Why we don't show pictures of STIs in our workshops

Using photos of genitalia presenting symptoms of SEXUALLY TRANSMITTED INFECTIONS has long been used as a method for TEACHING ABOUT the risks OF unprotected sex.

However, at Sexplain there are several reasons as to why we believe this strategy can do more harm than good.

Evie Karkera illustrations
  1. It contributes to the shame and stigma surrounding sexual health.

    There is still an enormous amount of stigma surrounding sexual health, relating heavily to sex-negative ideas of ‘dirtiness’ associated with being sexually active.

    This culture of shame is directly damaging to the attitudes and behaviours we need to promote in order to reduce STIs. In order to be able to discuss using protection, to access sexual health services with the recommended frequency, and to communicate any relevant information to both medical professionals and sexual partners, we need to feel empowered and confident about our bodies and health.

    The reaction to these photos in class is often a disgusted “EWW”. This whole-class judgement of a picture of genitalia with an infection reinforces the idea that our genital health is something that is shameful and should be kept a closely-guarded secret, else we’ll face this same disgust towards our own bodies - and therefore can stop us from taking the simple steps needed to safeguard our health.

  2. It’s distracting to be shown a photo of someone else’s genitals in extra large for the first time in class.

    For most, these images will be the first time a teacher has shown them a photo of genitals in school. Especially in our euphemism-and-modesty-filled society, this is quite a distractingly unusual experience - so much so that it can detract from the key learning message students should be taking away about sexual health.

  3. STIs are very often asymptomatic!

    Similarly, talking about symptoms of STIs can skew key learning messages: crucially, that a large proportion of STIs are asymptomatic, so the only way to know for definite whether or not you have one is to get tested, and you must do so promptly/regularly. Moreover, that as with every infection, symptoms vary from person to person. (Certainly, it would be a very bad idea to try and self-diagnose by trying to remember Slide 5 in your Year 9 sex ed class.)

Evie Karkera illustrations

All of this raises the question: why have these photos stuck as a teaching strategy for so long?

We would argue that it aligns with the long-standing trend of abstinence-based SRE, in which message of avoidance and often fear tactics are used to try and discourage young people from having sex.

We think it’s time we move onto a scientifically accurate, empowering and useful approach, which young people need and deserve.