Sunday, August 7, 2011

Barnacle Bill.

When I was in high school, they showed us a slideshow of various sexually transmitted infections. All of the pictures were outrageously gruesome and their sole purpose was to scare us out of having sex. Everything was red and swollen and dripping and crusted and ew--because sex is dirty and if you have sex you'll be dirty, kids! There was one in particular they called "Barnacle Bill." It was a penis covered in warts--warts upon warts upon warts until it didn't look like a penis anymore. Poor Bill was nothing but barnacles. We laughed but we also cringed. "Now who in this class thinks it's a good idea to have sex?"

The other day at work, I was leafing through a dermatology textbook. Right there, somewhere in "Infections and Infestations," was old Barnacle Bill! It was the very same picture. Except this time, it had a caption.

Human papillomavirus in an immunosuppressed patient. Patient suffered from dementia and was unaware of the progress of the infection.


That changes the moral of the story a bit, doesn't it? It's no longer a matter of "this is what sluts look like under their slutty pants!" It's more like "sometimes life is cruel for no good reason."

Sometimes life is cruel for no good reason, and then after you're (probably) dead someone uses the most embarrassing picture imaginable of your body to lie to schoolkids and make them associate pleasure with filth.

I'm sorry, Barnacle Bill.


  1. Funny how images can be burned so permanently into the brain... you never doubted for a second that it was the same image, did you?

    I still have some rather unfortunate images in my mind of car accident victims from a MADD slideshow in high school.

    Fuck those MADD Mothers.

    1. I took off my glasses during Red Asphalt because I didn't want those images burned into my head. Sometimes it's good to be horribly nearsighted.

    2. At my high school, they made us watch Red Asphalt in the last class period of the day - on that particular day, I had to go take an essay test to apply for an advanced English class right after school. I spent the first few minutes of the testing period crying hysterically, unable to write, thinking about dead children on the roadside.

      I got into the English class so I know it could've been worse, but regardless, Red Asphalt was a horrible "teaching" tool.

  2. O.F. - It was... distinctive.

    I wouldn't put drunk driving in anywhere near the same category as having sex. (And not just for the obvious reason that it's a lot easier and less of a sacrifice to just never do.) I've seen a lot of really horrible drunk driving accidents. The worst part is that the drunk driver tends to come out relatively okay--it's the sober person who gets hit who's more likely to be seriously injured or die.

    I don't know if scaring the shit out of kids is an effective drunk-driving prevention strategy or not, but I'm all for that prevention. It'd give me a lot less work and a lot fewer trips to the morgue.

  3. They did the same thing to us, but it had a wildly different effect than the one they were looking for.

    Instead of being all "oh no, we'll never have sex, or at least use condoms faithfully!" the general response seemed to be "why bother with condoms when STD's are so obvious? Take the pill and check for huge, weeping sores -DONE."

    1. I wasn't actually afraid of AIDS until college, when I encountered the Picture Atlas of AIDS while I was working in the library. Previously, I thought that if you got AIDS you lived for a while and then died, relatively peacefully, of pneumonia, so I didn't bother to protect myself against it. After I read that book, though, I started using condoms.

  4. We had those pictures too, but I remember we were pretty skeptical and decided they must be from people who didn't have access to medical care or something. But then my health teacher also told us that sex was only fun if you were married, so they didn't have a lot of credibility. Also, and I can't remember how this connection was even made, premarital sex was supposed to lead to both abusive relationships and eating disorders. Somehow.

  5. Sorry, I did not mean to conflate the issues, just the tactics; I am pro sex and anti-drunk driving.

    I just don't think that ends justify the means, which in both cases was clearly the rational behind showing disturbing images to children.

    To bring this back to actual subject at hand, my favorite parody of the topic is from Life in Hell's famous "Lies lies lies!" cartoon, where the teacher informs the class that "Pre-marital sex will blow your legs off."

  6. There's pictures in one of my sex & pain books of many different types of genital skin problems & disorders that can look shocking to someone not used to seeing that. If you'd shown me the pictures in this book, as a high schooler, I probably would have recoiled.

