Normalizing STI: Stigma vs. Reality

The latest statistics from the World Health Organization found that over 1 million new cases of sexually transmitted infections occur every day across the globe. The majority of these cases are from the most common of infections: Gonorrhea, Chlamydia, Trichomoniasis, and Syphilis.

As humans, sex is a huge part of our lives. With that, so are the infections that often occur from our sexual encounters. Despite this, the whole conversation around STIs is clouded with shame, and a stigma that is usually worse than the infection itself. So how do we change the conversation from one that masks the reality of STIs to one that prioritizes health and understanding? It starts with education.

While the acronyms STI and STD are commonly used interchangeably, they are different.

The American Sexual Health Association describes a sexually transmitted infection as the initial “infection” of a virus or bacteria from one individual to another. Many people show no symptoms after being infected with an STI. A sexually transmitted disease is when an infection creates health symptoms and further problems. A common example of this is when a woman is infected with HPV (STI), which later turns into cervical cancer (STD).

Most STIs are treatable with conventional medicine, and can be easily detected through a routine screening. While this seems simple enough, there are so many compounding factors that keep people from seeking proper care around their sexual health.

Any conversation around sex is going to instantly bring up the generations of programming and shame that we hold around it. Shame that has been influenced by culture, religion, family, and trauma. Shame that we undoubtedly carry in our bodies. Shame that keeps us from taking control of our sexual health.

Let’s make one thing clear: If you have an STD or STI, it is not your fault. Playing the blame game does not change anything. Especially since the person we blame most often- is ourselves. Although it is not your fault for contracting an infection, it is your responsibility to seek proper treatment. Avoiding treatment out of embarrassment can cause long term repercussions that could have been easily prevented. Understand that your healthcare provider has seen it all, and is there to help you- not judge you.

Outside of medical care, there are other crucial pieces to changing how we approach our sexual health. Openness in conversation being one of the biggest. Most people’s automatic reaction to receiving a positive status is to hide it. We bury it so deep in ourselves that it perpetuates and weighs us down.

It’s a simple equation: isolation equals shame. The more we talk about these topics, the more common we realize they are, the more options we realize we have, and the less guilt we feel around them. Discussion creates a ripple effect. Your ability to discuss your sexual health openly may inspire someone else who was previously afraid to do so.

This opportunity for vulnerability makes space for deep emotional healing around the things we bury the deepest. If anything, it may just give someone the nudge to go get tested.

An open conversation around STIs normalizes the steps we must take to gain control of our sexual health. If you can get used to talking about them with your healthcare provider and your friends, it will make it that much easier to do so with a new sexual partner.

Destigmatizing STIs allows us to have sex that is not only safe physically, but emotionally as well. When you stop holding back, you are able to be truly present with a person.

Another key piece in changing our views around STIs is looking at the language we use to talk about them. The idea that someone is “infected” may be straightforward medically, but in reality, it carries so much weight. It implies that they are sick, diseased, or someone to avoid. Another term we often hear is the idea of being “clean”.

If someone gets a clear STI screening, they describe themselves as “clean”. If someone asks them their status, they say that they are “clean”. Have we ever stopped to look at what “clean” implies? Well if someone isn’t “clean”- they must be “dirty”. What do we do when someone is “dirty”?

We avoid them, we ostracize them, we critique them. This common language implies that despite the widespread rates of people with an STI or STD, they are somehow an outsider.

While you may not deem it necessary to change your language around sexual health, it is something to bring awareness to. Simply changing the words you use creates sensitivity to yourself or friends that may have an STI/D.

With this information, you can gain a deeper understanding of your sexual health. Let this be a reminder to learn the signs for the most common STIs, get tested routinely, talk to your sexual partners about both of your status’, and find a health care provider you trust.

If you have an STI or STD, understand this does not define you. This is not your identity. You are still capable of having a beautiful, thriving sex life. Your ability to be honest and open with your story provides emotional healing not only for yourself, but for those around you. Create a safe space for friends to discuss their sexual health. Meeting them, and yourself, without judgment is how we destigmatize STIs.

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