Friday, October 28, 2011

Test tubes.

I know I promised a buttsex post, but there's something you should know about me: I am a liar.  Also something more outrageous happened.

I'm in nursing school.  I'm an "adult learner," since I'm 25 and already have a bachelor's (in film and rhetoric, seemed like a good idea at the time), as are about half the people in my class--some are in their 50s and are grandparents.  Which made Tuesday's lab even more inappropriate.

It's a microbiology lab, and usually we do things like isolating and culturing bacteria, doing stains, preparing and viewing microscope slides, and the like.  Not real politically charged.  So I was taken aback when Tuesday's lab was straight out of an abstinence-only horror story.

The lab procedure, in brief: each of thirty students was given a test tube with a few milliliters of nutrient broth.  One of the test tubes contained a sample of harmless bacteria; the other twenty-nine were sterile.  We had to randomly partner up and transfer fluid between our test tubes, then find another partner and do the same, for four rounds.  At the end we swabbed our broth onto agar plates, and next week we'll see which ones grow bacteria.  All this was supposed to represent the spread of an STD.

It made me very uncomfortable, because it's a demonstration that works on two levels.  On one level, it's modeling an epidemic, which is appropriate subject matter for a microbiology class for nurses.  On another level, however, it's all about how people who have sex are dirty.  We're going to have sixteen (or slightly fewer) people turn up with the "infection," and then we're all going to shake our heads and reflect upon how dirty and dangerous sex with four people (so slutty!) is.  It's spherical racehorses--it's intended to be--but it's racehorses made spherical in a way that grossly magnifies the riskiness of sex and "simplifies" away the existence of safer sex and STD testing and treatment.

The frustrating part is that it's almost impossible to argue with this, because the attitude I'm facing isn't opposition; it's impatience and apathy.  I asked if we could do a round with condoms on our test tubes, and the professor laughed and brushed me off not with "we're trying to show how sex has consequences, don't interfere" but with "we're trying to get this done on time, don't slow us down."  When I talked to other students about the lab, most of them expressed the same sentiment--whatever, let's just go through the motions and get this done with--although one of them said to me "It's a good thing I've only slept with one person!"

I don't think this apathy makes the lab okay.  I think it makes it insidious.  "Yeah yeah, sex is dirty, sluts have diseases, just copy the answers off the board and we'll get out of here before ten" is a much nastier and more dangerous thing than if we'd had an overtly ideological discussion of the subject.  It makes it a given thing, a thing not needing discussion, that sex is dirty and nothing can be done about it.

It also makes me seem like a bit of a sex-obsessed weirdo for getting all fluffed up about it.  But this is an attitude with consequences.  "She's probably got STDs" is a synonym for "ewww, slut" that I've heard many, many times.  And equally bad: "He wanted to use a condom with me? I'm not the sort of person who has diseases!"  (Yes, I've heard that.  It was in college, in fact, during my first go-round.)  Linking sex to inevitable STDs--and STDs to dirtiness--is not merely obnoxious, it's dangerous.  It stands in the way of condom use, STD testing, and honest disclosure with partners, and it reinforces the idea of sexually active people as tainted and less valuable.

I'll try to bring these issues up when we get our results in the next class.  I'm also considering talking to the professor about it although I'm not quite sure what to say or what constructive suggestions to make.

Mostly I'm just flabbergasted that the professor had the nerve to walk into a college class with grown adults in attendance and host one of the old "you have to keep your scotch tape sticky for your future husband!" shenanigans.


  1. Since it is a science class, it seems appropriate to bring up the scientific issues; the research into STD transmission I've encountered supports the points you are making here (the studies find that more promiscuous people seem to be less likely to have STDs, presumably because their greater number of partners is more than made up for by their much greater use of safe sex practices).

  2. Aaron Boyden - Do you have a link to any of those studies, or the names of any of them?

    They'd be real nice to have on hand next Tuesday. :)

  3. Just wonder, why do you need the societal acceptance to do what you want to do? If you feel that it's the right thing, what outside approval is necessary?
    Just seems funny though - they are blocking your attempts to spread your notions almost like putting a condom over your head, and suddenly you don't like this practice aby more :)

    1. i think it's fine to want to go to class without experiencing implied judgments about the health and positivity of one's lifestyle. just wonder: since you don't seem to share this view, why be on this blog?

  4. Those kinds of attitudes are even more frightening in nursing/med school. I sure as hell don't want to be judged by my nurse/doctor if I should happen to get an STD.

  5. Just wonder, why do you need the societal acceptance to do what you want to do? If you feel that it's the right thing, what outside approval is necessary?
    I need societal acceptance because I need friends. I need it because I need my family to not disown me and my job to not fire me if they find out about my lifestyle. I need it so the cops will take it seriously if I'm assaulted. I need it so the doctor will take me seriously if I come in with an STD (and so they won't decide that "this must be something to do with your lifestyle" if I come in with a non-STD, which has happened to me). I need it for my psychological well-being and physical safety.

