Happy Sexual Health Awareness Week. A week that says: If you haven’t weed on your hand in an STI clinic or lied about a broken condom to a sexual health nurse for a while, then it is time to do so. A week designed to make us think about getting checked before we receive an ominous text informing us that it’s kind of urgent. A week that’s there to remind us how, along with climate change and nuclear war, we all have something called “super gonorrhea” to worry about.
Now, if you’re familiar with a lacklustre approach to STI checks, the good news – and maybe the only good news – is that you’re not alone. The London-based artist Bryony Kimmings was a woman after your own heart until 2009 when, at the age of 30 and after sleeping with 53 people, she went for her first ever sexual health check-up. Ask her why she waited so long and she’ll tell you: “Until then I’d been drunk, on the pill and nothing was dripping out of anywhere or falling off, so yeah – I just got on with it.”
Bryony tested positive for chlamydia, and was inspired to make a show about her experiences, tracking down and talking to as many of the people she’d slept with as possible in a bid to find out where her STI had come from. In the end, it turned out her current boyfriend had given it to her after sleeping with someone else, but that was by the bye; the show she made, aptly titled Sex Idiot, was a hilarious and incisive look at myths around STIs and slutshaming. As well as winning her a few awards, it taught her that discussing sexual health is...healthy.
Skip forward to today and Bryony’s working on a new artistic project around the topic of STIs. She’s just set up shop as an artist in residence at Whittall Street Sexual Health Clinic in Birmingham, where she will speak to people who come through the door about their sex lives as part of a forthcoming Channel 4 documentary. After producing a show about male depression at the Southbank Centre in 2015, and a musical about cancer for the National Theatre in 2016, Bryony is well versed in dealing with taboo subject matter.
The idea is to get a glimpse into Britain’s private business in a way that’s never been done before: “I want to know what people do behind closed doors, what kind of sex and relationships Britain’s having,” explains Bryony, “and at the end of my time there, I’ll make art based on what I’ve learnt – the kind of art I normally make: a city centre street performance, a music video, a tiny performance in someone’s home – and I’ll be gifting it to the people I meet.”
The project feels important, given that Britain’s sexual health centres are under critical threat; government cuts of £200 million from the public health budget in 2015 and a predicted £331 million more by 2021 mean bad news for sexual health services, with many having already closed their doors as others become privatised. Meanwhile, the number of people attending sexual health services is on the increase, with a 25% rise since 2012.
Reports demonstrate that service providers are struggling to meet the public’s demand, although, as of yet, that hasn’t directly affected diagnoses. On the whole, diagnoses for STIs are going down, except for subgroups such as men who have sex with men, and except for certain diseases, like gonorrhea and syphilis, which have in recent years been on the rise.
Bryony is well aware of these issues and believes that the time is ripe to head inside a busy STI clinic with a camera, in order to demonstrate how vital the broad range of services on offer truly are. “Sex clinics are the great leveller – I sit there each morning and see all kinds of people walk through the door; judges, homeless people, Muslim girls, sex workers, older gay guys, and they’re all there for different reasons – for a check-up, to see if they’ve got herpes, have their warts frozen off, or to pick up their PrEP. The thing I’ve been reminded of is that there’s nothing shameful about going to one because everyone has to do it.”
Despite Bryony’s words, the stigma around sexual health issues is pervasive; we’re more embarrassed about admitting to a case of the clap than a case of the common cold. “If we talked about sex and relationships more we’d have better sex and healthier relationships, and if we talked about STIs more, there wouldn’t be so much slutshaming around them,” says Bryony, explaining that Sex Idiot allowed her to take ownership of the negative stereotypes that came along with telling people she had chlamydia – that you’re dirty, reckless or promiscuous, for example. “The less ashamed we feel about getting tested, the less diseases we’ll all have,” she points out.
People are shy, but slowly opening up to Bryony about their sexual health, even letting her have a chat under the toilet door while they swab themselves. Speaking publicly about her own experiences with STIs in the past has helped get willing participants on board, it seems. “I’ve done all the shame-spiralling that some people might be doing when they walk in the door, and I also know a lot about STIs,” she laughs.
“Art was therapy for me, it can be a good way to get revenge or ritualistically say goodbye to something. I hope this project is a chance for other people to turn something negative into something positive. And if not, they’ll at least get a free bit of art out of it.”
If you live in or around Birmingham, are 18 or over and interested in finding out more about the project, please get in touch on 07513 625214 or at firstname.lastname@example.org