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As if chlamydia wasn’t bad enough already

January 13, 2010

I had to go to the doctor’s this morning, and so headed on down to the Student Medical Practice. SMP caters to most of the student body of two universities, us and the Met, and it’s therefore not much of a surprise to find the foyer’s noticeboard space mostly taken up with sexual health posters. Because students are mostly young, and mostly horny, and mostly a long way from home; multiply those up and add in the proliferation of cheap drinks in the Union and in town and you’ve got a lot of people doing silly things.

I imagine SMP deals with a lot of minor-to-medium STDs, and so their panoply of poster campaigns urging people to think first or, at the very least, get checked up afterwards is laudable and to be encouraged. Most of them are fine, even if they do tend towards the scaremongering end of the scale; better to have people too scared than not enough, given that things like chlamydia can give you pelvic inflammatory disease or make you infertile without symptoms, if you’re unlucky. But I spotted a couple earlier that really bothered me, and those are the ones I want to talk about.

Two posters, same format. One had the caption “Got an unwanted present this Christmas? Come in for chlamydia testing.” The other said “Had too much fun this Christmas? Come in for chlamydia testing.” I can’t swear to the exact wording of either, but that’s the gist of it.

Now. There is precisely one way to catch chlamydia, and that’s by having sexual contact with someone who’s infected. Proceeding from the assumption that nobody actually intentionally gets chlamydia, this can happen in two ways: a) you knew there was a risk and didn’t do anything about it, or b) you didn’t think there was a risk.

Category A covers informed people who made a stupid decision, which could potentially be anyone. We’ve all been in situations, sexual or not, where we didn’t take some basic precaution because it’d take too long or be a bother or we couldn’t find it or whatever.

Category B covers two lots of uninformed people: the naive, who didn’t know there was a risk, and the cheated, who didn’t know there was a risk to them.

There is a valid argument for having two lots of posters, one for A, one for B, because depending on the circumstances people will have a different attitude. You don’t want to shame people who couldn’t know; nor do you want to completely exonerate those who should have known better. So: two sets of posters.

Looking back to the captions I quoted above, it’s pretty obvious that “Had too much fun?” is the category A poster, implying that you got carried away and did something silly and maybe it is your fault a bit, and that “Got an unwanted present?” is the category B poster, with its message that this was given to you, against your will, and you are not at fault.

And this is where things get really problematic, because in the posters SMP actually used, instead of the hypothetical similar ones I’ve been constructing, were gendered. Specifically, the “too much fun” one was headed by “GIRLS!” in big pink caps, followed by a picture of some girls looking rather drunk; and the “unwanted present” one said “BOYS!” in big blue capitals, followed by a picture of some guys who looked slightly ill.

There were maybe thirty? certainly less than fifty actual words, if you don’t count their helpline number, on both posters combined, and that’s a hell of a small space to fit quite that many unpleasant stereotypes into.

Firstly, it firmly assigns the role of ‘innocent dupe’ to the men, and ‘stupid slut’ to the women. If a woman has unprotected sex and gets chlamydia, she was probably drunk and didn’t know better. If a man does, it was clearly not his fault. In fact, it was probably the fault of the drunken slut who didn’t take proper precautions, because everyone knows that contraceptives are icky and unmanly and wholly the responsibility of women.

Secondly, it places sex – the ‘present’, with chlamydia being the unwanted part – as something given to men, by women, which is the same poisonous narrative that leads to women who don’t want to hand it out being called frigid, women who hand it out to too many or non-patriarchy-approved men being called sluts, and women who refuse to hand it out when ordered being raped. It constructs sex as a transaction, with one party supplying the other, not a mutually pleasurable activity that two(+) people engage in together.

Thirdly, the placement and general feel of the posters – in twos, one of each, and the hard-and-fast binary opposition they draw – reeks of heterosexism. The pair together do a pretty good job of implying that men having sex with women is the only sort of sex there is, which is offensive, and, following on, that men having sex with women is the only way to get chlamydia, which is an outright public health risk.

Fourthly, it ignores the not inconsequential fact that not everyone who’s going to be reading these posters will fit, or want to fit, into the boxes “boy” and “girl”. It’s particularly egregious considering that this is a practice serving university students, and I would bet that the number of people at this age still in the process of working out who the hell they are in terms of sex, gender and sexuality is a lot higher than in other demographics – because university is where you go to find yourself, in a lot of cases. It’s away from home, it’s away from your family and people who knew you growing up, it’s generally a pretty liberal environment (at least here in the UK) and so on.

That last point feeds into my larger response to the whole thing: okay, there are times when you it’s practically necessary to stick people into broad categories, just so you can get things done. I imagine that’s possibly even more common in a medical setting, where the biological facts of someone’s body are going to be more relevant than they are in normal discourse. But this is really not one of them: I’m fairly sure chlamydia is an equal-opportunity employer. There’s no need to divide the reader/viewer-base into binary sexes/genders; there’s no need to divide them up sex/genderwise at all.

Every single one of the problems with these posters would be solved by taking those bloody capitalised headings off them. Every one. People of all stripes can be stupid, can be unlucky, can be cheated on. Literally the only thing gendering those behaviours achieves is shaming people who don’t deserve it, confirming in their entitlement people who don’t deserve that, and telling a minority of people that they don’t actually exist.

Somehow I do not think any of those things will lead to more people coming in and getting themselves checked out – if anything the opposite, because they’ll be, respectively, too embarrassed, too cocksure, or too understandably dubious of being treated with respect.

So yeah. Way to go, SMP.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Seamus permalink
    January 13, 2010 2:23 pm


    It’s the complete unnecessariness, as you say, of those big headings that really gets you. Who gets chlamydia? GIRLS AND BOYS? Yeah, no shit.

    They’re clumsily trying to be matey and laddish, like an annoying radio DJ; to reassure prospective patients that the doctor won’t judge you for going out and getting chlamydia; in fact he’ll even congratulate you, recognising that you’re a massive laaaaayyyd and can’t help getting VD sometimes because you live so large. I don’t want matey slaps on the back from the medical profession; I certainly don’t want gendered sexual-health posters (excepting of course when it’s relevant); and, as I approach the age of 21, I’m not actually certain that I’m okay with the appellation “boy” any more (though God knows I’m far from comfortable with “man”). What dickhead came up with these posters?

  2. Paul Skinner permalink
    January 17, 2010 1:22 pm

    I’ve never understood why they don’t just go for the good old ‘Get checked or you’re a dirty git’ approach. Make it so getting checked is the better of the two options rather than making it sound like a humiliating experience.

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