After nearly reaching eradication in America, syphilis rates have been on the rise among gay and bisexual men for the past few years. Most major cities have seen exponential growth in the number of cases over the past two years, and this is causing alarm in many state health departments.
Syphilis is a curable STD. After the initial infection, symptoms can disappear while the individual is still able to pass along the disease to others. Syphilis prevention then is largely targetted around creating awareness of the disease and an urgency for testing among those who think they may have contracted it.
Two complementary awareness campaigns have been started in Los Angeles and San Francisco aimed at gay and bisexual men. The former features a anthropomorphized syphilis sore named Phil while the latter is in the image of a healthy and personable penis. Of course these two campaigns struck my attention because their purpose is to reach as wide of an audience as possible. And in an ironic twist of fate, the syphilis sore beat the penis.
Both campaigns have drawn a considerable amount of negative fire, but if awareness is your message, any press is good press. In the case of positive promotion of syphilis awareness, Phil the Syphilis Sore has been in the spotlight. He’s disgusting, hairy and angry-looking, and he conjures a queasy stomach by way of association with the real thing. But despite that he’s been featured in Newsweek, on various talk shows and other media apperances while the Health Penis has been restrained to mostly gay publications and websites.
The reason is obvious. The penis, albeit a natural entity, has been universally labelled as a negative image while syphilis sore remains a medical term and untouched by any popular classification. Both are subjects that people don’t want to talk about, and this silence is the cause for the spread of STDs (and among more than just homosexual men I might add). Props to the Los Angeles public health officials who conceived of Phil. Your navigation through the heavily landmined world of cultural symbols is much admired.