    The thing is, the pictures of genital problems in the book - some of them are auto-immune problems. Doesn't matter how much sex you have or haven't been having or with whom. They don't tell you that part in high school. And some of the pictures used to describe genital herpes and lesions, the conditions didn't look anywhere near as advanced as Barnacle Bill's. Some of the lesions pictured were so small that the editors had to draw arrows pointing to a little red dot.

    Which is probably a more realistic scenario for a lot of people. A little physical change instead of a big one, if you notice anything at all. Chances are if you do catch some STI and you notice problems, you'll notice way before it advances to the point of the shocking photos used in sex ed.

  7. I think all of the STI pictures should be viewed as cautionary tales about the importance of regular sexual health exams. I always looked at them and thought something along the lines of "can you imagine how horrible it would be to look like that and be unable to see a doctor?"

  8. We got some STD scare pics in my Junior High health class, too, but they weren't anything near so horrific (some syphilis chancres, stuff like that). However, the REALLY traumatic ones were the gingivitis/oral hygiene scare pics. Holy freakin' jeebus, stuff of nightmares. "This is what happens if you don't BRUSH YOUR TEETH!" I think everyone who was a kid in that class still flosses regularly.

    Our Health teacher was really pretty cool and liberal, but he did have his soapboxes -- sex just didn't happen to be one of them (he also had a unit of food additives and contamination that had most of us scared to eat anything for a week).

    As for Barnacle Bill . . . horrible as it is to say, I think it's good he was in no state to realize how bad things were. Small mercies.

  9. I can't believe they use that sort of thing to try and stop you having sex, when the clear solution is 'use a condom, kids!' (And perhaps 'if you suspect something is not quite right down below then for god's sake don't be too embarrassed to go to the doctor!') That's how it was done at my school (in the UK). Though I hear in some part of the US abstinence is taught widely as the cure for absolutely everything.

  10. Abstinence-only sex ed is the worst. I never had the STD pictures (although the symptoms thereof were described, and AIDS was "that disease you get from being gay or doing drugs"). The basic mechanics of reproduction were never taught (which infuriates me today--everybody has the right to know how his/her own body works!!), birth control was only mentioned in passing as something that fails sometimes (thus creating the impression that condoms and the Pill are useless), and essentially reasons NOT to have sex were mentioned, but not reasons why someone might want to have sex (except for "We're married").

    And that's what I got in school. Catholic Sunday School emphasizes what a horrible perversion of the sex act it is to use a condom. This idea was drilled so thoroughly into my head that when I lost my virginity, I honestly thought that using a condom would be 1000x bigger of a sin than having premarital sex in the first place.

  11. I should point out that my sex ed was not abstinence-only, by the strict definition. They did show us how to use a condom. (Well, the teacher didn't, but they let an educator from Planned Parenthood come in for a day, and that person showed us how.)

    But they also intercut the STI scare tactics with "and you can get this even with a condom!"

    For legal purposes it was comprehensive sex education, but in reality it was, at best, mixed-messages sex education.

  12. My biggest feeling about this is extreme sadness for Barnacle Bill. To some extent in pity for how bad his condition got, but more so to take his picture like that and using it in such a way, especially since I doubt he had the ability to give them consent to use it in such a way.

    All I remember from health class (9th grade) is diagrams of genitals that we had to label and were tested on (the female didn't have a clitoris, of course), a graphic childbirth video and the exercise where we poured our water with someone else and then saw if you got "the AIDS". The state I live in has some sort of rule that if you teach the students anything about contraceptives the school loses funding. I learned about effectiveness of contraceptives from a chart that was in the back of our health book.

    I think somewhere around 5th grade they might have done the separate-the-boys-and-girls thing and talked to the girls about That Time Of The Month. That might be a manufactured memory, though.

  13. " and AIDS was "that disease you get from being gay or doing drugs" "

    Egad, I wish we'd even had that much. At least then I would've known to ask my mother, "what's being gay?"

    AIDS was a mysterious thing for us, enacted in the most non-educational video ever by a dude in a muppet suit galumphing around and sneaking into your house when you "left the gate unlatched." Whatever THAT meant.

