The way we talk about sexual health is incredibly important. If we want to reach a place in our society where people can easily gain access to reproductive health care, we need to learn to talk about sex, sexuality, and our bodies in ways that facilitate this change. This is particularly important when it comes to talking about sexually transmitted diseases, as the stakes for breaking away from the shame-based fear currently associated with these infections are incredibly high.
Oftentimes individuals who have a sexually transmitted diseases face a great deal of ridicule within our society. This scorn is reflected in casual conversations, media representations, and unfortunately even in some education related to sexual health. Negative notions about STDs may portray individuals who have them as being dirty, sexually promiscuous, and irresponsible. This creates a mold in which only “certain types” of people get STDs. The problem with this logic is that research has shown that 1 in 4 Americans currently have an STD, with almost half of these infections taking place in the 15-24 year old age range. If you are engaging in sexual activity, and especially if you are having sex and not using a barrier method (such as condoms and dental dams), it is possible for you to contract an STD. Infections don’t differentiate between “certain types” of people.
It also is important to remember that one reason we hold such negative views about sexually transmitted diseases is because they are contracted during sexual contact. We wouldn’t publicly ostracize someone because they caught a cold, nor would we spread rumors about someone’s character because they contracted a nasty case of food poisoning. Promoting negative ideas about STDs and the people who have them is tied in with our culture’s negatives notions about sex. There ARE risks to having sex, just like there are risks to nearly any type of human contact. However, the current cultural shame around STDs doesn’t promote knowledge or understanding, nor does it propel people into seeking medical care. However, the best way to decrease infection rates and encourage more individuals to seek testing and treatment may just be to highlight the fact that an STD is an infection, and like other all infections requires professional medical help. If we work to remove the cultural stigma surrounding STDs we may be able to start a more genuine discussion about how STDs are spread, what can be done to prevent them, and what to do if you have an STD.
The first of this month represented World AIDS Day. In keeping with a focus on HIV and AIDS, there are some organizations that work to reduce stigma, and provide a great example of how we can communicate about STDss without relying on negative assumptions or misinformation. One such organization is The Stigma Project, which is a “grassroots organization that aims to lower the HIV infection rate and neutralize the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS through education and awareness via social media and advertising.” Another organization is The Sero Project, which is “a network of people with HIV and allies fighting for freedom from stigma and injustice.” Check ‘em out!