(and more on the STI/STD stigma)
By Hannah Schweitzer, Sex Editor
“All the signs were there that [my college roommate] was a slut. She’d always wear tube tops,” jokes Amy Schumer in her album Cutting. “I was like, ‘Denise, you should go get tested because you are a huge whore.’”
We’ve all heard jokes like these before: jokes that connect STDs and STIs to being a “stupid, disgusting, [insert degrading word here] slut.”
STDs and STIs are a common punchline. We’re used to the stereotypical “loose girls, fuckboys and overall dirty, worthless people” being tainted with herpes. The thing is, STD/STIs are incredibly common and no one is ever worthless.
Writer Lindy West discusses her disapproval of using STD/STIs as the butt of jokes in her book Shrill. She explains how these cheap jokes reinforce stigmas. First, the comic makes the joke. Second, people with herpes have their worst fears affirmed: they’re broken and unlovable. Third, people without herpes are validated: they’re virtuous. These people have the power to laugh and look down at those with herpes. Fourth, “everyone agrees that no one wants to fuck someone with herpes.”
While stigma around STD/STIs stems from negative judgement around sex, STD/STIs are oversexualized. “It can take only one partner to become infected,” writes Huffpost’s Natalia Gurevich, in her article STDs are Incredibly Common – So Why The Stigma?. “Sometimes, it doesn’t take any partner – infection can occur in all sorts of circumstances and contact.” Therefore, one doesn’t have to be a “huge whore” (to quote Amy Schumer) to get an STD/STI.
One way STD/STIs are oversexualized is by the use of the word “clean” for those who test negative to STD/STIs. This reinforces the idea that one who tests positive is dirty. Synonyms for dirty include lewd, vulgar and slutty; those are pretty sexual words if I do say so myself! “The word herpes has become almost interchangeable with dirty,” explains Elizabeth Boskey, PhD, in her article Addressing the Consequences of the Herpes Stigma. A spring 2015 Google search found 600,000+ matches for the words herpes and dirty “used in close proximity to each other.”
This feeling of dirtiness may cause depression, harm to one’s social and romantic relationships, and suicidal thoughts. Ironically, all of this distress is for infections that usually can be easily treated with antibiotics.
What makes the stigma around STD/STIs even more ironic is that STD/STIs are incredibly common and on the rise. Nearly 2.3 million cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis were diagnosed in the United States in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). They are more common among young people with 50% of new infections in people ages 15-20 and one in two sexually active persons will contract an STI by age 25.
The “social suicide” of STD/STIs causes many to fear getting tested and decide it’s better to live not knowing. Some don’t discuss getting tested with their doctor, out of fear of slut-shaming for just asking. Those diagnosed are afraid to address the topic with their partners out of fear of rejection. Some doctors even choose not to test their patients because they “believe that the emotional trauma of diagnosis causes more harm than the potential for spreading the disease.”
STD/STIs are often asymptomatic, or have no symptoms, so they can only be caught with testing. Therefore the fear of being tested causes many people to remain undiagnosed. While many STD/STI’s are easily treated with antibiotics when diagnosed early, STD/STIs left untreated “can lead to severe adverse health effects that include infertility, ectopic pregnancy, stillbirth in infants, and increased HIV risk,” according to the CDC.
Point intended, STD/STIs aren’t something to joke about. Let’s stop giggling about herpes. Let’s provide support for our diagnosed peers and treat them with respect instead of shame.
Instead of reinforcing the stigma, I urge us to find new ways to talk about STD/STIs. The problem is not that young people aren’t aware of STD/STIs (I can remember being hammered with the “dirty dangers” of chlamydia, gonorrhea and HPV in 7th grade sex ed). What young people lack is an education on how to get tested, get treated and have conversations about STD/STIs with their partners without fear. Let’s talk about STD/STI stigmas in sex ed. Let’s remind students that STD/STIs are common, and don’t define the worth of a person. Let’s change attitudes.
More open conversations about STD/STIs will spark conversations about the overall importance of taking care of your sexual health. Because our society is afraid to talk about STD/STIs as a whole, many are not aware of prevention methods other than condoms. Latex condoms are a great way to prevent STD/STIs during vaginal, oral and anal sex with a penis and/or sex toy. However there’s so much more to “safe sex” than simply using a condom. A condom must be used for the entire sex act: have the condom on for all foreplay in which you and your partner(s) are naked and for all penetration. Therefore, putting on a condom only for the grand finale (woo elajaculation!) doesn’t prevent STD/STIs from pre-cum. Make sure any lubricant you use is water-based so it doesn’t cause the condom to fall off or break. You can learn how to put on and store a condom correctly so it doesn’t break here.
Condoms aren’t the only form of protection available (mmm I love options). Internal condoms can be used for vaginal and anal penetration. Dental dams can be used for vaginal and anal oral sex. Dental dams can be bought as is or you can make a DIY dental dam from a condom! Many aren’t aware that fingering and jerking off (a.k.a HAND STUFF) can also spread STD/STIs stuck underneath fingernails. You can use gloves or finger cots (basically a glove for a finger…or two ;)) for prevention.
But using protection isn’t the only way to stay safe. It’s important to remember that in order to prevent yourself from STD/STIs you should also do the following, according to WebMD:
- Avoid sharing towels or underclothing.
- Wash before and after intercourse.
- Get a vaccination for hepatitis B.
- Always avoid anyone who has genital/mouth sores, a rash or discharge.
- Communicate with new partners about getting tested. Get tested before a new partner and ask your partner to get tested as well.
- Avoid having sex while intoxicated or on drugs.
Last but not least, a great way to prevent STD/STIs is to get tested at least once a year. The first step to end the STD/STI stigma is to normalize getting tested. This should be something easy to communicate about, ask for and do. STD/STI tests are simple and fast. Tests for gonorrhea and chlamydia usually consist of peeing in a cup or the swabbing of your genitals. HIV tests usually include a blood test.
Celebrate destroying STD/STI stigmas by getting tested this month! You can get tested at your doctor’s office, a community health clinic, the health department, or at your local Planned Parenthood health center. Find a local testing site here!
Hannah Schweitzer is Popularly Positive’s Sex Editor and the host of Boston University’s “Love is on the Air.” She can be pitched using email@example.com.