    I still remember our teacher trying to 'explain' the whole mixing-bodily-fluids thing by saying, well, if I've got a tiny cut on MY hand, and a student gets a cut on HIS hand, and then I put the band-aid on...

    Later there were anatomy diagrams, but no sex ed. My mother set out the basic mechanics for me when I was still young enough to only think, 'ew'. But no-one told me to use a condom.

  14. Catching up on posts and your writing is blowing my mind as always, Holly.

    Would love to know what you make of this Jezabel article?

    It connects to a Daily Mail piece(eugh, UK tabloids..) that said it's damaging to tell young girl's they're pretty on a regular basis.

    Children in the fashion industry bum me out, besides anything else, I don't see the place for it. If she has to model, I kind of wish she was looking lively, cool and hip instead of the same blank, open mouth schtick that's everywhere.

  15. I remember being shown those pictures in college, actually, on the last day of a college human sexuality class.

    @Harper: Maybe the whole guy-in-a-muppet-costume who sneaks into your back yard through an unlatched gate is some kinda fetish... Also, the latch on my gate never quite engages correctly and it's always flopping open: Does that make me a slut?

  16. Ugh...I remember seeing similar advanced STD pics in a one-off "class" during Biology that was mostly the common "don't have'll ruin your life (unless you are married and then it's ok)" message. I sort of filed it under a ballooning category that I called "Stupid crap adults try to tell us thinking we're idiots or something"...meaning that a lot of adults fail to comprehend that the instant a kid finds out that something you've told them is total madeup BS or exaggerated BS, then NOTHING you tell them after that point will be believeable because you've blown your credibility and kids are not as gullible as adults like to think.

    In religious afterschool instruction I learned that as a female, my two possible choices were "virgin" or "mother", both subservient, and about then I chucked the whole religious thing (other than the and art are the real lasting contributions of religion to culture).

    Giving kids accurate and no-nonsense information is the only ethical and humane choice, IMHO. Misinformation and withheld information is shortsighted and cruel.

  17. I did eventually get instructions on contraceptives and how to use a condom--my junior year, not long after I'd started going to public schools for the first time.

    By that point, however, I'd been so thoroughly brainwashed by abstinence-only sex ed from 3 different private Christian schools (one Catholic, 2 Protestant) and CCD that I refused to pay close attention. The only reason I remember that presentation at all is because they had a presentation in which each student (chosen randomly from the "audience") held up a sign displaying one of the steps of proper condom usage. The girl a couple seats away from me got "Withdraw Penis" and made dirty jokes about it for a week.

    Years later, I had to explain to an abstinence-only-educated boyfriend that
    a) you don't unroll the condom before you put it on, and
    b) there are instructions printed on the inside of the box. He had thrown away the box and was keeping the condoms in a sandwich bag.

    Kaija: Exactly. It doesn't matter if only 1 in 10 statements you make to kids about sex is a lie. Once they find out about that lie, they WILL throw out the 9 truths along with it. Teens are very sensitive about matters of trust, especially in important areas. This isn't like the Tooth Fairy story--this is about their entire LIVES. If you lie to them, it will tarnish their perception of you forever, along with leading them to believe that you've NEVER told them the truth about anything.

  18. My sex ed teacher didn't show us photographs of STDs (although there were descriptions and possibly drawings). She did teach us how to properly use a condom, what the effectiveness stats are on various types of birth control, and where the clitoris is. I feel lucky. :)

    I do, however, wish there'd been some course material about the mechanics of consent and how to deal with sexual pressure. And also, the idea that there are lots of different ways to experience pleasure with someone.

    Somehow, sex ed class (even my relatively progressive one) always boils down to "PIV vs. TOTAL ABSTINENCE" with no territory in between. I think a lot fewer teenagers would get pregnant if they knew how to use birth control and had the security, knowledge, and self-esteem to negotiate exactly the sex life they wanted (read: I bet a lot of young couples would choose to avoid the relative risk of PIV in favour of handjobs, oral, etc., if they felt like this was a valid choice).

  19. Real STI education ought to be educating kids on the symptoms that they would be most likely to see. If a kid is taught that HPV looks like "Barnacle Bill," he is not going to associate that with the one tiny wart he finds on his penis (or they find on their partner's penis.) Not to mention that misinformation does not go away on the wedding day. Bad information about sex and birth control follow people into marriage and can really mess things up.

