The STI Stigma
Chlamydia, Gonorrhea, HIV, Herpes: A few of the dirtiest words in the English language. Whenever they are discussed, it is with a sense of disgust and judgement. If you’ve ever had an STI (also known as STD) and told someone about it, you’ve probably experienced the scarlet letter effect. In other words, you were probably shamed in some way for it, or made to feel embarrassed. If you’re sexually active and have never had an STI, I have some news for you.
An STI is, in fact, an infection, not a disease; hence the name-change from “sexually transmitted disease” to “sexually transmitted infection.” Being an infection, it is just about as common as the flu for those who are sexually active. According to the American Sexual Health Association, 1 in 2 people will contract an STI before they are 25. 1 in 6 people, aged 14-49 in the U.S, have genital herpes. More than half of the sexually active youth have chlamydia, gonorrhea, or syphilis. 1.1 million people in the U.S have HIV, and 1 in 7 don’t even know it. Most STIs are asymptomatic, meaning there are no symptoms. The only way to know for sure is to get tested.
The problem is, because of the heavy stigma around STIs, people are avoiding getting tested. According to a study in 2008, college students were more concerned with the shame of an STI than the physical repercussions. It is still a popular misconception that STIs only happen to the sexually promiscuous, and that they taint you for life. This says a lot about how we view sex in our society, as well. STIs are another excuse to slut-shame, despite the fact that it only takes one partner to contract something. The fear of this stigma is enough for people to completely avoid getting tested because they would rather not know. The stigmatization of STIs is dangerous, and getting tested needs to be a priority. The risks do increase if you do not get treated, especially for women, who may experience issues like infertility.
The stigmatization of STIs really starts with education. Most schools have some form of sexual education, where we learn about the STIs and how to prevent them by putting on a condom. Yet, we never actually discuss the stigma of STIs and how heavily that has affected the rapid spread of them in recent years. Pay attention to language and metaphors used when discussing STIs, as they are often very wrong and can be offensive. Educate your peers on the real facts, and encourage them to get tested. Remind them that if they are positive, most STIs can be treated with an antibiotic or an injection. Most importantly, remind them that they are not alone, and have no reason to feel ashamed.