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Gabby Petito and the Quest for Media Accountability

We live in the age of the 24-hour news cycle, wading through a labyrinth of updates from every which way. In a world where perception is reality, how do we begin to hold the media accountable for its deeply felt influence?

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I took a moment to discuss this with Kelsey Vlamis, a breaking news reporter at Business Insider. We focused specifically on the media frenzy surrounding the disappearance and murder of Gabby Petito, a 22-year-old “van life” vlogger. This conversation ran the gamut but something that stood out to me was when the well-spoken and thoughtful Ms. Vlamis expressed the idea that “bias” means something different now. It means you have picked a side; it means you stand for something.

Though the news media has long-been accused of biased or one-sided reporting, the measure of that is in the eye of the beholder. Objectivity requires a kind of 360 degree understanding of a situation that seems next to impossible. But for many folks, it has become normal to go to multiple news sources for well-rounded impressions of what is unfolding in the world around them.

Law enforcement officials investigate the home of Brian Laundrie. (AP Photo/Curt Anderson)

We have reached a point with journalistic pursuits where truth is relative and misinformation and disinformation run the show. Perhaps that was always the case with news; there was just less of it. And one would think that with the breadth of options, news would be much more diversified and representative. Why is this important? Because where art has the potential power to shift viewpoints or reframe ideas and ideologies, news media tends to be slightly more insidious. It subliminally controls how we move through life.

Members of the media broadcast across the street from the entrance of the Carlton Reserve during a search for Brian Laundrie in Venice, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Immediately after Petito went missing in Wyoming, her face was everywhere. Coverage splashed across platforms – Instagram, Tiktok, online news outlets and live television were full of the story. Thoughts, prayers and hashtags all in the hopes that awareness would help bring back someone it felt like “we” lost.

Considering her small to medium following online, the wave of attention felt like it came out of nowhere. It was called out as possibly another case of “missing white woman syndrome” a newly-coined phenomenon where the public gets extremely emotionally invested and consumed by the disappearance of a (usually) white woman.

Gabrielle “Gabby” Petito talking to a police officer after police pulled over the van she was traveling in with her boyfriend, Brian Laundrie on Aug. 12, 2021. The couple was pulled over while they were having an emotional fight. Petito was reported missing by her family and later found dead. (The Moab Police Department via AP)

White women are portrayed in media as benign, fragile, the consummate damsel-in-distress, the loving wife, doting middle-class mother or the free-spirited young girl with a bright future ahead of her.

The pictures chosen are of her with her family and friends, smiling, enjoying life before someone cruelly cut the joy short.

What’s wrong with that? Is it bad that we feel instantly endeared to the Gabby Petitos and the Elizabeth Smarts?

No – that feeling is empathy, and it induces a potent pathos that will not let us separate ourselves from what goes on in our midst. We stay glued to the story; we organize search parties and obsessively share each and every update.

Elizabeth Smart addresses the media outside the court house following the guilty verdict of her kidnapper in 2010 (AP Photo/Colin E Braley)

On the other side of this coin, however, is an ugly, inconvenient truth.

Between 2011-2020, it has been found that 710 Native people, mostly women or girls, have gone missing in the same area that Gabby Petito disappeared from. Their identities and tribal affiliations remain obscured, we don’t even know if that number is accurate. Their pictures never make the paper. No noteworthy public vigils or press conferences are held.

What is glaringly obvious, is that news regarding the Indigenous members of our communities is not newsworthy. It is like trees falling in an empty forest.

The real number of missing and murdered Native people is probably staggering, considering our country’s attitude towards them historically. Native advocacy groups have evidence of decades of abuse and ignorance.

Miranda Muehl, of Mustang, Okla., marches during a march to call for justice for missing and murdered indigenous women Friday, June 14, 2019, at the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma in Concho, Okla. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

This leads me back to my discussion with Kelsey Vlamis. She reminded me that holding media responsible is not only about what we cover, it’s how.

What happens when you grow up consistently seeing news showing the stark, lonely mugshots of Black homicide victims or bone-chilling footage of a group of Latino migrants being detained at the border?

