Giant, Anthropomorphic Penises All the Rage in San Francisco These Days

You don't always say this about penises, but in San Francisco, they come in threes. First there was the walking, advice-dispensing dong featured in a locally produced health film/soap opera.Then there was local reality TV ingrate Stephen Fowler. And now, the San Francisco Healthy Penises are back! (and there are three of them!)

The Healthy Penises are actually a trio of San Francisco Department of Public Health workers donning giant dick costumes (and another dressed as a red syphilis sore) who made their triumphant re-entry into the city this afternoon. Eileen Shields, a spokeswoman for the DPH, said the white, brown, and black penises aren't distinguished by race — but naming them “Clark,” “Byron,” and “Pedro”? That's about as subtle as a 6-foot-tall penis.

The testicular trio were first seen on the streets of San Francisco in 2002, and were “retired” in 2006 to combat syphilis in Seattle, Santa Clara County, and Winnipeg. And yet, rising syphilis rates have forced the DPH to dust off the penises. The city claims syphilis rates have jumped 50 percent in the last year among gay men and a health alert released late last year states that 54 percent more San Franciscans tested positive in 2008 than 2007 (incidentally, 92 percent of them were gay men; it's no coincidence the costumed penises made their appearance today in the Castro). You can read that health alert here: advisory syphilis.10.29.2008.pdf

These alarming statistics apparently counter any good news gleaned from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Its latest report on syphilis records the lowest syphilis rate in years for the San Francisco area in 2007 — only 308 cases total (last year's low rate, oddly, came during a time the Healthy Penis gang wasn't here to spread the word).

Dr. Ken Katz, an epidimologist with the DPH, blamed the syphilis outbreak on decreased outreach as a result of budget cuts. As for why gay men make up the vast majority of cases locally, he said the disease has “established itself in the sexual network.” In other words, relatively large numbers of local gay men are infected, making this pool a risky place to “swim”; yet in general there is nothing about the act of male-on-male sex that generates more of a risk for syphilis than heterosexual sex. He also reports the Healthy Penis gang are “kind of fuzzy” and “pleasant to the touch” and you don't have to be a man to wear the costume.

In the meantime, those considering engaging in unprotected sex and eschewing a regular screening at local STD clinics are advised to watch the following:

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