Last week an eye-catching infographic was posted at Online Colleges, a resource for people looking for information on web-based education and related topics. The graphic alarmingly states that 1 in 4 college students have a sexually transmitted disease, citing improper or lack of male condom use and the consumption of alcohol as major contributing factors. The graphic, featuring an illustration of a young Caucasian male wearing a fetching pair of boxer shorts, was immediately picked up by a number of blogs and websites for college students. It seems the idea that getting sick from having sex is new and surprising to young people, and that’s as disturbing as the 1 in 4 statistic.
The infographic was created in-house using data collected from a number of third-party sources: getstdtested.com, a business that provides at-home STD testing for outrageous fees, stdandhivtesting.com, another service fee-based testing service, collegehealthadvisor.com, a clearinghouse of articles related to generalized health on campus, nursingschools.net, a guide for online nursing schools, ashastd.org, a page from the American Social Health Association, who advocate the same STD prevention methods as the CDC (see below), stdservices.org.net, a defunct address for a page now called yeah.com, that bastion of completely vetted double-blind tested scientific information: wikipedia, and cdc.gov, the website for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
When asked why the team chose to exclude women who have sex with women as a demographic, Muhammad Saleen, one of the creators of the poster said: “It was not our intention to exclude anyone from our infographic, all the data presented on there is from third-party sources and data sets and any gaps in the information are because of the datasets used.”
None of the third-party sites seem like a reliable source of statistical evidence for anything. The STD testing agencies have a vested interest in scaring the public to turn a substantial profit with their private testing kits; likewise the American Social Health Association, whose funders include pharmaceutical juggernaut GlaxoSmithKline, the CDC, Qiagen, a company that sells sample and assay technologies for food, drug, and biomedical development, Hologic Inc., a company that sells diagnostic imaging equipment related to women’s health, and Church & Dwight, an umbrella corporation who sell among other products, Trojan condoms and First Response pregnancy detection kits.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention works tirelessly to prevent spending billions of American tax-payer dollars on infections that are for the most part, easily prevented and treated, just like some sexually transmitted infections. One way they aim to achieve this goal is by researching and creating educational fact sheets on each disease. In the STD information section of the CDC website you can find information about the cause, transmission and treatment of Hepatitis, Herpes, Syphilis, Gonorrhea, HIV/Aids, Human Papilloma Virus and every other type of STD you can think of. Each disease/infection has its own information page and on nearly every page the following advice is given:
“The surest way to avoid transmission of STDs is to abstain from sexual contact, or to be in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested and is known to be uninfected.”
True! The surest way to avoid catching the flu is to never go near other human beings who may or may not be carrying the virus. The surest way to prevent pink eye is to never touch a single object that has ever been touched by another human being. The surest way to avoid food poisoning is to never eat again. That’s just common sense.
Latex condoms are mentioned on the CDC website as an STD preventative measure but only for men; the existence of the female condom isn’t acknowledged. Abstinence is the most logical method to make sure you don’t catch a case of the cooties. Curiously, outside of the heteronormative demographic that is their biggest concern, the only other “special focus group” they widely acknowledge is MSW. Men who have sex with men. There are no women who have sex with other women, or women who have sex with both men and women, or anyone transgendered, intersexed or otherwise “special.” No mention is made of using dental dams, and latex gloves as STD prevention for women who have sex with women although a shout-out is given to bisexual men for carrying a larger number of cooties than het boys. They also acknowledge that the rate of HIV infection is largest in the black male population.
A visually appealing infographic is an accessible way to deliver sorely needed sexual health information to college students. Sexually transmitted infections are a huge public health issue that could be managed more effectively with education and outreach. It’s a shame that the target audience for this particular pretty poster is so narrow and that the third party datasets are wildly biased. Accurate sexual health information is desperately needed from unbiased, inclusive sources for all college students, not just drunk white boys.
Roxanna is a freelance writer and artist educator who likes comic books, subjecting others to angry tirades, and coffee.