The Shame Around STIs

A row of three bodies in hospital gown sitting down.

by Sara Radin

“You tested positive for Chlamydia,” said the gynecologist in a brash tone. Her words contained no sympathy or compassion. Instead, they carried a heavy pillar of judgment. I will never forget the tone of that doctor’s voice or the way her face scrunched up when she looked at me, as if my situation (or sin) was contagious just sitting across from me. After that, I was consumed with anxiety about what people would think of me if they knew about my infection. My mind raced with discouraging thoughts such as: is everyone going to judge me? Are people going to think I am dirty or damaged goods? I now recognize those blaring self-questions as fear due to harmful and unnecessary stigma as well as a lack of proper sex education.

To this day, I’ve always felt extremely uncomfortable sharing that experience. In fact, I was nervous to write this story, but I now recognize that most times whenever I feel afraid of sharing something out of fear of being judged, the reason I’m scared usually has absolutely nothing to do with me. In reality, it’s the messages I’ve consumed that have dictated what is socially palatable and what is not. This is how stigma can harm our personal identities and make us feel inferior, sexually and beyond, when there’s nothing wrong with us.

While conversations regarding periods, bodies and sex have been paving the way for a more accepting and authentic universe, I believe STIs are still a taboo subject we never really hear about. But why is that?

"While sex is all around us and present in every aspect of our lives — such as our body language, clothing, and lyrics — we are still operating from a place where we deny pleasure narratives out in the open."

Myisha Battle, a sex coach based in the Bay Area, says that this stigma is still prevalent because we are often taught that STIs are bad and should be avoided at all costs. “We're taught to view them as a mark of poor choices, rather than what they are: biological infections that can happen to anyone,” she says. Today, there’s still not enough discussions happening about how many people get these illnesses and how many of them are curable or manageable with medication or abstaining from sex during an outbreak.

Emily Depasse, a sexual educator, writer and herpes advocate based in Philadelphia, believes that the remaining stigma surrounding sexually transmitted infections is also due to the outdated narrative that premarital sex is shameful. According to her, “our culture is the epitome of hypocrisy when it comes to sexual expression.” While sex is all around us and present in every aspect of our lives — such as our body language, clothing, and lyrics — we are still operating from a place where we deny pleasure narratives out in the open. “Some may argue that this widespread presence and freedom of sexual expression condones acceptance, however, I argue that our culture is still not comfortable with these behaviors,” argues Depasse, who herself lives with HSV2+.

When it comes to STIs, this unhelpful message can instill fear, instead of preparing us for what may occur when we’re sexually active. But more than this, Battle says that the pervasiveness of this issue illustrates the failings of our education system. When we keep these issues closeted, it prevents us from being exposed to the idea that not only do STIs happen frequently, but that there’s nothing wrong with anyone who has one. In fact, if there was more openness about STIs, this could help us dispel myths that those who have them are gross or unlovable.

Beyond this, even within the family of STIs there seems to be stigma around certain illnesses. Depasse believes that herpes simplex virus (HSV) and HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) tend to be more stigmatized since neither virus has a cure right now. We can feel a great deal of anxiety and fear over testing positive for these illnesses because we perceive them as hopeless situations even though the symptoms can be alleviated through antivirals (HSV) and antiretroviral therapy (HIV). Though the viruses will remain in the body for life, many people can live long and happy lives with either virus.

"When we keep these issues closeted, it prevents us from being exposed to the idea that not only do STIs happen frequently, but that there’s nothing wrong with anyone who has one." 

 “Stigma can keep people living with an STI from being open with their friends or even their partners about their STI status.” Some people who contract an STI believe they are unworthy of dating or experiencing sexual pleasure ever again, which Battle says is completely untrue.

Going one step further, the stigma around STIs can take a serious toll on our mental health. Depasse says that her first thought after finding out she had herpes was, “Who will love me?” Immediately, she felt immense worry about her future relationships, potential at marriage, and childbearing. “I worried about how to tell my then-partner, how to tell my future partners, and even how to tell my friends,” she expressed. Stigma caused her to feel ashamed, embarrassed and rejected: “I worried what people would think of me, how someone would react, and what they would share with others.”

In these situations, the fear of being rejected can become so extreme that someone will worry about how to disclose, when to disclose it, and the overall ethics of disclosure. “A diagnosis of an incurable STI can lead to what feels like a death sentence for love, sex, and relationships,” says Depasse. In this way, the shame made it impossible for her to separate her identity from her STI. “I looked in the mirror and didn’t recognize who was staring back at me,” she recalled.

Feeling numb, Depasse saw that internalized shame infiltrate every area of her life, turning to alcohol for the majority of her coping while her libido also disappeared. Though she spent countless nights researching, she never came across any sex or body positive conversations that could serve STI+ individuals.

"The more we talk about it with people in our lives, whether we have had one ourselves or are just curious about others, the more stigma we will ultimately break."

On the other hand, Battle believes that conversations about this are happening in sex/body positive circles, particularly in those centered on sexual consent: “STI disclosure is something that is being discussed as part of consent negotiations.”

If we want to shatter the stigma around STIs once and for all, Depasse says it’s important for sex educators to discuss stigma with their students, classmates and professionals, as this will help us externalize the stigma from the biological basis and internalized fear.

On top of this, Battle says that the more we talk about it with people in our lives, whether we have had one ourselves or are just curious about others, the more stigma we will ultimately break. “Ask a close friend if they've ever had an STI and what they did when they found out,” Battle recommends. In these instances, we might be surprised to find that several people in our lives have had some kind of sexually transmitted infection.

It’s time to create more inclusive narratives about sexually transmitted illnesses; across media, education, research, and more, we must work to combat painful stigma surrounding STIs, which will ultimately reduce shame, foster more empathy for those who live with them, and dissolve anxiety felt by those who live in fear of testing positive for them.