    It's all very well to say "just do your thing and don't care what anyone thinks!", but many parts of my life are necessarily dependent on what other people think.

    Just seems funny though - they are blocking your attempts to spread your notions almost like putting a condom over your head, and suddenly you don't like this practice aby more :)
    Er... okay then? I think that condoms are a bit more specific in their application than "a thing that stops things from doing things."

  6. "Linking sex to inevitable STDs--and STDs to dirtiness--is not merely obnoxious, it's dangerous. It stands in the way of condom use, STD testing, and honest disclosure with partners, and it reinforces the idea of sexually active people as tainted and less valuable."

    See, this is why I'm always in awe of your giant brain cells. The point that absolute stigmatizing STIs makes it more likely to transmit them is just so... sensible. And that unconsidered demonstrations of unprotected sex (why couldn't the test reference, oh, say, colds or TB, for instance?) create an air of inevitability. Which, in turn, creates a "why bother with condoms I'll get it eventually" is just so...

    Dang it all, Holly, I've heard bits and pieces of those arguments but this paragraph drives it home really nicely. Thanks.


  7. I'd suggest just replacing the "of an STD" with "of an illness" -- and a good non-ideological reason for that is as you point out, it's a spherical cow. That experiment more closely models a world in which nobody takes precautions against the spread of disease or knows when they're sick, which happens a lot more with your standard virus.

  8. It's all very well to say "just do your thing and don't care what anyone thinks!", but many parts of my life are necessarily dependent on what other people think. So you see the only way to proceed, that is to change their way of thinking. It's like spreading herpes all around so that there will be nothing to be ashamed of.
    That's why there's nothing strange in their safe practices to communicate with you - they msnsge to do the necessary things but the bacillae of obnoxiety are stopped.

    1. actually, you seem to be the one trying to change people's way of thinking. a person can write what they want on their own blog. you should write your own, or go find one that you like better.

  9. Anon, I honestly don't know if you're snarking at me or agreeing very awkwardly.

  10. "I need societal acceptance because I need friends. I need it because I need my family to not disown me and my job to not fire me if they find out about my lifestyle. I need it so the cops will take it seriously if I'm assaulted. I need it so the doctor will take me seriously if I come in with an STD (and so they won't decide that "this must be something to do with your lifestyle" if I come in with a non-STD, which has happened to me). I need it for my psychological well-being and physical safety."

    Also this!


  11. Wow, this really reminds me of when I was taking economics in my public policy graduate program. The way that econ is taught in mainstream academic environments is very problematic for a lot of reasons, but one of them is that students are asked to accept a lot of assumptions that are *supposed* to be value neutral but really are not.

    For instance, in one class we were supposed to accept that labor unions lead to market inefficiency. When I objected to that (very, very respectfully), I wasn't dismissed for being a "commie" or anything like that, but I was treated as though I was bringing something up that was off-topic and easily brushed aside. And when I brought it up with classmates who I *knew* were progressive and in fact were really concerned about labor issues, I got blank stares and sheepish admissions that they weren't really paying that much attention.

    And that's how universities produce policy makers who blindly accept conservative ideas about economics.

  12. Hm, I've encountered variations of this demonstration a few times, and I've really never been offended by them. I think the problem you had isn't so much a function of the "experiment" itself as the way it was presented. I've mainly seen it presented as the reason you should have safer sex and not as the reason you should not have sex at all. In that context it is rather exaggerated, but not actually inaccurate or offensive.

  13. Call me dumb, maybe, but I don't see how this has much do with science.

    If you were supposed to come up with predictions of how the stuff would spread or something, and see how good your predictions were, maybe it would have some relation to science.

    I also don't see why this is particularly a model of STD epidemics. I would think it would be more like how an influenza strain spreads. As you point out, the rate of transmission will vary enormously between sexual contacts, in contrast to this "model."

    While I'm having trouble empathizing with your sense of being threatened, probably because I live a different kind of life and have a different perspective, I would agree that the lab is bogus. It sounds like a not-very-bright professor trying to come up with something creative and relevant, and instead coming up with a stupid waste of time. At least the high-school labs I did arguably taught some technique (or at least demonstrated how hard it is to have good technique.)

  14. AMM - The weird thing is, all the other labs are all about technique. It's not a fuck-around lab usually (ha ha); we do Gram stains and isolate pure cultures and all that. It's just this one exercise that came way out of left field.

  15. Holly: It's all very well to say "just do your thing and don't care what anyone thinks!", but many parts of my life are necessarily dependent on what other people think.

    The boast "I don't care what other people think of me" turns up an awful lot in feminist blogs, and it always annoys me, and this is exactly why.

