The language of sex is the language of science
For a scientist specializing in reproductive infectious diseases, Dr. Sharon Hillier has spent a remarkable amount of time creating euphemisms to explain her work in more palatable terms.
When asked to brief Congress on her work in HIV prevention, she was given a list of forbidden words: Condom. Vagina. Penis.
“They wanted me to talk about the work I did, but never talk about sex,” she says, adding that Washington remains deeply uncomfortable on all talk of sex — even in work such as Hillier’s, which focuses on life-saving interventions.
“When you talk about the realities, some want to pretend that all the solutions are from the shoulders up,” she says.
In reality, many of the solutions occur in the “secret garden” — the alternate term Hillier sometimes uses for the vagina. Products such as an anti-microbial vaginal ring allow women to take control of both contraception and disease prevention in ways that condom use cannot, she notes. The ring, which sits just under the cervix, stays in for a month and then gets replaced. It is similar to those already available for birth control and hormone replacement therapy. But it includes dapivirine, a medicine that prevents HIV from duplicating itself.
In the fourth grade, Hillier’s daughter once told a teacher: “My mom works on the kinds of infections nobody wants to get and almost nobody wants to talk about.” People sitting next to Hillier on airplanes who ask what she does for a living quickly find out that when it comes to fighting disease, she pulls no punches — especially when she runs into someone who wants to dismiss sexually transmitted infections as someone else’s problem.
“I’m one of ‘those’ people who tells them: The virus doesn’t care if you’re black or you’re white, rich or poor. It’s a virus.”
And while some people may be uncomfortable talking about sex, Hillier is grateful for the path her career has taken: “Giving people the ability to have sex safely so they can be worry-free and enjoy intimacy with their partner is a gift.”