It promotes implicit bias and stereotyping while also cementing prejudice into the social fabric of our communities. We rarely know the whole story but our brains make associations and generalizations about entire groups of folks based on how they are portrayed.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee in 2019 is presented with an honoring blanket held by members of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, after Inslee signed a bill into law creating liaison positions within the Washington State Patrol, and requiring the agency to develop best practices in hopes of reducing disproportionate rates of violence faced by Native American and indigenous women, and also the frequency with which perpetrators of the crimes avoid justice. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Control the narrative and you control the people, skew the narrative…you get the point. Thanks to the internet and social platforms, people have the tools to become town crier, data analyst and investigative journalist in the palm of their hand. In this fraught epoch, almost no piece of information can be taken without a grain or a handful of salt.

There are a few fixes, though. Inclusive hiring practices, press accountability and journalistic integrity, to name a few. We as a public have gotten quite good at fact-checking and calling mistakes or misnomers out when we see them. In fact, Gabby Petito’s family has leveraged the high-level publicity of her story, to elevate those of other open, unsolved missing persons cases. Hopefully the future holds more of that; hopefully what we are beginning to understand is that every human life is relevant and deserving of the same dignity granted to those at the top of the social hierarchy. Every tree is a part of the forest.

Our hearts go out to Gabby’s family and the families of all the missing and murdered Indigenous people, whose names we have yet to learn but whose memories we must honor.

You can watch my full conversation with Kelsey below.

Syd is an LA-based performer, writer, Erupt moderator who can't stop talking and genuinely believes art can save the world.

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Why Democrats Are Freaking Out For All the Wrong Reasons

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Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo

Animals,

Lots of people can spot a problem. But most don’t know how to fix it. That’s one reason why I hire someone to change my flat tires and patch the holes I put in my surfboard.

Perhaps nowhere is this issue more accute than in the political trade, where socially inept staffers give advice to politicians who spend their whole lives living on the taxpayers.

Simply put, politics tends to attract people who are out of touch with reality. That also includes the journalists who follow the action, and who have the predictable blindspots that come from worshipping government officials and thinking that normal people have spent more than 5 minutes of their life thinking about the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT).

I actually think that once a month, this conclave of dorks meets. All the reporters at The New York Times, Fox News, NPR, etc., sit at a big round table with politicians like Joe Biden and Kevin McCarthy, and they decide what stories they are going to report. And once the “the narrative” is set, everyone keeps yapping about it regardless of whether or not it makes sense.

This months’s narrative goes like this:

Joe Biden’s agenda is absolutely toast thanks to his terrible approval ratings and the spanking that Democrats took in Virginia and New Jersey’s off-year elections.

And if Biden doesn’t make some big moves ASAP, the Democratic Party is going to be in a Tea Party-sized hole come 2022.

A lot of this is true. But a lot of it is phony too. One piece in The New York Times in particular has tons of Democrats wetting the bed and is a stand-in for the current liberal panic.

Let’s talk about what is right and wrong about it to get to the heart of what is actually happening in Washington.

Let’s review the Narrative to break it.

“JOE BIDEN’S BIG SQUEEZE” BY JONATHAN CHAIT

Basically, this piece is the definitive text on why Democrats are getting smoked.

The theory is: voters are annoyed that the Dems have adopted the cultural attitudes of Gender Studies professors at Vassar College. And moderate guys like Joe Biden have an impossible task at stemming the woke tide because the whole party is being financed by rich and guilty white people who expect them to stake-out unpopular positions on cultural issues.

Okay, problem identified.

But do they have any clue how to fix it?

Love it or hate it, the Woke Crisis is a textbook example of how the political class doesn’t understand basic elements of sales and persusaion, and is sailing right into the eye of the storm as they furiously try to avoid it.

Let’s remind ourselves of something important:

The first rule of sales is that you MUST create urgency to incite people to buy.

As in, if you don’t buy these chinos NOW, you’ll never get a better deal. (Check your Gmail for Black Friday offers that say this more deftly).

Here is the cause for urgency in Democratic Politics, according to author Chait:

Uhhh… psycho a little?

“It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that the fate of American democracy may hinge on President Joe Biden’s success” is exactly the type of sentence that sounds like an exaggeration.