  16. "I need it so the doctor will take me seriously if I come in with an STD (and so they won't decide that "this must be something to do with your lifestyle" if I come in with a non-STD, which has happened to me)"

    When you first tweeted this, I had just tried to get an STD test and been told by my doctor that my sex life isn't risky enough for him to be able to refer me.

    Apparently in my city (country?) you can only get tested if you have symptoms or are "in potentially increased risk."

  17. I think I'm gonna expand that comment into tomorrow's post, actually.

    My non-STD experience was going to the hospital with Epstein-Barr hepatitis, and spending basically the entire time there trying to convince people that it wasn't Hep B. (I had a negative Hep B test immediately, but it kept coming up anyway.)

  18. "It's like spreading herpes all around so that there will be nothing to be ashamed of."


    a) It's already pretty well spread around, and stigmatized out of proportion.

    b) Just no. It's not "that bad" for most people infected, but no.

  19. We did this same exact lab in my high school science class. Biology, in the unit about reproduction.

    Only it wasn't plates of agar & bacteria. It was some kind of chemical compound. I can't remember what it was anymore, specifically, but it worked like this:

    Everyone got 1 test tube filled with a clear fluid. 1 of those test tubes had a chemical in it that would turn pink if exposed to another chemical.

    Each person in the class was explicitly told to swap fluids with a certain # of classmates.
    That certain #, was the # of people each individual expected to have sex with over the course of their life.

    This was an actual thing built into the lesson. How many people are you going to sleep with? Swap fluid in test tubes, with that same # of people. That was part of the take-home lesson.

    So some of the students swapped with lots of students, others only swapped with 1 or 2. It doesn't matter how many I swapped with or what my results were.

    But if you ask me, I'll tell you, because I remember both. I remember it was a scare-tactic. I remember the # and my results. This happened something like a dozen years ago.

    Then at the end of the lesson, the big reveal, the bio teacher added the missing chemical to make the test tubes with bits of the original secret chemical present turn pink.

    Lots of the tubes turned pink. Only 1 person had the pink-turning chemical. But this person, I don't know who, we don't know, passed it around. I can't remember now how many tubes turned pink but it was pretty significant.

    The change was instant. If your professors want to get this done sooner I don't know why they don't know this trick exists with the fluids instead of having to wait a week.

    So it was this weird, quasi-abstinence only message built into a biology lesson. Or maybe it was a message to use condoms? Or was it just to make sure we all knew how STIs spread? I don't know?

    In retrospect I'm actually very uncomfortable with the teacher of that classroom for additional reasons.

    There's another story from high school... I didn't share it on my blog when I wrote about high school sex ed.
    I didn't share it because I don't think anyone will believe me if I do. And now I can't remember all the details I need to cross-check & verify that I'm remembering everything correctly. It is sufficient to say that sex ed was even weirder & more damaging than biology.

    As a one who knows exactly the experiment you describe, I urge you to stand up for teenager-me and say something. I don't know what. Ask me questions or something so I can figure out what disturbs me the most. I don't know. I didn't get to say anything when it happened because I didn't really recognize what was going on and now I'm kicking myself for not doing something sooner. Ask what happens if you add penecillin to the agar plates post-test. I don't know.

    I always thought it would be funny though, if the one person in the room who got the original chemical, was the one person who decided to simply never have sex, and thus didn't pass the stuff in the tube onto anyone, though. So statistically unlikely though.

    1. We did the pink-indicator version too.

      They specifically picked someone to be the originator.

      There was no way to simulate abstinence. I know, I tried. I was shamed in front of the entire class for 'not participating' and 'ruining' the demonstration because I wouldn't 'play the game'.

      Cue a repeat, with everyone making absolutely sure I had simulated sex with at least one person.

      So yeah, the demonstration pretty much taught everyone STDs are inevitable, you have to have sex with *somebody* eventually, asexuals and other celibates-by-choice don't exist, and sex is a game. This was in sex ed in an abstinence-only program.

  20. Wow, K, that "people you expect to have sex with" thing is... a diabolical refinement of cruelty. As if you even know in high school anyway. It's just a way to shame people into underestimating and then hating themselves when their first few partners don't work out the way they expected.

  21. Weird. I did this same demonstration in an introductory college biology lab and we did use condoms the second time around. It was kind of the entire point of the exercise.

  22. Wow, K, that "people you expect to have sex with" thing is... a diabolical refinement of cruelty. As if you even know in high school anyway. It's just a way to shame people into underestimating and then hating themselves when their first few partners don't work out the way they expected.

