“I need an HIV test,” says the 16-year-old sitting in front of me. He’s come to the sexual health clinic with his best friend and is explaining the purpose of his visit.
I’ve heard this before. A young person who has had little (or no) unprotected sex and isn’t concerned about chlamydia or gonorrhea or herpes or the common cold – all far more likely to contract from most kinds of intimate contact – but is convinced they need an HIV test.
So why is HIV this kid’s main concern?
Could be from media coverage about rising HIV rates in the younger population. Or maybe friends are starting to come out as gay so he’s made an unfounded leap. Or perhaps he’s reacting to the stigma around HIV as being the archetypal STI – the one that’s made the most headlines, carries with it a lingering perception of fatality, and is “with you for life”?
Of course, there’s always a chance his concern is warranted. Maybe he is having the kind of sex that legitimately puts him at a higher risk of getting HIV. I take stock of my assumptions and ask for details about his sexual encounters.
Turns out he’s had sex a couple times. Turns out he’s only had one sexual partner, a 16-year-old girl he used to date. Turns out they had oral and vaginal sex. Turns out sometimes they used condoms, sometimes they didn’t.
I ask if there was anything in particular he was worried about? Any symptoms? Or had she told him she tested positive an infection?
A skank. That’s why he’s worried about HIV. His ex is a skank. I see…
When you work in sexual health, there are countless shocking moments. And I don’t use the word “shocking” metaphorically: something happens to make you legitimately feel like an electrical current is coursing through your body. Sometimes you feel this jolt when you successfully help someone through a tough situation. Sometimes it’s when you see a wave of relief over a negative pregnancy test. But mostly, you are shocked by the sheer impropriety, ignorance, and obliviousness of what someone has candidly said to you. This was one of those moments.
He just called her a skank. Just like slut, ho, whore, and hussy, he used it how countless others do: to refer to a female in a way that negatively frames her in relation to her sexuality. The electrical jolt has super-charged my thoughts: “Take him down! Ream him out! Shout that he is being a sexist pig and he should never use that word again!!!”
I wrestle down my violent instincts. The best I can muster is to feign confusion. I blurt out, “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear what you said,” hoping to buy myself a millisecond of time to calm down. As soon as the shock passes through my system, I’ll regain clarity and think of a constructive way to respond.
He repeats: “She’s a skank.”
I stare at him with a confused expression. Apparently my brain needs just one more millisecond of processing time.
He looks at me like I’m an idiot and attempts to expand my seemingly limited lexicon:
Alright. That’s it buddy. It’s on.
I stick with the ignorant act and ask him what those two words mean to him. He explains she’s had a lot of sex with a lot of guys. I gaze into the distance thoughtfully, as though he’s just enlightened me with some exceedingly interesting morsel of insight. But I’m thinking: this is my chance to teach this kid about skanks and hoes!
With a look of utter innocence, I ask him:
“What do you call a guy who’s had a lot of sex with a lot of people?”
“I dunno, a player I guess,” he says.
Alright, this is good. He’s helping me learn these completely novel terms.
Entirely oblivious to the dragon’s den into which I am luring him, I ask how a guy might feel if someone calls him a player?
Broad grins flash onto his and his mate’s faces as they glance at each other. It’s good to be a player, they both agree.
This is my moment. I’ve knocked all his pawns off the board – I am about to annihilate his motherfucking king. In my mind, I pause here for dramatic effect. In reality, I quickly blurt out my coup de grâce question:
“How might a girl feel if you called her a skank?”
The smiles instantly vanish.
Realizing how he’s been duped, he leaps to his defence:
“Well some of them like it!”
I retort: “That might be so. But how is that word usually meant?”
The two young men in front of me didn’t need to respond. We all knew how he used the word. He meant it the way most people do, dripping with negative and demeaning insinuations.
At that point I adopted my best voice of authority and told them it doesn’t make sense that with male sexuality, we use a positive word that conveys pride and accomplishment, yet when it comes to female sexuality, we use a predominantly negative word. Based on the looks on these two guys’ faces, this injustice had never even occurred to them.
I could have talked about the movement to reclaim the word slut. I could have pointed him to countless protests, films, books, and art that challenge the pervasive negative attitudes towards female sexuality.
But let’s not push the limits of a 16-year-old who came to the clinic for an STI check, not to join a revolution. I settled on telling him that language like that isn’t appropriate in the wider world, and it certainly isn’t in a sexual health environment.
I could have opened with this finger-wagging approach. But I’m glad the two milliseconds I bought myself with feigned ignorance allowed me to reign in my emotions. Yes, let’s teach our kids about skanks. But not by reprimanding and berating them.
Kids and young people are constantly told do this, don’t do that, tidy your room, finish your dinner, be quiet, mind your tongue. Ironically, this attitude only reinforces the teenage tendency to do the exact opposite of what adults tell you.
Sure, if a teen is told to clean their room and they don’t, it can be a source of familial unrest. But when it comes to sex, adult authority and the resulting teenage rebellion can have tragic results. When kids are hastily and arbitrarily told they shouldn’t have sex because it’s bad, dangerous, shameful, etc., their retaliatory response can have a much more profound effect.
Take abstinence-based sex education, which is entirely founded on telling young people to not have sex. Perhaps unsurprisingly, numerous studies point to this being an ineffective form of sex education – in the long-term, it simply doesn’t stop young people from having sex. And what’s worse, research suggests that abstinence-based sex ed leaves people feeling ambivalent about using safer sex supplies like condoms. As Jessica Valenti, writer of this Guardian article puts it nicely: “Abstinence-only education didn’t help [abstinence advocates like Bristol Palin] them abstain from sex, just from protected sex.”
Back to teaching our kids about skanks and the two young men sitting in front of me. In the end, I encouraged him to get a full STI screen regardless – once you’re sexually active and if you’re having sex without condoms it’s a good idea, especially if you don’t know a partner’s sexual history.
And as for his word choice? I hope that by leading him to see the problems with the word skank rather than admonishing him, my message was more impactful. At the very least, I know I didn’t alienate or scare off these guys: as they left the clinic, they asked my name and put out their hands for me to shake.
I smiled as we grasped hands. In hindsight, I wish I’d withheld my name and instead told them they were shaking the hand of a very proud skank.
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