One man’s opinion: nothing has been more oversold to the American People than the grave threat that Donald Trump poses to the nation. Judging by the mixed results in 2020 (Joe Biden wins narrowly, Democrats almost lose the House), and the absolutely abysmal performance of Dems running on the Trump scare-mongering platform this fall (Ahem, Terry McAuliffe)… evidence suggest that this pitch is not working anymore.

Jeff Bezos gives all Amazon employees Four Pillars to live by. The first one is CUSTOMER OBSESSION. What do people want?

Unfortunately, Chait and Democrats are already headed down the wrong path if they that people want more Trump panic. That is clearly not creating urgency to act.

THE SOLUTION TO THE PROBLEM IS TO… MUZZLE MODERATES?

Here’s how he lays it out.

Translation: a year into the Biden Presidency, voters are interested in different stuff, and moderates are undercutting the agenda that Democrats annointed in January.

Wut????

I’m going to go in reverse order here.

ARGUMENT 1: People really love us. So let’s give them what they love!

“Yet 58 percent registered support for a plan to spend $2 trillion to ‘address climate change and to create or expand preschool, health care and other social programs.’ Americans see infighting and gridlock but endorse Biden’s specific goals.

What did you say? 58 percent of random people who you read a boring survey to at some point in the past vaguely agreed with Joe Biden’s priorities? They’re generally cool with concepts they’ve dedicated less than 5 minutes of their life to learning about? Now that is a MANDATE!!

JK. It’s nothing. And honestly, politicians are not the only people who make this mistake.

Why is anyone who does market research ever shocked to learn that people don’t actually care about the stuff you spoon fed them in an especially boring 5 minutes of their lives?

And why would you think that after months or years, their views would stay the same?

Politicians and their ideas go in and out of style just like jeans vs. chinos vs. joggers. Faulty assumptions about unchanging consumer preferences are responsible for a lot of products that just bomb. It’s the same in government.

Not recognizing this is the #2 mistake that politicians of both parties make every year.

ARGUMENT 2: Voters are behaving hypocritcally. Let’s call them out on it!

“When Democrats were racing the $2 trillion, entirely deficit-financed American Rescue Plan to Biden’s desk in March, he was widely seen as both moderate and effective. Now that they are spending endless months bickering over a fully financed plan of roughly the same size, he is seen as liberal and ineffective.”

Again, let’s remember how sales works.

You need urgency to incite large numbers of people to buy whatever you are selling – khakis, cars, or ideas.

This is why LIMITED-TIME OFFERS… aka sales… are a critical retail strategy.

And yet here we are discussing Biden’s THIRD URGENT, MUST-PASS INFRASTRUCTURE bill.

So think about it in your own life. If Target sent you 3 URGENT, GREATEST SALE EVER promotions in a few short months, at what point would you stop taking these URGENT offers seriously?

The answer to that is why voters aren’t taking the embattled Build Back Better plan seriously. It’s not that…

“Because of centrist opposition, Democrats have been unable to sell to their constituents the popular things they planned to do.”

The reality is that political capital has diminishing marginal returns like everything else.

The problems Joe Biden and Democrats have today are not the kind you solve by doubling-down. They’re problems you solve by listening to your customers and changing course based on the information they provide.

Every bootstrapped company selling graphic t-shirts on Instagram understands this. So why can’t politicians and the people surrounding them?

KEENDAWG.

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5 Tips On How To Become a Revolutionary From a Nobel Prize-Winning Activist

Holding out for a hero? What if it’s you!

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A screaming protestor is dragged away by police, outside the U.S. Air Force base at Greenham Common, on Nov. 1, 1983. (AP Photo/Dave Caulkin)

In 1981, a group of 36 women marched from Cardiff, Wales, to a Royal Air Force base at Greenham Common in Berkshire, England.

Nicknamed “Women for Life on Earth,” the group made the 120-mile trek in protest of NATO’s decision to place 96 US cruise missiles on UK soil as a preventative measure in case of an attack.

After governments on both sides of the pond refused give in to negotiate with the group, they set up a women-only peace camp along the huge fence outside of Greenham Common.

Women stand shoulder-to-shoulder around the perimeter fence at Greenham Common U.S.A.F. base, near Newbury, England, Dec. 12, 1982, to protest at British government plans to allow the siting of 96 Cruise missiles at the base. An estimated 12,000 people, mainly women, formed a human chain around the 9-mile fence. (AP Photo/David Caulkin).

The peace camp’s protests became an international media sensation; the women were pushing back against a move that would put UK residents in a precarious, likely life-threatening situation if the cruise missiles were used. Not to mention the expected damage to the environment. By criticizing the deal between the US and UK governments and NATO, the demonstrators were challenging the widely-held belief that nuclear arms were absolutely necessary for protection. What they did not know at the time is that they had started a revolution that would arguably lead to the end of an arms race.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the inception of the protest.

To commemorate, Universal Pictures is set to release a documentary film on the unsung heroes of this feminist disarmament uprising.

The film, directed by Briar March and narrated by former British MP Glenda Jackson, is called “Mothers of the Revolution.”

We were lucky enough to be able to host one of the documentary’s subjects, the prolific and eminent Greenham veteran Rebecca Johnson.

Ms. Johnson is a firecracker. She spoke with gumption and gravitas about her six-year stint at Greenham Common and her tireless efforts to rid the world of nuclear weaponry.

I learned a lot from Mr. Johnson’s experiences fighting for global disarmament. Based on our conversation, here are some tips for the budding revolutionary!

Baby clothes and pictures hang beneath large anti nuclear signs on the fence surround the U.S. Air Force base at Greenham Common, Greenham, on Dec. 12, 1982, when some 10,000 anti-nuclear protestors, mostly women, formed a human chain in a peace ’embrace’ around the 9-mile perimeter. (AP Photo/Caulkin)

1. Figure out what you believe. Like really believe in.

What is the change you’d like to see in the world?

What hills would you proverbially or literally die on?

Fall down those rabbit holes and find out what gets your engine running.

Everyone has a different role to play whether it be in a comprehensive social justice movement or simply in an attempt to effect cultural change.

Ms. Johnson talked of discovering her talent for strategizing during the protest at Greenham Common and how every woman present, whether young or old, experienced or wide-eyed, found their value and contributed in the way they knew best.

She often used the metaphor of a spider’s web saying, “If you aren’t your strand in that web, it leaves a hole, and the hole damages and weakens the web. If you are you and you recognize, yes, fragile though I am – small as my voice is, it’s necessary for me to do what I can…because [if not] I’m contributing to a hole that weakens all of us.”

In this world, if you stand for nothing, you fall for everything.

(AP Photo/Dave Caulkin)

2. Bring your friends! Revolution is a group activity.

Yes, it only takes one person to start. But the road is long and arduous so don’t go it alone!

Find like-minded souls to brainstorm with and organize.

Greenham Common saw some 70,000 protestors over the years, and inspired millions more worldwide with their vigilance and bravery.

You want the message to be amplified over and over again; the more people you reach, the larger the movement gets. For example when Ms. Johnson spoke of the general understanding between her and her comrades that once released from prison, they would “carry Greenham home”, inciting a global day of action for disarmament on May 24th, 1983. This is pre-social media obviously, but the rallying cries from Greenham had a long-lasting and far-reaching echo. The support of the public was also a huge part of the longevity of the Greenham protest; naysayers were fuel for their conviction as well, empowering more and more potential allies to join the cause.

A woman protester is dragged into a police car during a demonstration outside the Greenham Common airbase, Nov. 1, 1983 (AP Photo/Dave Caulkin)

3. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.

Think outside the box!

Extreme problems often require experimental solutions.

Revolution and rebellion can be achieved through many means.

Though fully committed to nonviolence, the Greenham women did invent methods of disruption that were inspired and effective.

Ms. Johnson regaled us with stories of when she and other Greenham women put their heads together to create peace-driven but disruptive actions.

During their first event in February 1982 called “Embrace the Base,” roughly 30,000 women came to Greenham hoping to stymie the construction of the base. They sang fight songs, circulated petitions, obstructed highways and took over air traffic control towers. Many were jailed and put on trial. They lived in caravans parked outside the camp’s enclosure in less than comfortable conditions. But a good cause and good company keeps any revolutionary warm and motivated.

(AP Photo/Dave Caulkin)

4. Slow and steady wins the race.

Change absolutely does not happen overnight, but the revolutionary must stay vigilant. The idea was to stop the missiles from arriving, but that did not work. The nuclear arms arrived in 1983, much to the dismay of all of Greenham. The women were met with violence from U.S. military personnel and British police: “The [police] were dragging us, they were bouncing on our backs once they pushed us into the ditches…” Officers and soldiers would pour hot coffee down women’s pants or threaten them with rape and assault if they didn’t cease and desist. She described another event where she herself was knocked unconscious by an officer. But they kept on!

The women at Greenham took advantage of the fact that at every turn they were being underestimated, their resolve rarely wavering. Greenham Common Peace Camp began in 1981 and did not close until way after the last missiles left the premises in 1991. Officially closed in 2000, the women earned themselves a memorial park at the site of their legendary protest. Press on, go brave and the results might astound you.

Greenham Common Air base – Nov. 15, 1983. (AP Photo/Dave Caulkin)

5. Be open to being transformed.

There is no way to fully immerse yourself in a movement for the greater good or stand up for what you believe – and not be irrevocably changed. Many of the attendees at Greenham Common were closeted queer folks lacking in community and described finally feeling free to be themselves at the camp, leading the UK press to push the narrative that the protest was being held by a large group of lesbians!

Ms. Johnson spoke of her life after the camp, “I was pretty unemployable by then because I’d actually been in-and-out of prison a lot…” But she was approached by Greenpeace to head up yet another disarmament initiative working to draft a treaty banning nuclear testing. This opened up an entirely new career path for her. She authored a book published by the United Nations and then began work on a separate treaty with ICAN, an effort that won her team the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017 for raising awareness on the humanitarian ramifications of nuclear weapon use. She told us how Greenham changed the course of her life personally and professionally.

Anti-nuclear protestors wave goodbye to a U.S. Air Force plane carrying Cruise Missiles at Greenham Common, England, on August 1, 1989. They were the first of the 96 missiles at Greenham Common, 50 miles west of London, which are being transported out and destroyed at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona. (AP Photo/Redman)
(AP Photo/Redman)

To conclude, it does not take much to make big waves. Not to say that there are not innumerable sacrifices or intense undertakings involved when fighting for the greater good – but it does not take some special caliber of person to do it. The legacy of Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp is one of the ordinary achieving the extraordinary.

The word revolution has Latinate roots meaning “a change of fortune”.  Though certainly one-of-a-kind, Rebecca Johnson is not a superhuman nor does she consider herself a “mother” of the revolution, “I was a suffragette daughter, I never thought I was doing a revolution, I was just trying to carry on [that revolution]…our daughters and granddaughters are every single woman, every single girl who knows that she has the power within her that she has the power within her to change the world and knows that she needs to use that.”

“Mothers of the Revolution” will be streaming online starting this month on several platforms.


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Fear and Loathing in Sex-land: Breaking the Stigma of Sexually Transmitted Infections

STIs are absolutely terrifying. And completely normal! How do we prioritize our health and also stay turned on?

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Sexually. Transmitted. Infections. STIs.

We know ‘em, we fear ‘em, we loathe ‘em…we have them! They’re a part of the program when putting our parts together.

Those of us who are sexually active have all had a scare (or several). As of 2018, 1 in 5 people in the United States have an STI at any given moment. For the record, that works out to roughly 68 million live infections. New STIs costs about $16 billion in direct medical costs.

So why are we still so cagey about it? Arya and I dissected the ins and outs of STI-tiquette on the first episode of our new podcast Nocturnal Eruptions:

First off, if we have learned anything over the past 18 months, there is still a huge stigma attached to being infected with anything, let alone via sex.

STI diagnoses are a source of ignominy, blame and regret.

The culture around sexually transmitted disease is perpetuates the idea that it is a scourge—a black mark on one’s personal hygiene. It feels akin to being afraid or ashamed of food poisoning even though everyone eats.