    She said it though! The bio teacher - now I remember her name & her face - she said it! Of course the students could not really know the answer to that and then there's questions, does this include non-consensual acts? How do you know how many people you'll sleep with in high school? Does this include the people you have already had sexual activity with or just going forward? I don't know but that's what we were supposed to do for credit. Estimate how many people you'd have a sexual relationship with & then pass the fluid in your tube with that # of people, and accept some fluid from whoever you swapped with.

    And I remember after the class of course there was some gossiping and talking about the experiment by the students. Chatter... they were talking about what their #s were. How many people did you come up with? Students shuffling awkwardly because they had pink tubes at the end and they had swapped with like 10 people. Guilt? Giving up prevention because catching an STI was therefore demonstrably inevitable? There wasn't much time to talk between that class & the next one 4 minutes later. Did we have to tell the teacher our #....? I can't remember now.

  23. I'm trying to remember, I think we did something like this but it was kind of generic 'a disease' that could be transmitted by contact and then practiced a way to show the same causeway with something intercepting - like it was contact and sometimes the surfaces were washed? I don't know, it has been too long. My ex, who had similar exercises in high school, went well into adulthood under the impression that you just developed HIV from having multiple partners, not that having multiple partners increased the odds of one of them having HIV and safer sex largely negating that risk never entered into the equation.

    You will find a lot of instructors/students don't want to do anything other than just listening long enough to take the test, rather than really consider the ramifications, and yeah, the "glad I only have one partner!" comment is pretty telling.

  24. We did this in sex ed in high school... Not very useful. I really would say something, Holly. Maybe not in class, because if the teacher thought s/he was being "hip" you might embarass him or her. I think I might go up after class or during office hours and just try to get a handle on what the lesson was "trying" to say... If the message is "DON'T HAVE SEX OR YOU'LL GET AIDS AND DIE", then perhaps you could speak to the teacher about it, or if you feel uncomfortable with that, make an appointment to speak with the Dean.

  25. Ugh, yeah, it really seems like somebody just completely failed to think through the implications of this. Good on you for asking, WHY does it have to be an STD simulation?

  26. In a microbiology class, why didn't you swab bathroom surfaces or something which would be actually relevant?

    If the professor doesn't listen, and probably won't, because it was their lesson, you could go above their head to the department. Although there's a cost to being a rabble-rouser, and you may not want to pay it.

  27. Did any of this actually have to do with epidemiology? It seems like it's missing the part about what you, as nurses, do about a public health problem like this.

    I think this could have been kind of awesome if you'd done it like a big game of mafia. Everyone would have to guess who had the STD and not have test-tube sex with them, based on some kind of indeterminate test-tube symptoms. And then when people got the disease anyway, you could talk about how people think they're discerning individuals who have a sort of vigilante STD quarantine around themselves, but don't.

  28. The thing that always bothered me about the "abstinence is the only safe option" thing is that it so inefficiently prepares you. It's like saying, the only way to never get into a car accident is never to drive a car. It doesn't prepare you for a time in your life when perhaps you *want* or even *need* to drive a car to get to where you want to go.

    As for the sticky tape thing - I would say people in relationships are more like links on a non-linear chain. They are bound together at one point, but large parts of them are still their own, or bound to others as well. And chain links can get as dirty as they want while still remaining connected. Besides, the thing about scotch tape is it always eventually frays and comes apart. I use it at work all the time in a retail store and it never, ever holds its bond for long, no matter how "clean" it is when I stick it on.

  29. I did this in college, except it wasn't an STD. The professor made up a disease name and gave a more generic "it is spread through contact." We had to test to see if our test tube ended up with the disease and figure out who was patient zero, if I remember correctly. Some of the students made sex jokes about swapping fluids anyway, but you've suddenly made me very glad it wasn't coming from the professor. Stupid college kids I can deal with making jokes like that, even though it's not particularly desirable.

    Also, STDs don't all have the same transmission rate (as each other or between different types of sex acts!) or prevalence. So without any further discussion, some people might assume that the ratio of this experiment is for all STDs. 3% of the population with the STD and absolute transmission! Plus the sample size is tiny and intermingling only with itself, so four exchanges per person is quite a bit and ends with potentially more than half the class being infected! Truly just terrible science even if it's not an STD.

  30. I couldn't agree with this post more. As a person who values being sexual and safe, I think that a lab like you describe is not appropriate for teaching people who are going to be nurses and dealing with real diseases in real patients. As a scientist whose research touches upon the field of epidemics in general and STDs in particular, I think it's very important to emphasize prevention.

  31. I am currently dealing with a great deal of academic frustration on a different (but related) aspect of social justice: the complete non-representation of LGBT identities and lives in sexology courses. These parts perfectly sum up what I'm experiencing:

    >The frustrating part is that it's almost
    >impossible to argue with this, because the
    >attitude I'm facing isn't opposition; it's
    >impatience and apathy.

