My brother once pointed out to me that I was doing for a living what he and pretty much every schoolboy does for fun in the back of their schoolbooks: drawing pictures of genitals.
These days I don’t get many opportunities to get paid for rude pictures, but I was reminded of it when I spotted the pavement art pictured above. It’s probably safe to assume that the adult footprint and the dog’s paw-print were accidental but whoever drew the penis probably couldn’t resist the temptation that the wet cement provided to repeat what might be one of the oldest visual gags in the world.
Notwithstanding by brother’s comment, drawing is actually very useful in sex education work, for a variety of reasons. The early proponents of participatory methods in aid work used drawing a lot as a way of levelling the playing field when working with people with low-literacy or with groups of socially unequal people: it shifted the emphasis away from the written word and technology, since you can draw with anything, and you can represent complex things very easily with a few lines, some pebbles and some leaves. One of the participation mantras is to “hand over the stick”, which can literally mean handing a stick to community members to draw maps, or human bodies, or timelines, on the ground, and to take over the process rather than just listening to an expert lecture them.
Lots of types of images are used in sexual health work, including photographs of severe sexually transmitted infections that aim to shock people into being more aware of the risks of unprotected sex. But whether scare tactics work or not, in my experience this sort of image is particularly informative. The point at which you want to get yourself checked for STIs is when you have barely perceptible visible symptoms or even none at all, whereas the images you find in a lot of sexual health leaflets show STIs at very advanced stages: conditions that most doctors are unlikely to have seen. On the other hand, using even very basic anatomical drawings can help to communicate ideas that a photograph can’t show, for instance by asking people to describe what some internal symptoms like pain urinating or lower abdominal pain feel like and where on their bodies they can feel them. This leads to a broader point, which is that sexual health isn’t just about diseases and symptoms – it’s just as much about pleasure and knowing your body. Exercises like body mapping as a way of exploring all sorts of issues such as safe sex, STIs, and sexual pleasure can be done using drawing, and can be a good way of generating discussions in group work.
The other good thing about drawings is that they can help show things in an abstract way that most people can relate to. Because a line drawing or diagram is obviously not real I don’t think people are as tempted to compare themselves as they might with photos, and to wonder if they are “normal” or not (though it is worth remembering that some people can look very different, either because they were born that way, or because of practices like female genital mutilation). This is why I really like the mix of images on materials developed by Bish Training, such as this one on sexual anatomy: on the one hand the drawn images shows the different parts and what they are but is clearly just a diagram; on the other hand there is a set of photographs showing lots of different photos of the same thing, another way of showing readers how diverse human bodies are. And the “don’t compare” message is even clearer in this resource on porn.
Drawing isn’t necessarily better than any other approach – it largely depends how it is being used, and whether the overall approach of the trainer or educator is right. But as I continue to come across limited sex education, based largely on the distribution of scary photos, I find myself returning to flexibility and potential of the time-honoured practice of drawing rude pictures.
Thanks to @sexedukation for a handy chat about this blog post.