STD Stigma – The New Scarlet Letter

STD StigmaAdultry, Sodomy, Promiscuity

Go for it – as long as you don’t catch an STD.

The rules surrounding sex and all things ‘coupling’ have become so brazenly ambiguous these days – that is, until you catch an STD. At which point, you are a sinner, dirty, damaged-goods and you will, hence forth, pay for your bad behavior – or, as I like to call it, you will be scarlet-lettered forever.

Simple cause and effect, right?! Well, not really.

Sure, sex – all kinds – can lead to infectious diseases. However, that one has an infectious disease as a result of sexual activities is not an indicator of their moral or ethical shortcomings. One does not equal the other.

We have allowed ourselves to become so stigmatized by the media that we are missing some MAJOR underlying points when it comes to sexually transmitted diseases.

Let’s re-cap some important STD facts:

There are anywhere from 56-65 million (yes, million) people living in the U.S. with an incurable sexually transmitted disease. Keep in mind, those include only the tested and documented cases – my case was not one of those as I never actually got tested for herpes nor is herpes one of the sexually transmitted infections/diseases required to be reported to the CDC.

You can imagine, then, how many more undocumented cases of STDs there must be. To give some perspective, that also means there are more people living in the U.S. with an STI/STD than the entire black (42 million) or hispanic (50 million) populations.

Additionally, the CDC estimates there are 20 million new infections every year in the United States (some curable, some not). Again, this does not include sexually transmitted infections/diseases which are not required to be reported (HPV/genital warts and herpes, to name a couple).

Speaking of HPV, more than 50 percent of all sexually active people will contract HPV at some point during their lives – most won’t know it.

And, lastly, 1 in 2 Americans will have contracted an STI by the time they reach the age of 25 – again, this is not including the plethora of STIs not presently being reported.

If you haven’t noticed a theme here, I’ll help you a bit: many STDs are under-reported or unreported, therefor, even the shocking statistics presented here likely represent a much smaller portion of the population than is actually affected.

So, why do the facts matter?

They matter because, sexually transmitted infections/diseases affect everyone. They are not the effect of bad behavior. They are a risk one takes when engaging in sexual activities.

Sexual activities which lead to STDs can include adultry (let’s just hope not if you’re still gettin’ it on with the hubby or the mrs. as well, else, they’re in for a SURPRISE!), sodomy (who doesn’t like it in the butt from time to time?), promiscuity (sex and the city, anyone?), oral sex (yep – definitely happens – read this story), married sex (shocked by this one? Most people don’t know they have a sexually transmitted infection; just because you’re married doesn’t mean you’re STI/STD free), etc., etc…..

Still not sure what I’m saying here?

We’ve allowed ourselves to be had – no, not sexually this time.

We’ve accepted the jokes and we’ve stopped there – never questioning the logic or the facts. However, this has been to our detriment and to the detriment of the people we love – odds are, someone you are very close to, maybe even a significant other, has or has had something that is sexually transmitted.

Moreover, the lack of knowledge surrounding STIs/STDs does nothing for prevention and puts you at risk – even if you are sexual health savvy, odds are, your next so-and-so is not.

Yet, we continue to predicate the stigma, to call people clean or dirty, to use terms like damaged-goods and to place modern-day scarlet letters upon the chests of all people who have contracted an STI/STD. That’s worse than any ‘walk of shame’ I’ve ever seen, if you ask me – it’s the ultimate and continuous ‘walk of shame’.

But, why?

What good does it serve to label others as dirty or damaged-goods aside from make it much worse to back-track later when we’re faced with a like situation – or, worse yet, when someone very close to us is and has witnessed our ‘scarlet-lettering’?

More importantly, this type of branding does nothing to encourage people to get tested for sexually transmitted infections if they continue to believe, as long as they aren’t ‘whoring around’, they’ll be safe. What exactly is the definition of ‘whoring around’ anyway?

The CDC says less than half of people who should be screened receive recommended screening services… Is the CDC suggesting all those people who should be getting screened are ‘whoring around’?!?! Doubt it. Really, it just means every sexually active individual should get tested regularly.


So, let’s stop scarlet-lettering people, folks.

Let’s help people heal by sharing our experiences and frequently talking about our sexual health.

Let’s get educated.

And above anything else, let’s get ourselves tested!!!! :-)

What can you do to help eradicate the stigma?

  • Add ‘people with STDs’ to your mental list of groups facing discrimination.
  • Pay attention to language. Pay attention to metaphors like dirty or damaged-goods and stop using them.
  • Pay attention to stereotypes. Correct people when they try to say that being a slut means you probably have an STI/STD.
  • Tell your story – let others know they are not alone.

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What kind of stigma have you experienced? Did this change your mind about people who have contracted an STD or people who are living with an STD? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

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  1. Nick says

    STIs are a more or less an inevitable part of being human–especially HSV and HPV. As you note elsewhere, at least 80% of people contract HSV at some point. The polite term for this STI was previously “cold sores,” at least when the outbreak was oral. In the last decade or so, “cold sores” have been rebranded as an STD, and therefore something “filthy.”. Though June Cleaver could have sported “cold sores” a generation ago without repercussion. Now, “cold sores” around one’s labia or glans are certainly more unpleasant as you can attest, but we’re still talking about more or less the same thing. And HPV? It now appears that one can “clear” some of the HPVs that like to congregate around the genitals, so the lifetime infection rates are probably in the same range as HSV, if not higher. Again, I’ve never had visible signs of genital HPV, but I assume I’ve been exposed. The moral of the story is that humans coexist in their bodies with a shocking number of viruses and bacteria (microbiota anyone?), so we all need to get over the fact that we’re “filthy” little beasts:). That’s not to say we shouldn’t avoid contracting nasties–especially major nasties like Hep C and HIV–by being sensible and careful. But for HSV and HPV, at least, it’s probably best to be at peace with the inevitability of infection, and hope that they’re asymptomatic, as they often are. Or live in a protective bubble.

    • Jenelle Marie says

      Hi Nick –

      Thanks so much for your message.

      Be careful, though, in your classification of ‘nasties’ – the stigma across STIs/STDs also contributes negatively to the stigma overall. That people with sexually transmitted infections and diseases think their infection is better than another’s or that someone else’s infection is more ‘gross’ lacks education surrounding sexual health; bacterial, viral, and parasitic pathophysiology; and adds to the myths and misconceptions that abound; not to mention, it further separates us from supporting one another and from making a large-scale positive impact on sexual health and related stigma.

      At The STD Project, we don’t classify any infection as worse than another – they are all obtained in a fairly similar way – despite the different things they might do to one’s body, because, depending upon the individual, the results of an HPV infection, for example, might be much more severe than an HIV infection in someone else even – it can depend upon the person and their overall health more than actual infection itself.

      The resounding message should be that, sure, we’d like to avoid any and all infections, if possible – I still want to avoid catching a cold, the flu or food poisoning. However, our bodies are not infallible, and when engaging with someone at such an intimate level, risks are inherent. Part of being sexually healthy and subsequently, sexually responsible, is understanding those risks, knowing how to negate them as best as possible, and then making a conscientious choice about our health and how we’d like to manage it accordingly. Whatever results as part of the rewards (the sexual activity) we sought is our responsibility and ours alone – NOT something ‘nasty’ or ‘dirty’, per se, but a natural part of being a sexual human being, as you point out.

      Thanks again for provoking good conversation.