An Op-Ed about STD Stigma – Part 1

StigmaThis essay was submitted anonymously after the author participated in the STD Interviews. This is part 1 of a 3 part series.

Many people toss around jokes as if the only way they can get an STD is to sleep with tons of people. In high school, almost daily, girls bashed each other with names like ‘slut’ and ‘whore’. I can’t keep track of how many times I heard phrases that went something like this, ‘She slept with so many people; I can’t imagine the diseases she’s carrying around.’

Not to mention the preconceived notions about people who have an STD: ‘He has herpes? That’s disgusting.’ Disgusting

Just last week, I was sitting in my ethics class when my professor referred to venereal diseases as being ‘the yucky stuff.’ As the majority of the class laughed, grimaced, and made several ‘ew’ comments, I sunk into my chair with a blank stare on my face, clinched my teeth, and gulped down my dejection.

In an essay written about the stigma surrounding people who are overweight (ironic, right?), the author made a pretty degrading statement: ‘Why would anyone want to date someone who will land them in the STD clinic? How dangerous is that?’ In other words, people who have had or still have an STD are more dangerous and undesirable than overweight people.

If someone has an STD, they’re perceived as gross, disgusting, careless, slutty, and judged ferociously.

Sexual Transmitted Diseases ≠ Promiscuity  

The belief that sexually transmitted diseases are a result of sexual promiscuity leads to a number of problems. One of them being a faulty assumption that if you’re sleeping with a lot of people, there’s a good chance you are carrying around a disease.

This belief directly correlates with the lack of teens getting tested for STDs, because they don’t feel they are at risk.

Teens who are going through egocentrism believe they are invincible – they believe that if they aren’t sleeping with a large number of people, they don’t need to be tested. They can sit back and watch it happen to other people while never believing they will come in contact with someone who has an STD.

In an article about the importance of the eradication of the stigma surrounding STDs, Kathryn Stamoulis, Ph.D. writes:

‘In 2008, the CDC published the results from a study in which a nationally representative sample of girls ages 12-18 were tested for STDs. Twenty-six percent of girls tested positive for various STDs. Equally troubling, many of the girls did not even know they were infected. Further, many of the girls reported they had never had sexual intercourse. Of the girls that reported having sex, 40% tested positive for at least one STD.’

That particular study also highlights the assumption that STDs can only be transmitted through sexual intercourse.

Inaccurate Assumptions = Inaccurate Perception of Risk

Intercourse is only one way of contracting infections and diseases.

Herpes, for example, is spread through skin to skin contact. If someone has a cold sore (the herpes simplex virus – HSV), for example, they can easily spread the virus through oral sex with their partner.

The CDC’s study illustrates the fact that many teens don’t feel they need to get tested, because they assume they aren’t at risk – yet, 40% of teen girls who were sexually active tested positive for at least one STD.

Teens and adults are having sex, but they are still afraid to talk about it, they don’t think they need to get tested for STDs, and they look down upon those who have an STD.

It Doesn’t Equate

People, young and old, are having sex. We, as humans, are hard-wired to desire other people; we have a drive for sexual behavior with others. We all have these feelings, and we act on them. We are supposed to be sexually active and procreate for the survival of our species.

I am not condoning promiscuous sexual behavior, in any way, but, simply, advocating that we should not be ashamed of being sexual. Why should anyone be ashamed of participating in an act that is completely natural?

Sex and sexually transmitted diseases affect everyone. So why are people who have sexually transmitted diseases looked down upon?

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This essay was submitted anonymously after the author participated in the STD Interviews. This is part 1 of a 3 part series. The author is 20 years old and a full time student at Northwestern Michigan College. Her intended major is Philosophy, with her primary interest being Metaphysics – she hopes to transfer to the University of Notre Dame. Aside from philosophy, another one of her passions is the importance of raw food-ism and holistic healing. Her ultimate goals are to teach Philosophy to college students and be able to live an abundant, organic lifestyle. 

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How did this story affect you? What do think about the stigma surrounding STDs and those who have them? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

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  1. quinkygirl says

    I’m sure that your experience in class must have been very difficult. I agree that the stigmatization of STDs needs to stop. Who gets to define “promiscuity,” though? Surely not you. Or me. Instead, promiscuity is usually defined as “someone who has sex with a few more people than the speaker would choose.” The definition of “promiscuity” is always changing depending upon who is doing the speaking. Why should promiscuity be something that you have to distance yourself from? Whether you contracted an STD with your first lover or your hundredth doesn’t matter — you did nothing to “deserve” an STD. STDs happen to all sorts of people, myself included. They aren’t handed down by God or the Universe to punish the “promiscuous.” We drew the short straw. Plain and simple. Random bad luck, but bad luck shared by billions of people around the world.

    I’ve had my fair share of lovers. More than some other people. Less than some other people. You know what? I refuse to be shamed for being sexual. I have practice living outside the approval of society because I am a polyamorous woman and have been for nearly 20 years. Even with all of that practice, I sometimes find it hard and painful to be rejected by people living in a subculture that is allegedly both informed about STDs and sex-positive. There is a lot of judgment even in poly circles about HSV and other STIs.

    If we don’t like the conversations being had about herpes and other STIs, then it is up to us to change those conversations. It is up to us to educate the public. It is up to us to find a way to be as sexual as we each want to be while minimizing the risk of transmission to negative partners. It is up to us to find a way not to internalize others’ judgments about our sexuality.

    All of that is tricky and tiring. But if we don’t do it, who will?

    • Jenelle Marie says

      Hi quinkygirl –

      Thanks for your comments.

      Did you have an opportunity to read part 2 and part 3 of this series? You and the author reach a similar outcome.

      Thanks again for sharing your perspective!