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book review


  • Title: Strange Bedfellows: Adventures in the Science, History, and Surprising Secrets of STDs
  • Author: Ina Park
  • Genre: Non-fiction
  • Publisher: Flatiron Books
  • Pages: 368

As a contact tracer tasked with hunting down people exposed to sexually transmitted infections, John Potterat sat in the crosshairs of some fraught human relationships.

Working with a public health unit in Colorado Springs in the 1970s, Potterat had to console enraged, cheated-on spouses, plead with pimps for sex workers’ contacts and navigate a gonorrhea outbreak in a biker gang whose partners liked to swing. (After Potterat successfully treated the bikers, their hitman boss was so grateful he offered to murder anyone for him, free of charge.)

The public health warrior is one of many big characters in the highly readable Strange Bedfellows: Adventures in the Science, History, and Surprising Secrets of STDs.

Dr. Ina Park, a medical consultant in sexually transmitted disease prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cuts through the stigma of this touchy, shame-loaded subject with levity, rigorous research and journalistic prose, masterfully mining what these ailments say about our cultural anxieties through various eras.

Dr. Ina Park is an associate professor of family and community medicine at the University of California San Francisco.Stefan Cohen/Handout

“STIs have represented the interplay between sex and society,” writes Park, an associate professor of family and community medicine at the University of California San Francisco.

Her book is an energetic addition to a canon of bodily science writing that goes where most does not, including the reporting of Mary Roach, who describes herself as “the bottom-feeder of non-fiction,” as well as Florence Williams’s insightful Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History.

For Strange Bedfellows, Park compiles a fascinating historical catalogue of all the cruel and unusual practices humans have inflicted on their ailing genitals.

There are 1500s-era condoms made from chemically soaked linens, the contraption held together with ribbons. Primitive treatments for gonorrhea involve “clapping a hapless penis between two wooden paddles, pair of hands or books in an attempt to expel unwanted discharge” – hence, the clap. Throughout the Second World War, soldiers’ privates get smeared with mercury ointment and inexplicably wrapped in wax paper: “At night in the barracks, a chorus of crackling penises could be heard as soldiers rolled over the wax paper in their sleep,” Park writes.

Women’s genitals fare no better through the ages. The Renaissance’s answer to Nair was a quick lime and arsenic solution fierce enough to burn off pubic hair and skin. By the early 1900s, women are peddled a toxic Lysol douche as a marital aid. Today, the shaming persists with a vast “vaginal hygiene” market of liquid washes, wipes, powders and sprays.

The author deftly analyzes the corporate exploitation of stigma in this realm. She examines herpes, an ancient, incurable disease, through the lens of advertising. Sales were slow when the first treatment for herpes appeared in 1982: People don’t know much about the disease, even as it spread rapidly. Fortuitously, the same year, Time magazine ran a front-page story that dubbed herpes “the New Scarlet Letter,” painting sufferers as “poisoned” and “unmarriageable.” Demand for the drug promptly soared.

Absorbing archival morsels such as this one are interspersed with eye-opening anecdotes about Park’s visits with her patients. Unfazed – if not delighted – by the gross, she is the Dr. Pimple Popper of STIs. When she spots pubic lice, she’s positively gleeful. Ditto for a “flesh-coloured shag carpeting” of genital warts on an unlucky gent who aggravates his condition by shaving off his pubic hair before a date. Occasionally, Park comes off as cold, writing a touch too enthusiastically about the human folly that gets people into these messes.

A greater lapse is the author’s skimming over of the 1932-1972 Tuskegee experiment, the most horrifying ethics breach in the history of American public health. Over 40 years, researchers sat back and watched the deterioration of 399 Black men left intentionally untreated for syphilis, even as antibiotics became readily available. Many men died, their wives infected, their children born with congenital syphilis. Surely, the Tuskegee experiment merited more than a handful of pages.

Park pays more proper attention to the 1946 “intentional exposure” experiments performed by American researchers in Guatemala, where sex workers, psychiatric patients, prisoners and soldiers were infected with gonorrhea.

Turning to more recent events, Park dives into the complicated optics surrounding the groundbreaking HIV prevention drug PrEP. While its champions see it as revolutionary, critics fear it will deter condom use and help fuel other STIs – this as researchers worry about low uptake among women, particularly in Africa.

As she contemplates the next generation of STIs, the doctor reveals the wily ways they intersect with modern sex. She urges closer consideration for anal cancer screening and pharyngeal gonorrhea, which is typically contracted during fellatio, when a penis deposits bacteria on the tonsils. (It’s a libido killer, this book.) In a chapter titled “Bushwhacked,” she raises alarm about the modern obsession with “pubic deforestation”: Skin torn during frequent grooming is more susceptible to HPV, herpes and syphilis, researchers have learned.

In a bid to combat lingering stigma around STIs, the newest medical approach is to reframe the discussion away from disease, toward sexual health.

At Park’s house, her sons, 3 and 8, wrestle over stuffed toys shaped like STIs: “Mom!!! Zane has syphilis, and he won’t give it to me!”

Thinking about how she’ll talk to them about sex in the coming years, the mother envisions “dozens of bite-size discussions on today’s complicated sexual landscape.” When they cringe, she’ll know they’re listening.

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