The art of public health nursing: using confession technè in the sexual health domain


  • Dave Holmes PhD RN,

  • Patrick O'Byrne RN

Dave Holmes,
School of Nursing,
University of Ottawa,
451 Smyth Road,
Ontario K1H 8M5,


Aim.  This paper explores the sexual health interview from a critical perspective, and to demonstrate how the confession ritual involved in this interview is implicated in the construction of subjectivities (meaning identities) as well as in fostering self-surveillance (self-regulation).

Background.  The concept of public health depends primarily on several surveillance tools that monitor both the incidence and prevalence rates of certain diseases. Within the subgroup of infectious diseases, sexually transmitted infections comprise a group that is closely monitored. As a result, surveillance techniques, including policing sexual practices, are part of the public health worker's mandate.

Method.  Using a Foucauldian perspective, we demonstrate that confession is a political technology in the sexual health domain.

Findings.  As one group of frontline workers in the field of sexual health, nurses are responsible for data collection through methods such as interviewing clients. Nurses play an integral role in the sexual health experience of clients as well as in the construction of the client's subjectivity. We strongly believe that a Foucauldian perspective could be useful in explaining certain current client behavioural trends (for example, an avoidance by at-risk groups of interactions with nurses in sexual health clinics) being observed in sexual health clinics across the Western hemisphere.

Conclusion.  Clinicians need to be aware of the confessional nature of their questions and provide requested services rather than impose services that they determine to be important and relevant. By appreciating that the sexual health interview is an invasive and embarrassing sexual confession, healthcare providers and policy-makers may be better able to design and implement more user-oriented, population-sensitive sexual health services.