    >the professor laughed and brushed me off not
    >with "we're trying to show how sex has
    >consequences, don't interfere" but with "we're
    >trying to get this done on time, don't slow us
    >down." When I talked to other students about
    >the lab, most of them expressed the same
    >sentiment--whatever, let's just go through the
    >motions and get this done with...

    >I don't think this apathy makes the lab okay.
    >I think it makes it insidious.

    What's so infuriating to me is that the *process* -- a particular number of syllabus points that have to be gotten through in a set number of hours -- is so interfering with the point of the academic process -- learning and exchange -- as to render it impossible.

  32. This would work so much better as a sim of cold or flu viruses--primarily because you're more likely to spread those than an STD (simply because you come into contact with a LOT of people you don't actually sex up).

    Seriously, WTF is up with making it an STD simulation? Sex makes some people uncomfortable, and others...are clearly getting a very negative lesson from this.

  33. I'm also considering talking to the professor about it although I'm not quite sure what to say or what constructive suggestions to make.

    I think your blogge post was a very clearly laid out analysis of what was so bad about this lab exercise, and you could use it as a template for explaining your position to the professor. And the most constructive suggestion that logically flows from your analysis is "don't do this lab anymore, because it is stupid and counterproductive".

  34. @AMM,
    I did this exact lab in high school biology class. Then the next year in A&P we did it again, only this time we did it with little films of plastic over 60% of the tubes (apparently this was the statistic for perfect condom use for sexually active people in our state.) I think that it's an important lesson to distill amongst students, but I think it's more appropriate for high school than to med students

  35. oh and to holly, I second the go talk to the prof during office hours. Write an email asking to speak to hir privately during office hours and then go in with what you want to say being perfectly laid out. I would highly encourage asking for a take home assignment where you do the exact same thing only with the "condoms" to prove how very effective they are

  36. Did they frame it as representing just stds? I mean couldn't it have also been about spreading colds? I think people conflate moral and nonmoral. Is there a way to talk about transmission or transmission patterns and rates that doesn't import moral blame? I mean hpv can occur on hands and feet. Yet people don't have such a stigma surrounding hand shaking but when we change the hpv strain and therefore change the skin area then we see all this cultural white noise.

  37. This is bizarre - not just because of the spherical racehorses aspect and the awkward implications arising from this, but also because this is somehow considered advanced enough for a college class. I mean, I did a version of this experiment at school when I was about 12 years old. Thankfully I did a version without any of the sex-negativity; we were specifically told that the point of the experiment was to model how flu spreads during an outbreak. Less focus on the "exchange of fluids" thing, more on the "contact with an infected person". It was a neat little demonstration for 12-year-old me, but I'd hope that students at nursing college would be working at a higher level...

  38. 6:29 Anon:
    The way to discuss transmission rates of STDs without being a judgemental prick:
    1) do not oversimply. In fact, don't simplify
    3) try to reduce one's own bias/prejudices from the equation
    4) make it clear that you aren't anti-sex/slut-shaming

  39. Man I wouldn't have taken it as a sex thing.

    I mean we did a similar sex thing in high school, but some students wore latex gloves when shaking hands and some students were only allowed to shake hands in predefined groups (yes, there was a group of 3 and a group of two).

    It was intended to show that unprotected promiscuous sex increased the risk of STDs and could be counteracted by using protection or by staying in specific circles of trust. Or by abstaining.

    So I guess I got the awesome version of that lesson... plus i got to shake all the cute girl's hands :D

  40. Linking sex to inevitable STDs--and STDs to dirtiness--is not merely obnoxious, it's dangerous.

    A bunch of years ago, I had a minor STD scare. I can't even remember the details...probably I was just being paranoid and there was no reason to freak out.

    What I do remember is freaking out to my friend and going "Well, I'd better not sleep with ___ again" and she said, "Meh, why not? The damage is already done..."

    This advice, coming from someone in her late '20s! My jaw hit the fucking floor. I painstakingly explained to her that STDs don't transfer via magic, they transfer via bodily fluids - and it's perfectly possible that none of his semen happened to get into any breaks in my skin that one time we had sex.

    But yeah...until I set her straight, my friend had the attitude that if you sleep with someone who has an STD, you're doomed to catch it so you might as well keep on fucking them. And this is exactly why it's dangerous to teach people that STDs are inevitable.

  41. Besides, the thing about scotch tape is it always eventually frays and comes apart. I use it at work all the time in a retail store and it never, ever holds its bond for long, no matter how "clean" it is when I stick it on. - Lain

    So, exactly like relationships, then?

  42. Experiment: let's see if we can make our prejudices and stereotypes spread faster than an STD!!

  43. If your class really had to do a "swab and see what grows" easy lab, I like what my microbio class did: within the time limit and boundary conditions, who can sample some object and get the plate with the most bacterial growth (kinds or colonies)? I seem to recall that bottoms of backpacks beat out bottoms of shoes and the doorknob was disappointingly clean. (Er, not that we wanted filthy doorknobs, it had just seemed so promising...)

