Look, VICE. We need to have a quick chat.
You’ve been on the STI beat this year, and I respect that. One of your journalists wrote a great piece about me over the summer and she was super lovely and considerate. It was a positive experience. But then the article used a repulsive image of a smashed banana as its lead art, completely undermining its anti-stigmatizing message. The photo also had a toxic impact on the comments on Facebook, where people reacted to the headline and the image instead of clicking through to read the article. They made a lot of jokes about herpes being the worst, and diseased sluts deserving it, and so on. The photo selection was a sensationalist click-grab, and it was obnoxious. I was upset. I didn’t say anything about it to VICE staff because, to be honest, I was young and scared and didn’t realize I could send a bunch of angry emails demanding it be changed, as the photo was disrespectful to me and I had a right to be hurt. I let it go.
I wish I hadn’t, because now I see you’re still using the photo on other articles about sexual health and STIs, and that’s a serious problem. Let me explain why.
This photo is gross. It’s really fucking gross. Using it as lead artwork on an article about sexually transmitted infections implies that there is a link between contracting an STI and a pulverized banana left abandoned on a sidewalk. This photograph accompanying an article about sexual health says, “Here’s what your dick looks like with an STI.” It is a scare tactic, it is a “joke” made in poor taste, and it is offensive to people who live with STIs.
Yeah that’s right, I said it’s offensive. It invites the casual web reader, or Twitter skimmer, or Facebook scroller, to judge people with STIs. It confirms their prejudice that STIs happen to gross people with gross, defective genitals. And when an actual person with an STI sees this photo, it is an insult to our body and to the trauma we have more than likely endured as a result of contracting an STI. Years after diagnosis, I still don’t entirely trust my body, and I make a determined effort to own my sexuality against a society that tells me I am a public health risk. Every day I get emails from people who have had herpes for decades and still don’t feel comfortable having a normal sex life. They see photos like this, and they read the Facebook comments underneath, and they take another step backward. A photo like this perpetuates the vicious, deeply ingrained myth that STIs are the end of sex.
It is also a photo that implies violence: a stomp or smash against a pliable, vulnerable thing. While that might make the average man recoil and think fuck no, I am never letting someone with an STI near my junk—which itself is a terrible reaction to encourage—it reminds people who contracted an STI through sexual assault or coercion of the victimization they experienced. It is a triggering insult, making survivors feel powerless and wounded.
Ah, but it’s a joke! you say. After all, the caption on this photo in the article written about me was, “This is not going to happen.” Ha ha! People think herpes turns your dick into a smashed banana, and they’re wrong! We’re so clever for playing into their fear and then telling them it’s overblown! Here’s why that’s bullshit: you know as well as I do (and I know, because I work in social media) that this article may have millions of impressions but only a few thousand actual reads. Millions of people will see that photo and the word “herpes” and only a handful will learn that herpes is no big deal. Does the good outweigh the bad? I don’t fucking think so. Your winking, edgy humor does a lot of harm.
My vagina is not a pulverized fruit, VICE. My vagina is actually pretty awesome according to the unscientific poll that is the bros I’ve slept with in the past two years since getting diagnosed. I realize it is hard to select a photo for an article about sexual health, and believe me when I say I’ve seen some awful stock photos accompanying pieces about me. But this is an opportunity to be original, not to get lazy and cruel. Take a page from Cosmo’s book and commission some cool illustrations, or perhaps sacrifice some clicks but retain some humanity by using a bland medical stock photo. Because I don’t care how great an article you write about sexual health—if it is accompanied by a photo like this, it is irresponsible, mean, and downright dangerous.