more and more shrill, so official statistics are marshalled to show how incidence of these diseases is going up and up. (Though these, too, should be taken with a pinch of salt. Talk about a 500 per cent increase in syphilis over five years sounds highly alarming until the relatively low number of actual cases – 696 in 2001 compared to 116 in 1996 – is considered; and much of the increase in diseases such as chlamydia can be put down to increases in awareness and diagnosis).
Just as yesteryear’s vicars never succeeded in stopping people from having sex, so today’s health professionals are not going to persuade people that fear of the clap is incentive enough for sexual abstinence. All they can do is contribute to that nasty, suspicious sentiment that is currently festering within the health profession – that relationships between people are somehow toxic and dangerous, and that individuals should treat their sexual partner with the arms-length distrust normally reserved for estate agents or insurance salesmen.
In our singleton society, it may be the case that people sleep around more than they might have 50 years ago, thereby making themselves more vulnerable to STIs. But let’s not kid ourselves that this is why the authorities have labelled the increase in STIs a major public health crisis and focused so obsessively upon the trend. Diagnosis and treatment of STIs is far more open and effective than in the past, and people who are mature enough to have sex are mature enough to deal with such infections when they discover them. Nobody needs a major public debate about how to deal with STIs, or more patronising interactive web campaigns; and the sooner the Department of Health recognises this, the better.
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