  44. Excellent post. Most of my sentiments have already been echoed, but yeah, I know I grew up in the "STDs just happen by magic if you have a lot of sex" and realizing how weird that was later in life. I know that was the mindset at my high school. We thought STDs just sort of magically appeared as a byproduct of sex. It certainly was taught that way.

    I can also empathize on the "False Positive STD Test" front - I had one of those last year and it fucked up my life for a while.

  45. Actually, if I can totally brownnose for a moment:

    "I can also empathize on the "False Positive STD Test" front - I had one of those last year and it fucked up my life for a while."

    This blog is what helped me deal with this situation. I haven't had a particularly high number of sex partners (I'm a serial monogamist - I have a lot of sex, just with the same person for a long time, LOL), and I practice safe sex. A buddy of mine who sleeps with anything that moves and doesn't wrap it up has never had an STD.

    In fact, my practices were an extension of the "magic STD" theory - people I was in monogamous relationships with and we STILL used condoms months in, and not because of pregnancy, we both (irrationally) just thought an STD might magically appear if we had sex too much. You never really give it any thought when you're raised like that.

    I moped around for a while, thinking how "unfair" it was, and how "Of course, I the "nice fella who practices safe sex and monogamy" gets the STD, and his stupid ass DOESN'T! What crap!"

    Then I remembered that really, I had just won the virus lottery, I was not less of a human, I was not broken or damaged, and it didn't mean I'd never have sex again. I had actually pretty much gotten myself in the proper mindset so much that by the time the Doctors came back and said: "LOL NO STD SORRY 'BOUT THAT, U MAD BRO?" my reaction was all fucked up. Rather, I had no reaction, because I had come to terms and realized that really, nothing truly horrible had happened, and my life was not over, so the "good news" really didn't "mean as much" as it "should've."

    So there's that.

    ...Your teacher still sucks.

  46. @Holly
    I think the point to bring across to the teacher would be, that making the disease an STD can sidetrack the lesson from a pattern of a spreading disease to include a moral side that is neither relevant nor very well thought out. That it would probably be better to make it an generic disease to not distract from the main point of the experiment.

    as for the highschool biology/sex-ed experiment
    if such an experiment was presented to me and I thought, that the teacher in question had any ulterior motive, I would be hard-pressed, not to think of the diverse ways, the whole thing could be rigged to yield results that are more demonstrative of the lesson you should take with you.
    (but I can be a little paranoid at times)

  47. All these high school experiments. Really screwed that one kid who automatically "had an STI" because their test tube was tampered with from the start. I think I would be the kid who pointed that out. After all, no one's test tubes would have gone positive if this isolated little population had never been exposed to the STI to begin with.

    (What? It's just as reasonable as the teachers not allowing for safer sex.)

  48. I was at an youth camp at 16 where we did the same thing with water glasses. One of the glasses had salt in it and we went around swapping fluids for certain amount of time. One or two people had condoms on their glasses and in the end we all had to drink our water - everyone's was salty except for the ones who had had condoms. Funny how almost the exact same test can be used to promote condom use. Was eye-opening, by the way, especially at that age.

  49. We did this same experiment in my high school biology class as well, but our teacher went the "lesson in epidemiology" route with it instead. It was not presented in the context of judging the frequency of test tube pouring (that was reserved for health class...), and did not even really focus on the fact that it was simulating an STD. We mostly scrambled to determine who the index case was based on the data we had and map out the epidemic.

    I had never really thought of this as a standard scare tactic lesson. Interesting how it can go either way depending on the context. It would be really interesting if this experiment were conducted in such a way that not everyone is capable of getting or spreading it...maybe a second chemical in some of the test tubes that reacts with the "virus" one and prevents the color change at the end. Would make it more interesting to track, and in the case of the STD lesson, would allow the simulation of condom use vs. unprotected sex.

  50. Fantastic post.

    There's an important larger lesson here. Bad ideas are at their most dangerous not when they're shouted by demagogues, but when they're treated as routine--not even worth the time to stop and think about.

  51. Like others have said you should definitely talk to someone if you're unhappy with the class, do you know if there are formal feedback or complaint channels?

    Apathy is infuriating in an academic environment. I'm an economist, and as one of the anonymous commenters said above, student apathy and poor teaching can have dangerous outcomes. Fortunately I've had some good teaching that covers how to treat assumptions and how to understand the process of economic modelling but not everyone is so lucky.

