Dogs have been trained to sniff out an amazing number of things. In addition to the classic image of them hunting down escaped convicts or doing search and rescue, dogs have been trained out to detect cancer by smell and even tell if a polar bear is pregnant by smelling her poop. Those are truly amazing examples, and you can find many more. Sometimes it seems like there’s nothing that dogs can’t be trained to do, short of writing code for smartphone apps. (And sometimes it seems like that might be in the works.)
The more you hear about stories like that, the easier it is to think at first glance that the video below, “Sniffers,” could be real. It’s not.
The video is a mockumentary that purports to show the activities of an “STI Detection Unit,” based in London. The unit trains dogs to sniff out sexually transmitted infections, then takes them around the dance floors and bathrooms of London to hunt down people with syphilis, chlamydia, herpes, and other diseases.
Dogs cannot, as of yet, be trained to sniff out STIs, and London hasn’t yet started sending out squads of law-enforcement officers to publicly identify people with syphilis and coerce them into treatment. “Sniffers” is actually a promotional film made by Randox Laboratories to promote its home testing kit, Confidante. I don’t know anything about the reliability of Confidante, but based on this one video, I’d love to see it fail spectacularly.
The video has been getting passed around on social networks and written up by various news outlets, usually with sly amusement and praise for its cleverness. AdWeek calls it “amusingly gross,” and marketing site The Drum merely comments that it’s “a tongue-in-cheek approach” meant “to raise youth sexual awareness.”
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what the ad doesn’t do. It’s grossly irresponsible precisely because it promotes the kind of shame, ignorance, and stigma that ensures the spread of diseases such as syphilis, herpes, and HIV.
Historically, STIs have been treated differently than other diseases. They’ve been considered the result of sin, immoral lifestyles, and poor hygiene. Politicians and religious figures have used them as excuses to scapegoat and stigmatize the poor, immigrants, LGBT people, and people of color.
“Release the hounds” comes very close to what the actual policies against STIs have been historically. The mere act of providing proper treatment for those suffering from syphilis or HIV has been controversial at various times in history because many thought that those diseases were a fit punishment for immorality. When HIV/AIDS first became a concern in the United States, there were people who seriously advocated isolating HIV+ people in internment camps.
The “Sniffers” video and campaign is rooted in that sense of shame and punishment. About two minutes into the video, we watch a member of the STI Detection Unit pound on the door of a bathroom stall and tell the woman inside, “You’ll have to come with me,” as if she’s already committed a crime.
Maybe even worse than that is the scene in which the unit is hunting down STI-positive people on High Street, and the officer in charge tells a woman to stand away from her friend as if merely being in proximity could cause infection. In real life, that’s the fear that keeps so many people from getting tested or treated in the first place: That if their friends or family know, they’ll wind up abandoned and alone.
The ethos of shaming people for having sex continues into their social media. On the STI Detection Unit Facebook page, one photo caption reads: “Spread your brandy butter where you shouldn’t & our dogs will find you and expose you.”
The rather weird metaphor aside (Brandy butter? Really?), that line shows what the campaign is really all about: delivering the message that there is a right way to have sex and a wrong way, and if you do it the wrong way, you deserve to be punished.
Randox tries to frame the ad as being educational. Marketing Manager Chris Henry told The Drum: “Our goal was to engage a whole new audience of potential customers who may be too embarrassed to get a sexual health check. We believe this campaign does exactly that, communicating the shock of being exposed in public, but doing it with humor, in a way people can engage with, without feeling they are publicly declaring they have an STI.”
What Henry misses here is that you can offer people privacy without threatening them with shame. The choice should not be between having the opportunity to test yourself at home (which is a very, very good thing) or being humiliated by having a dog sniff your privates in public. Sexual health can be a private thing without stigma. The shame here belongs entirely to Randox and Langland, the agency behind the campaign.
Dogs can be trained to help human beings with a lot of health issues, and we’ll no doubt find many more in the years to come. I’m glad that I live in a world where they’re being used to find cancer and not to humiliate people for having sex.
Read more about dogs who use their sense of smell to detect: