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As someone living with HIV in their 20s, I find myself constantly intrigued by books on STIs. I’ve read “And the Band Played On” and On Borrowed Time,” but there really hasn’t been any larger cultural study of STIs in general, much less a comprehensive history of them. That is, until Ina Park’s “Strange Bedfellows” came along. I received an advance reviewer’s copy from Flatiron Books, and the book is slated for release this fall!
As Park says in the introduction to her book, “having sex is much easier than talking about sex, especially its least pleasant consequences.” This rang particularly true for me: before Michigan changed its disclosure laws at least, I was required by law to disclose my HIV status to all sexual partners, even though I was undetectable and could not spread HIV. And that is never a pleasant talk, as Park says. So, Park acknowledges the core challenge of her book: how can we talk about STIs in such a way that doesn’t just generate what she calls the “ick” factor? Her answer? “[S]torytelling, science and humor.”
Each of the chapters of the book focuses on a different STI or STI phenomenon. We see talk about herpes, HPV, “sex detectives,” and of course HIV, the chapter I’m focusing on in this review. Park’s main chapter on HIV closely examines PrEP. As she tracks the mythos of “Truvada Whores,” the derogatory term for people on PrEP believed to be overly sexually active because of that protection, she looks back to when HIV really became an epidemic in the ’80s and moves to show how far medicine really has come. Then, she shows some of the common debates about PrEP and what the future looks like for it.
What I love about this chapter is the way that Park flows so fluidly between scientific facts and statistics, personal and intimate anecdotes, and histories of social movements. She even gets into the U=U campaign toward the end of the chapter. For people looking to study and write about STIs, it is a frequent instinct to associate STIs with “evil” and hence vilify sex itself. Park never falls into this trap. As a person living with an STI, I felt like Park had written in such a way as to include people like me. She’s not writing about people living with STIs as these exotic outsiders to be gazed at as carnival oddities; she demystifies and decriminalizes STIs while also saying, “There are such fascinating stories and histories here.”
This level of attention to rhetoric and audience pervades throughout the book. I found myself learning a lot about the cultural histories of many STIs that I knew little about. Some of it is fundamental, and some of it is just fun trivia. But Park manages to communicate all of this without droning on, and she implements the right amount of humor throughout. Humor is so important when it comes to talking about STIs. Growing up, people are taught that having an STI is the worst thing ever, and hence STIs are often the butt of jokes. But in “Strange Bedfellows,” it’s often the serophobic, conservative mindsets that become the ignorant ones. Her book is unashamedly progressive, and it’s a refreshing sexual study that anyone could easily get into and enjoy.
In each chapter, there is this very clear narrative, and it’s framed with a question for the reader. She constantly begs readers to ask themselves what they think from the get-go. Then, Park shows how complicated that seemingly simple question really is. She goes to the discourse’s origins and then tracks multiple historic moments in the conversation. The reader constantly feels like they are going on a journey, and that is a tough task when it comes to a nonfiction task like this.
Park is a doctor and professor at the University of California, San Francisco, and yet, much of what we see in this book is cultural studies. What Mary Roach is to science in her sex book “Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex,” Ina Park is to cultural history and current affairs. And she still gets fascinating science in there!
All in all, I would — and will — recommend “Strange Bedfellows” to many of my queer friends. This is a very sex-positive text that celebrates sexuality, works to destigmatize STIs and informs the general public about this often taboo subject. Whether you have an STI or not, whether you have sex or not, whether you’re queer or not, this is a must-read book for 2020s America.
Find out more about “Strange Bedfellows” here.