  52. I had nearly the same experience as K, but they didn't frame it in a general sense, it was supposed to specifically simulate HIV and AIDS. They had the same message, "go forth and sex it up" (not in that many words, of course). That made it uncomfortable on many levels, because "teehee, sex" at that age (14) as well as highlighting the people who didn't have anybody to swap fluids with them. The memory of it just kept popping up every once and a while, but I could never put a finger on why it made me so uncomfortable. It's for all those reasons that you listed, as well as those in the comments section. There was no way for people to protect themselves while doing it, as well as no way to go in and get tested to prevent spreading the 'disease' to others who don't have it. It completely ignores the fact that the spread of these diseases are controllable to a certain extent.

  53. Wish I'd thought of this earlier, but...

    What if you chose to just clink the beakers, instead of swapping fluids? It seems like it would be in the spirit of the exercise, if not the letter.

  54. Hmm, I'm going to play devil's advocate here and say you're overreacting a bit. It sounds like a good model for the spread of an STD in the population via unprotected sex with multiple partners (the fluid swapping). It doesn't sound like there was any value judgment placed upon it, just a biological model of something that happens. You can't deny that the more partners one has, the higher the risk of spreading STDs. You just sound determined to find something questionable about it as a defender of promiscuity.

    1. statistically, you are wrong- the rate at which STDs are spread does not increase the more partners one has had, likely because of better protection being used. another comment covered this. a case of intuition versus fact, i suspect.

  55. Anon - It's not a good model for an STD because:

    1) STD transmission does not happen with every sex act. It's entirely possible--in fact, probable that one instance of sex with an infected person will not infect you. Now, maybe we're supposed to be modeling four long-term relationships here, but if so, we should say so, because the implication is that these are one-night stands.

    2) STDs can be tested for, treated, and prevented from spreading. Ignoring these options doesn't just oversimplify the simulation, it encourages irresponsible behavior.

    3) You shouldn't talk about STDs without talking about STD stigma--the idea that people with STDs are "dirtier," or more responsible for their own condition, than people with any other transmissible disease. This stigma doesn't just make people unhappy, it also makes them less likely to get tested and treated for STDs.

    4) I'm not a defender of promiscuity for its own sake. But I'm a defender of people's right to make informed decisions about their own sex lives. Spreading misinformation like "every time you have sex with a new person you're very likely to get an STD and there's nothing you can do about it" puts a serious cramp on the "informed" part there.

  56. I've done this once in an elementary school biology class when I was 14 and once in a summer camp when I was 15 and on both times the emphasis was on having safe sex. It feels odd that adults have to do this, since for me this is just a game to promote condoms to teens.

    Like the other anonymous before, we also had glasses of water and in one or two glasses the water was salty. Our teacher, an elderly lady, just advised us to swap fluids with as many people we wanted for the next couple of minutes and told us, that it was a test about diseases. After a while the she stopped us.

    "Guess what? You've just had a lot of sex! Congratulations! Unfortunately one of you was carrying a nasty STD. Now, let's see how many of you have it now. Have a drink!"

    After a while of nervous giggling we drank, and of course, the water was salty.

    "How many of you had salty water?"

    Only two people did not raise their hands.

    "Too bad. You just caught yourselves some lovely diseases. Now, how many would've gotten salty water, if your glasses would've been wrapped in plastic? Just one? Exactly."

    After that the teacher wrote CONDOM on the blackboard with huge letters and underlined it thrice, tapping the blackboard after every line. From that we naturally went to putting condoms on bananas and listing places where could get our hands on those things in case we needed them some day.

    When one of the students complained about how stupid he felt with the banana the teacher told him that she could guarantee that knowing how to put a condom on a banana would feel considerably less stupid than not knowing how to put it on a penis. He agreed.

    I don't think that there was anyone in that class who didn't get the point.

    (Though when we did this in the summer camp it wasn't effective at all. We were told that pouring water to some ones glass was marking sex before we started and people went a bit crazy. The focus was on giggling, making funny noises and forming threesomes. One kid broke his glass when the boy he was exchanging fluids with surprised him by shouting "orgasm". At some point the instructor made a point about condoms but we were having too much fun to listen (which probably made it a terrible safe sex demonstration). The point was lost, but if some one was trying to claim that plenty of sex is bad, no-one noticed.)

  57. The only STDs I have managed to contract were when I was or thought I was in a monogamous relationship. A cheating girlfriend in college brought me the lovely gift of herpes back from a weekend at home. The second was a risk I chose to accept, knowing that my wife had HPV. My youth had numerous, risky adventures involving border town brothels and the like, but it was the monogamous relationships that brought me infection. So yeah, I'm a leper of sorts, but it wasn't the way your prof would have his students believe.

  58. You're more than welcome to complain to the professor. However, I do think you're making a bit of a tempest in a teapot. As you said, you're all grown-ass adults capable of rational evaluation. You're training to be nurses. I know this is your schtick but it comes off as a bit oversensitive. I did the test, thought it was factually inaccurate, but the test was only meant as a rough model not an exact scenario. You should also think of what you hope to accomplish by bringing it up with the teacher.