Usually when portrayed in media, STDs serve as the butt of a joke or the start of a crisis.

The irony is that most of us don’t know of a single person who has not had or been exposed to syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia, herpes, HIV, or bacterial vaginosis at least once (anyone up for a game of Never Have I Ever?).

I am perpetually scarred by a close brush with crabs from college after a girl put her infested underwear in the community washing machine at our dorms.

Once contracted, an STI makes you a sexual pariah, a walking virus wreaking havoc its wake. Or so the stigma-induced fright tells us.

One of the greatest contributors to the colossal loss of life during the AIDS epidemic was the terror of being labeled a carrier; those with the virus were completely villanized, and those they infected, disgraced. The dangerous side of this? STI-testing reticence and a complete lack of communication between sexual partners.

Aren’t we all responsible for ourselves and our bodies when it comes to sleeping together? Shouldn’t we have acquiesced to this reality by now and become experts in preventative or preemptive measures?

A map at a news conference highlighting reported cases of gonorrhea in women aged 15 to 24 in Los Angeles, 2011. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

Which brings me another point. Say it with me: AFTER. CARE. What is aftercare? It is the necessary attention paid to the vulnerable moments post-coitus, an opportunity to ensure your partner or partners’ physical and emotional well-being.

Originally a tenet of BDSM sexual practices, aftercare has been more generally adopted as good manners as safety and consent have become central to our conversations around sex. Aftercare can range from getting someone a glass of water to cuddling, pillow talk and everything in between.

Beforecare is also important. We’re talking about getting naked! Part of beforecare is how you approach each other even if the encounter is spontaneous or casual. Beforecare can look like sharing the results of your latest STI panels, douching, or pre-planning your date. Sometimes there are even contracts drawn up between sexual partners.

Both before and aftercare require a level of honestly and transparency. If you are not capable of this, you should not be having sex.

Okay so you’ve nailed the beforecare and the aftercare, you’ve had a few rolls in the hay, and now something is wrong. You’re itchy or burning down there, maybe there are bumps or a rancid smell, maybe you are symptomless entirely – either way, you head to your local clinic or your GP and you are, unfortunately, STI positive.

Obviously, there is a spectrum here. Not all infections are permanent or visible, but they are all transmissible. For this reason, it is time to make some awkward calls. This is the part where folks usually drop the ball, so to speak. Aftercare does not only end when you’ve thrown the condom away and said “see you never.” The call to say, “Hey there, I’ve just tested positive for _________, you should go get tested as well, ASAP” is common courtesy, no matter how cringe it is. And some folks would appreciate an update of the results or even to be accompanied to an STI screen. If any of that gives you agita, examine why?

Sex is not to be taken lightly, even if there are no strings attached.

We can be so ceremonious about how we express ourselves sexually, it almost makes the literal act anticlimactic.

Why can’t we romanticize or spice up the safety and care part too? It might make the sex…sexier?

Feeling safe and respected sexually leads to freedom, deeper connections and room for experimentation.

If you afford someone the privilege of your presence, of your body, you deserve this kind of attention to detail – it does not matter whether they’re a romantic partner or a one-time, pressed-up-against-the-bathroom-door-at-the-club tryst. This should be non-negotiable now.

To destigmatize STI diagnoses we must normalize these processes, especially when evidently, a lot of us are out here raw-dogging it.

Infection is inevitable., so much like with COVID, we should make regular testing commonplace because it affects anyone we may come in contact with.

STI’s should not be a dealbreaker either. The wonders of modern medicine have made many of ye olde long-term, life-threatening infections manageable and undetectable. Medicines like PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis), an antiviral drug that can prevent HIV contraction and transmission.

(AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

In conclusion, stay safe out there, people!

Normalize getting a full STI panel every few months, especially if you are engaging with multiple partners.

This isn’t Victorian England. You are not going to be shut up in a convent or sent to an asylum while you waste away, writing melancholy poetry, covered in syphilitic sores. You’re going to tell your partners, you’re going to get treatment, and then keep it moving.

And please, communicate responsibly! Let’s break the stigma together. Now keep on and keep getting laid!

Tune in to our first installment of Nocturnal Eruptions below!

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