'We Love Sexual Health' - or do we?
By Lisa Power
It's St Valentine's Day, one of the least saintly saint's days in the Christian calendar, when Europeans of all faiths and none struggle out of our winter thermals and into something slinky in hopes of romance.
Society makes a big fuss about romance and sex all year round, though. Most of the time it's fantasies of eternal love, hearts and flowers, yearning songs – except when it comes to sexual health, which is weird. Sex is meant to be fun, and exciting and heart stopping in a good way. So why, when it comes to talking about making sure our sex is healthy and safe, do we so often think it's a good idea to scare our audience?
Scare tactics seem to be a lot of people's idea of encouraging people to be sexually healthy – and it doesn't work very well. Ask the general public their ideas of an HIV or STI campaign and they almost always opt for horrific imagery, as a London sexual health clinic found when they held an online competition for a campaign to encourage HIV awareness. The winner showed a gay man strapped down in an electric chair and playing with electrified barbells, which seemed neither safe nor sexy – and precious little to do with HIV. It was dubbed “ordinary life with a sinister undertone”, which didn't exactly dispel stigma.
Even major HIV organisations still sometimes forget that scare tactics can promote stigma and a negative view of sex. In 2007 a French HIV campaign [NB: link shows partially naked models] was published which is still notorious in sexual health circles, showing a man having sex with a giant scorpion and a woman being given oral sex by a giant spider. Apart from the fact that it's extremely unlikely you'd get HIV from receiving oral sex, even if it wasn't with a tarantula, the images made sex creepy, monstrous and, again, deadly – and this was ten years after we discovered that HIV treatment can keep you alive.
Making people afraid of sex and its consequences doesn't improve sexual health, any more than abstinence education stops people having sex. It does put them off having it till they can't help themselves – and then, when the dam breaks, it's even more unlikely they'll ask the questions and take the precautions they should.
It's ironic that almost always, when we talk about sexual health, we really mean sexual ill health. We pay less attention to positive health, to making sex good for ourselves and others and to framing sexual health in the context of pleasure and, whisper it, fun. And that's especially ironic in the context of LGBT+ life because, let's face it, one of the reasons some people are mean to us is that they suspect we're having more fun than them. They think that queer sex is somehow so exciting that one encounter will turn innocent children gay, never to return to the less green pastures of hetero-land. Damn it, can't we for once try to live up to a stereotype?
I'm not saying that when we talk about sexual health, we should lie in the other direction from those campaigns above and pretend it's all risk-free sex and multiple simultaneous orgasms (at my age, you start to worry about a stroke). I am saying that we should talk about sex more, stop worrying about being respectable or “normal” and start telling the truth about our hopes and concerns and interest in glorious, messy, silly, funny sex. When I used to talk about sex for a living I would often say “we live in a society that finds it easier to have sex than to talk about it”.
So next time you're thinking about sex, whether it's about your date tonight or your campaign next month, think about telling the truth. Think about why you want to have sex, if you do and when you do, think about what it gives you, where the pleasure is and what might encourage you (and others) to have better, healthier, more enjoyable sex. Don't think about respectability, don't think about whether you'll frighten the straights, don't think about whether you'll worry your mother (try not to think about your parents at all). Think about positive reasons why you might want to use a condom or PrEP (or not). Think about asking for what you want instead of waiting for what you get. Be bold, not apologetic, about your transition, or your history, or your preferences. We all deserve sexual health, but just like our other rights, we'll only get it if we speak up and tell our true stories and demand it, instead of letting people scaremonger about it.
Lisa Power is a dinosaur dyke, a longtime health promoter and HIV/LGBT activist, and an ex-Secretary General of ILGA. Follow her on Twitter @alisapower.
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