  59. Given that posters here have identified several ways that the exercise could actually be useful (tracing spread) or more indicative of reality (using condoms, some indication of 'catching' so it can be treated, etc.), I don't really think it's at all oversensitive to want a lab that shows something other than 'having lots of sex gives you disease'. As someone with an actual biology degree and considering returning to school as an adult learner, I'd be pissed at having to do such half-assed make-work assignments.

    First, those students are paying to learn something. I've been an adult learner in classes full of apathetic folks just aiming to do the make-work and get a grade, and it pissed me off then too. My time is too valuable for crap that's not teaching anything. I have bailed on classes that were full of that sort of thing.

    Second, the lesson they might be learning is *not* one I want my future medical professionals learning. They're learning that 'multiple sex partners = disease'. Not 'multiple exposures to disease = higher chance of getting disease,' not even 'multiple instances of risky behavior = higher chance of disease'. Should I ever have a positive (or false positive) STD result, I want someone to be treating me professionally and appropriately. Should someone else (maybe someone I slept with) have an STD, I want them not to feel that their medical professionals are going to look at them as shameful if they go get tested. Etc. and so forth.

    It's a tempest in a teapot to picket the school. It's adult and appropriate to complain to the professor.

    1. Actually, I profited from her concern, since I wouldn't have thought of the implications and her article raised my awareness of this problem. I'm 26, so in your book, I'm a grown-ass adult. Still, since society/upbringing/and perpetual use of derogatory terms towards sexually active people influence me, I am NOT always capable of rational evaluation - people are blind to a lot of injustices.

      Thank you, Holly!

  60. Thing I recall, reading this article, is an online conversation I had one time...

    The conversation was about polyamory, and she interjected with a picture of a person with warts all over his face and a particularly virulent version of what I've found to be a fairly common knee-jerk contribution to such subjects -- basically something along the lines of that having STDs and poor impulse control is bad. Yes, with those two items brought in as assumed.

    Being as I identify as poly, I mentioned this and gave a brief sketch of my sexual history and how I tend to construct relationships. I gave a bit more detail, but basically this amounted to that I've had something like four sexual partners and four defined open relationships (amusingly, these were not with the identical people) and something less than ten lifetime incidents of receptive vaginal intercourse -- this at about the age of 30. She responded to this reiterating her above points with respect to me specifically -- saying, in other words, that I personally was irresponsible, shortsighted, impulsive, and bound to be diseased -- and aggressively repeated these assertions in the face of my detailing that, independent of how my partners and I conceptualized our relationships, my actual number of partners and actual sexual practices were objectively of low risk (largely not addressing the issue that a person might choose to consciously accept higher risk).

    In the course of the conversation, this person stated a) that she was a medical professional and b) that she worked with teenagers and young adults. She addressed me in a manner more typical of a petty authority figure trying to intimidate a teenager, despite my obviously not being one, and I can only imagine that her manner must be similar in the event of actual teenager and probably actual patient generally.

    Since I'm out as poly to medical professionals when it seems material, it wasn't hard for me to imagine an ugly surprise should I someday personally encounter a medical professional who has attitudes like these.

    That future nurses are apparently at times assigned exercises that reinforce these beliefs -- even aside from the question of whether high school science experiments are appropriate professional training, I find that concerning.

  61. Shorter reiteration -- when I say, as I have, "I'm poly, and I therefore need to be tested for W, X, Y, and Z because of the prevailing expectations in my community, therefore please run said tests," I don't demand the ensuing conversation be a paragon of minority sexual practice awareness but I do require that it be civil and involve my getting appropriate medical services. Encouraging deviation from this requirement is not on my Happy List.

  62. You are a sex-obsessed weirdo.
    Pathogens spread from person to person in many ways that have nothing to do with sex.

    1. you are a troll. please get off the blog.

  63. As an aside I've never had problems getting tested on the NHS for anything. I get asked a few questions to determine how risky, but basically when I say "I just want to make sure" they go straight ahead. However I know that lesbians in the UK sometimes come up against difficult doctors and nurses who assume they're not at risk (fyi in the UK lesbians actually have a higher HIV rate than heterosexual women).

  64. Okay, this is going to sound like a dumb question, but seeing as I never did this in High school, for those of you who did this but with the condoms or plastic, they just went over the cup/test tube/what not and the liquid couldn't really get out, right? Or was there a small hole or something?

  65. I assume there was no hole; otherwise there's no point and you might as well just mix the liquids directly.

  66. Haha, This reminds me of the time my mate (whose a mathematician) showed that if you have sex with 10 people you are 90 percent guaranteed to get chlamydia (in New Zealand anyway).