Fighting the stigma around STIs: It can be worse than the infection

By Lea Rose Emery

It’s time that we tackle the stigma around STIs (formerly and sometimes still referred to as STDs). The fact that discussing your STI- even acknowledging it- is taboo is a huge problem in our society. The many, many people with STIs out there deserve so much better. In a series that MTV and Trojan launched to help Millennials tackle difficult sex and dating topics, YouTuber Shannon Boodram got very real. Armed with some poster boards and a lot of facts, she spoke publicly about having an STI — and taking a public stand like that is so important. She was literally on the street talking about not only how she got an STI, but also just how common they are. And the fact that this is video-worthy is telling. Sure, she’s an incredible speaker who is frank and engaging, but talking about your STI shouldn't be an event. It’s an important reminder that we need to open up the conversation around STIs and start to really fight the stigma — because the stigma is hurting people, often more than the infection is. 


They are so common: 25% of women and 10% of men probably have genital herpes

Boodram drops a very important statistic in the video: the fact that one in two people under the age of 26 will contract an STI. That’s half. How crazy is it to attach a stigma to something so. freaking. common? It’s a waste of energy — and a destructive one. As Kathryn Stamoulis, Ph.D., says in Psychology Today — STIs are normal. They are so, so normal. While around 80 percent of adults have the oral strain herpes (which you might know as cold sores) we often speak as though genital herpes is the worst thing that could happen to someone. Oh — and 25 percent of women and 10 percent of men probably have genital herpes, in case you were wondering. “Just imagine what life would look like if people viewed STDs as a normal part of fooling around,” Stamoulis writes. “Without fear of tarnishing his reputation, a teenage boy could tell his partner ‘you may not want to get too close to me this week; I'm clearing up a case of Chlamydia.’ Or a teen girl may view getting tested twice a year as routine as she does a teeth cleaning.” Life would be so much simpler — and sex would be more straightforward, and safer, for it. 

The stigma is often worse than the disease 

People who live with an STI often face a ridiculous amount of stigma  — and the emotional strain of dealing with the stigma can be worse than the infection itself. Many STIs are curable and treatment is often easy. The way you’re often treated if you have an STI, though, is anything but easy. And it isn’t just about people directly making fun of you or attacking you for having an STI. A lot of the stigma is far more subtle but just as destructive. In fact, you may have been part of it without even realizing it: “STD stigma isn't always directed,” Researcher Elizabeth Boskey, Ph.D., writes. “Sometimes it's more general, like when people make jokes or play songs that equate herpes to being dirty. But even undirected stigma can be very painful and have a negative side effect. Stigma is a problem no matter how it's enacted.” 

If you’re constantly hearing that a disease you have means you’re dirty, untrustworthy, undesirable — that starts to sink in. It’s horrific. In addition to having to negotiate an STI with any sexual partners you may have or may have had, you also have to deal with internalizing this discrimination constantly. It’s time we stop making STIs some sort of punchline and start treating them as what they are — infections, which are often totally treatable and even curable. 

And it aids the spreading of the disease 

The irony is that the huge stigma around STIs actually makes STIs more common. It creates an environment where people don’t want to get tested, in case they discover that they do have an STI — so they ignore the problem completely. And since many STIs can be asymptomatic (meaning there is no way of identifying them unless you get tested) this is a huge problem. The stigma also means that not everyone discloses having an STI, especially if they are asymptomatic, and feel that they don’t have to, so the infections spread further. “If the shame surrounding STDs is diminished, more people will be willing to get tested regularly and to disclose when they have an infection to current or potential partners,” Stamoulis says. And she’s totally right. Imagine treating an STI like a cold or the flu. You tell the people around you that you’re contagious, you get the medication, and you move on. It could be that simple if we could drop the stigma and histrionics surrounding them. 

Even in the 21st century, having an STI can be incredibly difficult — but that’s usually not because of the infection itself; it’s the panic, the fear, the shame that’s brought on by the stigma attached to having an STI. This needs to change. 

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