  20. yes, exactly! Almost everyone has sex eventually, and when they do, they need good information. We don't educate kids early because we expect them to immediately use everything we tell them, we educate them early so that when they need the info they know it.

  21. I remember this incident from when I was young.I loved custard apple and my mother told me that if I swallowed the seeds, a plant will grow in my stomach! It really did scare me. I had nightmares that a leaf is growing out of my ear or something! But it was effective. I was too careful when I ate the fruit. When I had sense, I realised that my mother was probably trying to prevent indigestion or something.

    What I am trying to say is, you are 14 or 15 or something. And then in sex education you are told "sex feels good. There is nothing wrong in it. Just wear a condom and avoid infections", I bet a kid will take in only what sounds good to them. So, though the scare tactics are stupid, because eventually teens will learn "they were trying to scare us", the best thing to do would be to not go into the morality of things and put it somewhat like this. "Sex is natural. There is a possibility of getting STI (show pictures) if we aren't careful. So, it is best to use a condom or blah blah...." This way, they are careful enough and hopefully will have safe sex!
    (I am a school teacher, and this topic is really dear to me. Like Holly said, I don't want the kids to think sex is gross or anything, but be on guard for their own safety.)

  22. Reading the above comments, I am suddenly infinitely more grateful for my own sex ed program. Granted it was a tad late (11th grade, when almost a fourth of my class was already 18 and at least a half already having some form of sex), but it was really informative and, dare I say it, FUN.

    Our teacher was a really young coach with a med degree. He cussed like a sailor and was completely blunt and honest. He taught us, in detail, about both male and female reproductive systems, birth control (from sterilization to pills to IUDs to condoms, etc.), to all the different types of sex and orgasm. He even mentioned non-heterosexual sex (without teasing the one gay guy in our class and later calling out on the people that did), acknowledged intersex people existed, and even listened to me on talking about the gender binary, asexuality, and such. He was even cool enough to give me an A on my half-finished final project (a corny retro sci-fi tale of a pregnant space adventurer). He was just an awesome guy all around and didn't treat us like a bunch of horny teenagers who needed to be scared out of sex and into abstinence; he treated us like adults who were capable of making good decisions if only given some information.

    Shame on those peole doing that to poor Bill. It's just awful :(

  23. Holly,

    Apparently scare tactics are pretty common. Check out The Sexademic's same points on this topic:

  24. That last comment was supposed to include: The more people who call out educators on this terrible practice, the greater the possibility of achieving a truly effective sex ed program. Holly, thank you for adding your voice to it.

  25. I've been lurking for a while but reading the comments on this post, wow i'm glad i'm not the only one who had horrendous education. You know that scene in mean girls? That was our sex ed (minus the condoms. It was a gym teacher showing us a vid that said "if you have sex before marriage you WILL get an std and you WILL die!"

    Equating HPV with AIDS
    A weird story where the teachers used dolls in some convoluted story about barbie dumping ken to fuck G.I. Joe and getting pregnant in their abusive relationship (the moral was cross your legs, skank!)
    AIDS hershey kisses
    A dude going on about natural childbirth being the only acceptable route b/c womens pain is in their heads (btw both my mom and i would be dead had she opted to go the natural route, but i'm sure it was just in her head)
    And Power Team. Which is a right-wing evangelical outfit that went on about "girls being beautiful butterflies"...and was illegal in a public school.

    (For that last one i caused a scene and was threatened with suspension. They threatened all sorts of things like calling my mom. My liberal, feminist, Jewish mom lol. Also a group of iowa lawyers later contacted the school telling them this was illegal, but this may be a story for another time)

    In short, it was:
    Don't get pregnant and keep your legs crossed, skank!
    They did mentions how the cervix dialates during birth but anything related to sexual pleasure, or hell even healthy relationships, nada.

    I was horrified of what my younger bro might learn from those people and told him to ignore it all and go to the planned parenthood website O_o I mean really, thank god for the internet.

