Officials in Canada just dusted off an old standby in sex education: scaring the living daylights out of young people. More specifically, convincing them that by having sex they will end up an unlovable mess of warts and oozing sores — until they die a premature death. Only this time the message is delivered in a hip new package: It’s an anti-syphilis PSA masquerading as a dating site, PlentyofSyph.com. It’s all thanks to the Alberta government’s new $2 million awareness campaign.
The parody of the popular dating site PlentyofFish.com features countless profiles of hot, young, promiscuous things with syphilis. A sexy bachelorette explains why she isn’t into waiting past the second date for some action: “im in the last stage of syphilis so im gonna be gettin nerve system problems and some brain disorder issue.” A bachelor uses his complete hairlessness as a selling point: “Started getting patchy hair loss from my syphilis, so I figured I’d just shave it ALL off. That’s right, all 240lbs of me hairless.” Those are the tame examples; there are vivid descriptions of full-body rashes and pus-filled sores. Should you attempt to contact one of these fine young fictional singles, a shaming message will pop up — for example, “I guess seizures, dementia, blindness and tumors turn you on.”
In response to the site’s launch, a spokesperson for Plenty of Fish issued a statement saying, “Such carelessness and disrespect towards our organization is upsetting.” Yeah, well, imagine how it feels to visit the website as someone with syphilis, or one of the many other STDs mentioned on the site. It also mocks the bona fide, and respectable, dating sites out there for people living with STDs. The take-home message is that people with STDs are desperately hideous. In Canada, the campaign has stirred up controversy, which has failed to migrate south, although it certainly should. Take note: This is how not to do a safe sex campaign.
Attention-grabbing educational ad campaigns are one thing; fearmongering is quite another — or, as a smart British Red Cross PSA once put it, ”There’s safety. And then there’s stigma.” The simple truth, borne out in study after study, is that taboos surrounding STDs are the No. 1 reason people avoid getting tested. It’s also a barrier to people being honest with their partners about their status. PlentyofSyph’s gag-inducing come-ons about “licking the [canker] sore on my open-faced ham sandwich” only further stigmatize sexually transmitted diseases. (Also, how old are these copywriters?) Now, fear-based campaigns can sometimes work — but researchers have found, at least when it comes to HIV messaging, that it can also increase unsafe behaviors among high-risk groups.
Syphilis in particular can be treated with antibiotics if it’s caught early, so the public health message should be two pronged: 1) Practice safe sex, and 2) Get tested routinely. This campaign, however, values the shock factor above those very practical points, which aren’t effectively communicated. A quick visit to the site could easily give the impression that a syphilis diagnosis means you’re destined for a loveless, sexless future in which your body is consumed by abscesses and your brain begins to rot. That only pushes people farther away from the clinic door.
Oddly enough, I recently discovered a bit of bleak family lore: A distant, long-gone relative of mine killed himself because he couldn’t bear to live with the shame associated with his syphilis diagnosis. Now, it was a much different time back then — which is, well, my point. We live in a much different time now — one where we know more about the disease, as well as the counterproductiveness of stigmatizing STDs.