Since the sexual revolution of the 1960s, we have increasingly become more tolerant of sexual behaviors. Although we may cringe when a 16 year old has a child, we still accept that teenagers have sex - on a regular basis. While we may cringe when someone has an extramarital affair, we still accept that both men and women seek sexual gratification outside of their marriage. Our views on sex and sexual behavior have indeed changed over the past few decades. But our views on sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) have not.
We still, despite evidence to the contrary, believe that anyone who has an STD is "dirty," or a "slut." We think lower of them and believe they have taken up with the lowest of the low. STDs are found among every age group, every ethnicity, from rich to poor. But, the stigma surrounding these diseases are also found there. This stigma prevents people from coming forward, getting tested or seeking treatment. It prevents them from telling potential sexual partners.
In reality, STDs are pretty normal. It is estimated that there are more than 110 million diagnosed sexually transmitted infections in the United States today and 20 million new diagnoses each year. The most common STI is human papillomavirus (HPV) and according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "most sexually active men and women will get HPV at some point in their lives." [CDC Fact Sheet, 2013, February]
Despite this, a study completed in 2008, where college students were asked about their feelings toward STDs, the participants were more concerned with the shame of the disease than the physical repercussions of it. The stigma surrounding STDs is so high that having one actually has the power to negatively alter your self-concept. After the participants received education about STDs, they were less likely to blame someone for "getting" an STD" and those who were sexually active were more inclined to see a doctor but their internal feelings of shame did not change. [Lichtenstein, Neal, Brodsky, 2008, The Health Education Monograph Series] In other words, the participants, after learning about STDs were willing to say that they should seek treatment, however, they still felt "dirty" because they had contracted an STD.
Stigma won’t go away overnight. But, by keeping in mind a few facts about STDs and standing up when someone uses a generalization about those with STDs, we can slowly chip away at the negative stigma:
STDS do not mean that you are dirty or a slut. It only takes one sexual partner for you to get an STD. That means, you had poor judgement, one time, and didn’t practice safe sex. It doesn’t say anything about your sexual history. It doesn’t mean that you sleep around or that you have sex only with degenerates.
STDs are infections. HPV, for example, is a virus, the same as a cold is a virus. You are not morally judged for catching a cold and should not be morally judged because you "caught" an STD.
STDs affect people from all walks of life. They infect people regardless of their income level, race, gender, religious beliefs or sexual orientation. Chances are, you know at least several people with an STD, you just don’t know they have one.
STDs are often asymptomatic, which means, you have no symptoms. The only way to be sure you don’t have an STD is to be tested on a regular basis. If you request a test for an STD, you are admitting you are sexually active only.
STDs are a risk that everyone who is sexually active takes. They are not the effect of bad or deviant sexual actions.
So, what can you do? How can you help to eliminate the stigma this large group of people feels every day? The following are some suggestions:
Talk to your children about sex, sexual behavior and STDs. Talk about the risks you take when you are sexual active and what you should do. Keep the dialogue up on an ongoing basis so your children feel comfortable coming to you with questions.
Find out what is being taught in your children’s school. If you think it is derogatory toward those with STDs, talk to the school about providing education about STDs in a way that does not put down those who may have it.
Stand up when you hear derogatory remarks about those with STDs. Think about what you would do if you heard someone say something derogatory about another group of people, such as blacks, Latinos, Asians or gays. Would you stand up and say that isn’t right? Stand up for those who have STDs and give them a chance to live without the stigma attached to having caught a virus.
Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.