  26. I have to say, I lucked the fuck out that I got a decent sex ed in 8th grade (before a certain jackass took office, with his own agenda)

    Although, I'm not sure how much of that was due to the program or due to the teacher. I don't remember her name, but I remember her face. She was awesome. She would answer any question put in the "question box" even when she knew that the boys were putting them in there just trying to be funny.

    I remember the "Miracle of Life" video. I know that we saw the STI pics, but they didn't stand out in my mind.

    BUT!!! The one thing I remember BEST about HIV as a kid was not from class. It was a PSA thing done by "Captain Planet" where they were informing the kids about how they CAN'T contract HIV (sharing water fountains, hugging, etc.)

  27. I really love this post. It just about sums up what's so awful about the majority of high school sex ed.

  28. You know, I had a horrible allergic reaction almost a year ago that could have been one of those pictures. I wiped my vulva with the special wipey pads prior to peeing in a cup for a UTC test and the next day, my vulva were so swollen I couldn't pee. I also developed blistering and the skin tore in places from the pressure. (Oh, yes, it was delightful. Many, many doses of Dilaudid over several days, percoset for two weeks, antibiotics, steroids, a 6 week recovery time and permanent sensitivities and near constant yeast infections for 7 or 8 months.)

    The thing was, three doctors were convinced I had Herpes and insisted on treating with Valtrex, which of course didn't work, because I had a severe allergic reaction. But hey, delaying treatment with steroids totally helped things!

    I was deeply humiliated by the condition of my genitals (when I could step back from the pain long enough) and if someone had taken a picture and shown it to schoolkids to scare them off of sex . . . that's just vile. That poor man.

  29. goth-is-not-emo: It doesn't matter if only 1 in 10 statements you make to kids about sex is a lie. Once they find out about that lie, they WILL throw out the 9 truths along with it.

    I remember once reading an article about deep sea life where they stated up front that they'd made one of the creatures up, but wouldn't say which. Not yet having learned about The Power of Google™, I filed the entire article under "untrustworthy information" and learned absolutely nothing.
    Not involving sex (at least not directly: fish have to procreate, too), but same basic principle. Such a shame: I wanted to learn about weird fish and they wouldn't teach me unless they could lie as well.

  30. I wish you were correct that "condoms don't protect against all STIs" is a scare tactic, Holly, but actually that is true.

    I got two strains of HPV with perfect condom use during my personal casual sex party discovery days--all it takes is skin-to-skin contact, like for example a scrotum flopping against your butt, and there are your warts. Another thing I wish someone had told me was that when you ask your doctor for an STD screening, it doesn't usually include HPV. Most people don't get symptoms and never know they have it, and women are tested only when they have abnormal paps. Doctors tend to assume everyone has it or has had it or will get it, since that's true of ~85% of women. You, sexually active person reading this, probably have at least one strain as we speak! Especially since there is not an FDA approved test for asymptomatic men. The only good thing about HPV is that it goes dormant permanently in more than 90% of people. Most of that other 10% are in some way immunocompromised or have other risk factors, like poor Barnacle Bill :(

    Anyway, I came here mostly to reaffirm that STDs don't just happen to stupid godless sluts who've never in their lives heard of a condom, as many of us were told in sex ed or by the cultural narrative. It is *not* the fault of whoever I got it from--he probably didn't know he had it, because he was trained to look for beyond-obvious WOAH WHAT'S WRONG WITH YOUR DICK BRO? type of evidence.

    I now test negative for all forms of HPV, but getting it hurt me so, so bad because of these photos. Finding out that *I* had an *STD*--that I was now that godless slut with the surely-soon-to-be Cthulu-shaped vagina, oh, what did I do to deserve this? It was the most traumatic experience of my life, and it had some rather stiff competition. Ironically, the physical consequences were whatever. The symptoms were all but invisible if you didn't know what you were looking for. It caused no pain, nothing I could feel at all. Treatment was quick and effective, and soon the whole thing was over. It was Not A Big Deal, from a medical standpoint.

    It was only mental-breakdown-inducingly bad because I knew that everyone I met had seen Barnacle Bill. I didn't even tell my best friend for months because I knew that when I did, she would picture Barnacle Bill.