Critical ThinkingPop QuizSecondary Education

Pop Quiz: Fear, shame, and loathing

Hi all! I’m travelling back from a conference so this will be short and sweet.

Since I’ve been in the US for a professional conference, I’ve noticed the trailers for Scary Movie V on the television several times, particularly line “no, ma’am, an STD is the worst thing you could have.” I was immediately reminded of my own high school “health” class, where most of the content of the STI unit was a collection of infamous slides showing absolute worst case scenarios and passing them off as common. The goal of the slides, obviously, was care the kids into using protection, or even better, into abstinence until sometime in their 40s.

I like to call this the DARE approach to pseudoeducation: spin scary tales for the kids to keep them away from whatever it is you don’t want them to get into so that they never consider going near it. The downside, of course, is that those who find their experience or reality generally contradicts the propaganda might be tempted to disregard even the more reasonable warnings.

But in addition to this problem, it occurred to me that programs like this, even well-intentioned, make up a huge portion of the ongoing stigma problem faced by drug users (or even people using prescription drugs as directed) and people living with STIs.

So I thought, barring serious ethical problems about lying to the kids and creating stigma (which are both major problems), would an honest appraisal of the risk profiles of certain behaviours actually improve outcomes? Or does the public health standpoint justify to some degree the approach taken?

What do you think? How should these topics be addressed in schools? How were they treated at your school?

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Dan holds a PhD in Music History from a major Canadian university and is now pursuing a M.Ed in Higher Education at another one, because he likes to collect very expensive paper. He performs stand-up comedy at venues all over Toronto when he's not busy playing JRPGs with his cat, Roy. You can follow him at @incontrariomotu, but he isn't going anywhere. You can also send him a tip on PayPal ( if you like his work!


  1. April 12, 2013 at 5:53 am —

    What do I think after nearly 60 years on this planet?
    You are right, experience does contradict the propaganda.
    Smoking grass will not cause paranoid schizophrenia – in 95% of cases. Yet my best friend was in the 5%.
    Smack will harm you in 95% of cases – and another close friend died from an overdose. Some however are unscathed.

    I could write a book but the TL;DR would be, you can’t teach this stuff officially. Each generation has to do it their own way.
    Maybe you can share your experiences one on one with a few selected students? That may have a better outcome.

  2. April 15, 2013 at 1:01 pm —

    As common as STIs are, and as benign as the most common ones (and even ZOMG HERPES) are, people should really be taught the truth about them. Scare programs make it harder for people to get themselves tested and increase the risks for everyone. Getting tested should be easy and encouraged rather than a panic-inducing affair as a result of the stigma, fear, and misinformation surrounding STIs. Testing positive is not a death sentence anymore, but it’s too often an unnecessarily traumatic experience full of shame and self-loathing. I strongly believe that teaching the true risks and potential impact of STIs is going to improve outcomes by increasing the number of people willing to get regular testing and be informed. Knowledge is power. And it saddens and upsets me how scary it is for such a large portion of the population to exist and to disclose their status for fear of rejection based on lies and misconceptions.

    My very first pap smear, before I’d even had intercourse, came up positive for HPV, but I didn’t know what that was or what it meant and nearly had a panic attack, certain I was a terrible person who obviously deserved God’s wrath after having just turned 19 and would live the rest of my life unloved and untouchable like a leper. How seriously fucked up is that? For an asymptomatic infection that the majority of the adult population has been exposed to and that clears up on its own in most instances? Thanks for nothing, public anti-sex education in Texas.

    • April 15, 2013 at 3:34 pm —

      Yeah this is exactly the kind result that concerns me. I even felt bad after developing a standard cold sore recently, as if 90% of people don’t have HSV-1…

    • April 29, 2013 at 12:39 pm —

      I have to nitpick the description of herpes as ‘benign.’ A lot of people don’t know this but herpes can actually kill you. I agree that scare tactics are a bullshit way of teaching someone about an illness and that it creates unfair stigmatization, but as someone who watched herpes encephalitis nearly destroy someone close to me (leaving them with lifelong neurological sequelae), I had to respond. We shouldn’t swing to the other end of the spectrum either and downplay the risks. I have a similar problem with the “marijuana is a completely harmless panacea” contingent. Weed is mostly harmless, but it will interact with some medications and will exacerbate some conditions. The real crime is that we can’t do the fucking research to figure out the risks and identify the chemical/correct dosing for the conditions it does help.

      To answer the larger question, let me tell you how I was taught about drugs. My dad sat me down one day and said, “Yessenia, why do people use drugs?”

      I gave him the answers I had been taught. [Uncle Ruslan’s voice] “Because they are losers!”
      He said nope.
      I said, “Because they are uneducated.”
      “Because they are trying to escape their problems.”
      At this point I was flabbergasted. Finally he answered: “People use drugs because they work. They do what you expect them to do. So to know why a person uses drugs, you have to know what it’s doing that they want it to do. Sometimes they are in pain and they do not want to be in pain. Sometimes they are depressed and do not want to be depressed. Sometimes they have created a biological dependence, and so they would experience unpleasant physical symptoms if they stopped taking it abruptly. Et cetera.”

      That’s how I think drugs should be taught. Drugs work. They do what you expect them to do. In the right doses, they can do so with minimal risk and side effects. If you abuse them, you will damage yourself. You can use drugs for medicinally or recreationally while maintaining a deep respect for their power. Drugs aren’t magic potions that will instantly turn you into a criminal. They’re just chemicals that exploit the fact that we are giant meat-sacks of chemistry.

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