On campus beat: U exhibit focuses on sexual health

  • Article by: JENNA ROSS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 28, 2012 - 11:10 PM

A curvy woman with Bettie Page bangs smiles down at two soldiers drinking beer.

"BOOBY TRAP," the poster warns. "Syphilis and Gonorrhea."

It's one of a dozen graphic posters featured in a University of Minnesota exhibit on the history of public sexual health campaigns. The American Social Health Association used the posters, pamphlets and even a dark 1933 feature film, "Damaged Lives," to educate about sexually transmitted infections and push against prostitution.

The exhibit, in the Elmer L. Andersen Library, "has something important to say not only about public health, but about U.S. culture" toward sexuality, said curator Linnea Anderson. "You could write a whole paper about how women are viewed."

The larger collection, part of the Social Welfare History Archives, is heavily used by researchers and students.

Undergraduates will "sometimes laugh," she said. "Sometimes they're angered by a portrayal, for example of women, who are either innocent victims or bad-girl prostitutes, or they'll think it's quirky or quaint."

"That's the moment ... when the attitudes of the past and of the present can really be felt."

She included more recent pamphlets, featuring smiling couples, for contrast. But the exhibit designer also created three red mannequins to help question what hasn't changed.

"We still have a bit of this attitude, culturally, that sexuality is shameful, embarrassing or not to be discussed," she said.

The exhibit's title, "If we can get the beast out of his lair," refers to a cartoon in which a knight, bearing a sword labeled "medical science and education," approaches a dark cave. The cave, made of "mankind's ancient secretiveness and false modesty," protects the fanged beast of syphilis inside.

It's the kind of graphic that today would be considered far too earnest, Anderson said.

"The knight is even wearing star-spangled pantaloons," she said, laughing. "It doesn't get any better than that."

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168 Twitter: @ByJenna

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