Why Our Culture Needs To Stop The Slut-Shaming & Stigmatizing Of People With STDs

By Liz Greene

Everybody’s familiar with the first warning signs of a cold — you know, the burning in the back of your throat, a runny nose that just won’t stop, that hot, uncomfortable feeling around your eyes. Naturally, you start tossing back the cold medicine and orange juice, hoping against hope you can shorten the duration of your illness. As the cold worsens, you rest at home, your friends and family calling periodically to ask if you need anything. And, even though the cold virus is highly contagious, no one shuns, shames, or refuses to be near you simply because you have it.

Much like a cold, sexually transmitted diseases/infections are incredibly common. The statistics alone are enough to paint a clear picture:

  • More than half of all people will develop an STD/STI in their lifetime
  • One in two sexually active people will contract an STD by age 25
  • Over 14 million people acquire HPV each year.
  • As many as one in five Americans have genital herpes
  • There are almost 3 million new cases of chlamydia each year
  • One out of 20 people in the United States are infected with hepatitis B in their lifetime

Despite how commonplace STDs are, society has stigmatized them to the point of causing an inordinate amount of both physical and mental suffering. The first signs of an STD are often met with intense worry and shame. People are reluctant to seek treatment and disclose their status to potential partners for fear of being labeled. In fact, the emotional trauma of an STD is often worse than the physical symptoms.

What was it that led us to a place where one specific type of illness is treated as a moral failing rather than a simple malady?

Where Does This Shame Come From?

The cultural stigma surrounding sexually transmitted diseases/infections is one that is deeply rooted in misogyny, homophobia, and the treatment of sex as a commodity. The American education system also plays a part in this, particularly with its sex education. States that teach abstinence only have one thing in common – they have the highest rates of teen pregnancies and STDs. As former kidnap victim Elizabeth Smart has spoken about extensively, the messages she was taught in her abstinence only classes led her to buy into the shame and stigma of losing her virginity despite being a victim of rape.

When it comes to sex, women are forced to endure a sexual double standard that views them as either “virgins” or “whores.” If a woman contracts an STD, she’s automatically judged to be promiscuous, and no longer the “pure virgin” that society considers valuable. Slut-shaming ensues, and her emotional health and reputation end up irreparably damaged.

Queer communities have also suffered from the stigmatization of STDs, most often acting as societal scapegoats. Before gaining its current (and accurate) moniker, AIDS was referred to as GRID, or Gay-related immune deficiency. It was also colloquially referred to as “gay cancer” and the “gay plague.” By targeting the queer community as the source of the disease, the rest of society was able to allay their fears and reinforce their prejudices.

Ultimately, the stigma surrounding STDs is founded on the commodification of sex. When a potential partner has a disease, sex is no longer risk-free sex and therefore considered a less desirable product. That person is deemed “dirty” and “damaged goods.”

This stigma is incredibly harmful to society at large. When people are made to feel shameful about sex, they’re less likely to seek guidance on the subject. Furthermore, young people who are slut-shamed become uncomfortable with their sexual interests. They stop communicating wants and needs, and lose the confidence they need to discuss and engage in safer-sex practices.

How Do We Combat It?

Although sexually transmitted diseases/infections are increasingly common, they’re very rarely talked about. Even though there is absolutely nothing shameful about having an STD, no one wants to speak up for fear of being judged for their sexual behavior. Unfortunately, this only sustains the vicious cycle wherein silence breeds ignorance, ignorance leads to the spread of disease, contracting the disease elicits shame, and shame results in silence. As long as this cycle continues, circumstances will never improve.

In order to break the cycle, every one of us has to work hard to change our own minds, and the minds of others. Here are some ways to get started:

  • First and foremost, keep in mind that:
    • Most sexually transmitted diseases/infections are caused by viruses or bacteria, just like other illnesses. You wouldn’t morally judge a person for catching a cold, so you shouldn’t do the same to someone who has an STD.
    • STDs do not discriminate. They infect people regardless of their age, gender, race, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, or income level. No one “type” of person is more likely to get an sexually transmitted disease/infection than another.
    • STDs have nothing to do with promiscuity. The number of partners or frequency with which a person has sex has no direct bearing on whether or not they will contract a sexually transmitted disease/infection. A virgin having sex for the first time can get an STD just as easily as someone who’s had multiple partners.
  • Include people with STDs on your mental list of groups facing discrimination. Fight for their rights just as fervently as you would for others.
  • Be mindful of your language. Metaphors like “dirty: or “damaged-goods” only cause harm — stop using them. Encourage others to stop using them as well. Don’t make jokes about STDs. What you consider funny may be someone else’s painful reality.
  • If you have an STD:
    • If you’re comfortable doing so, share your story. Fight against the stigma, like Ella Dawson, who regularly talks about her diagnosis of genital herpes in order to move the the conversation out of the shadows and into normalcy.
    • Never let partners use your STD as a weapon against you. You are not “lucky to have someone who accepts your status,” so don’t stay in an unhealthy relationship for that reason alone. You are deserving of love, and absolutely can and will find someone worthy of you.

Tips for Moving Forward Safely

Because of shame and stigma, more people are comfortable having sex than actually talking about doing so safely. STDs are on the rise, and the only way to reduce contraction rates is to protect yourself and your partners through active communication.

Be open and honest about your history and status. Learn how to use multiple barrier methods, including condoms, dams, and gloves. Discuss risks, boundaries, and how you and your partner(s) can support each other’s physical and emotional wellbeing. There’s a lot more to sex than just penetration, so be creative and be safe.

Everyone who is sexually active is at risk for contracting an STD. Period. Therefore, it’s important to be tested on a regular basis — especially since some STDs are asymptomatic. Many STDS are curable, but left untreated can cause permanent, long-term damage. Educate yourself; know what signs to look for, and what to ask your physician regarding testing. If you do contract an STD, listen carefully to your doctor’s instructions. Be sure to take the full course of any drugs you are given (and be glad you don’t live in a time period where the cure was as bad as the disease.)

Above all else, remember that you are not alone — in fact, chances are someone close to you has an STD, and have just never said anything. Having an STD does not mean you are “broken”, or “dirty”, or any other negative thing. Furthermore, your STD does not define you; it is merely one aspect of your life. Life moves forward, love finds a way, and you can triumph over anything this crazy world throws in your path.

 

 

 

Liz Greene is a makeup enthusiast, rabid feminist, and an anxiety-ridden realist from the beautiful city of trees, Boise, Idaho. You can follow her latest misadventures on her blog, Instant Lo.

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