Why we need to change the way we talk about STDs

Peeled banana on a pink background and sliced ​​papaya on a blue background.

Sex educators explain how sexually transmitted stigma has negatively affected people’s lives. (Getty Images)

Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are more common than you think.

However, despite the fact that half of all new sexually transmitted cases in the United States are found in young adults between the ages of 15 and 24, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)– Positive cases have reached a level The highest level for the sixth year in a row – There are still many who find the topic taboo and shameful to discuss.

As a result, STDs such as herpes, chlamydiaand HPV and Gonorrhea They are routinely surrounded by stigmatizing language, as when someone refers to people as “clean” if they test negative, which means they are somewhat “dirty” if they test positive for an STD. Experts say this kind of rhetoric only lowers self-esteem and affects healthy views about sex and our bodies.

“Culturally, we are taught to fear human sexuality and the expression of that sexuality. This fear leads to poor education and stigmatization of anything that has to do with our sexuality, such as STDs,” says Jenelle Marie Pierce, chairwoman of STI projectan organization that aims to destigmatize STDs through sex education, and a spokesperson for the dating site positive singles.

This is why language is “important” when talking about STDs and sexuality, Pearce tells Yahoo Life, because language “has the power to completely change a person’s perception of themselves by either causing or eliminating shame.”

Pearce adds: Until we understand and accept that human sexuality is a component of overall health and wellness, the lack of comprehensive, inclusive education will continue—and the stigma of sexually transmitted diseases will continue to cause harm.

What drives STD stigma?

Stigma around STIs stems from a combination of social, psychological, and ideological factors that people internalize at an early age—from family, friends, the media, and religious organizations—and that can be difficult to let go of later in life.

to me Doctor. Amish Adaljaa senior research fellow at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, using morality as a basis for describing someone as “clean” or “unclean” is a story as old as time — dating back thousands of years — with moral crusaders “blaming someone’s behavior” for contracting infectious diseases. , such as leprosy.

“It was evidence that someone was engaging in some kind of unethical behavior,” Adalja tells Yahoo Live. He argues that these views have given religious and political leaders a head start in determining what behaviors are and are not “ethical” under the auspices of hardline law.

He notes that this symbol encouraged people to believe that sex “is meant only as a tool for reproduction and not for pleasure”. But it also serves another purpose: to distort the ownership we have in our bodies and how we think about sex in general—which includes viewing STIs as “punishment” for having “impure” sex or going against anything that defies the “moral law.” “

Historically, this moral code has permeated all aspects of life, including how young people are educated about it sex in america.

Julia Bennett, Senior Director of Digital Education and Learning Strategy at Planned Parenthood. “STI shame and stigma is really rooted in the broader shame and stigma that pervades our culture around sex and sexuality in general. And that’s counterproductive to the progress we’re trying to make in public health around encouraging people to get tested and talk about and have sex. Security “.

The impact of sexually transmitted stigma

Words are powerful, says Pierce, who started using TikTok in 2020 to chronicle her personal history with genital herpes (there were more than 570,000 new cases of genital herpes in 2018 alone, According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) as a way to help others combat stigma and “sex shame”.

“Everyone has experienced something shameful in their lives,” she says. “Sexual shame is interesting because it differs from habitual shame in that it makes people feel bad, unworthy, and less of a whole. When you ask someone how they feel about an embarrassing moment, they may remember the event and whine and feel shame about their actions during the event, but they don’t internalize the shame. And they show it to themselves completely.”

In contrast, Pearce explains that when someone experiences sexual shame, they may label themselves as a “bad person” and believe they are unworthy of love because they have been intimate with someone else. This in itself has a profound psychological impact and can negatively affect a person’s self-esteem and ability to stand up for themselves.

Contrary to popular belief, stigma does not only affect people with STDs. for people who You have an STI that you don’t know about (especially if they are not showing symptoms), fear and stigma can prevent them from being tested and treated, creating opportunities to inadvertently pass the STI on to others.

“The stigma around STDs is really harmful for everyone,” Bennett says, noting that it can also affect the relationships we have with significant others—especially if one is positive and the other is negative. “Stigma can change the way you have relationships with people, which isn’t always necessarily bad in the long run, but stigma can be really isolating,” she explains.

Adalja adds that self-harm is also a real concern, especially for those who have tested positive for chronic infections that were once considered untreatable — such as HIV. But thanks to recent advances in medication, people living with HIV who take medications and are considered “Undetectable(where no virus is detected in their blood) live long, healthy lives without the possibility of transmitting the virus to others.

Yet stigma remains a barrier to real progress, despite advances in medicine and efforts by activists to change the way we teach young people about testing, treatment, and prevention of STDs.

“One of the biggest barriers to overcome is not projecting our own inner shame and morality onto others,” says Pearce. “I see this happening in the medical field all the time by practitioners who mean well but give advice and suggestions that are impractical or relevant to the individual they are treating. We have to keep in mind that everyone comes from unique circumstances and that many people face health disparities and inequalities. affect their sexual ability.”

How can we eliminate stigma?

The first step is not being afraid to have uncomfortable, honest conversations — and most importantly, recognizing that not everyone has access to healthy, comprehensive sexuality education. Sex gurus argue that we can do something very basic – we can update our language.

“People’s first language is key: putting someone’s personality in before their diagnosis or condition,” Pearce explains. “For example, ‘a person with a sexually transmitted infection’ rather than ‘a person with a sexually transmitted disease.’ It seems like nuance, but it’s worth the effort because we want to show how people are not defined by the things they own or the things they do.”

This, too, has the potential to disrupt what Bennett describes as an unspoken hierarchy around STDs. Labeling someone as a “person with an STI” creates the harmful notion that only a “certain type” of person will receive a positive STI diagnosis.

“Sex education in this country, unfortunately, is completely unfair,” Bennett adds. “One of the things we’re really striving for is having more comprehensive sex education, which is medically accurate and really gives people the skills and tools they need to navigate sex and relationships throughout their lives.”

A big part of that, Bennett adds, is removing stigma when discussing STIs by explaining that STIs are a “potential consequence of having sex” and that “there are ways to prevent them” through safer sex practices — rather than teaching an “abstinence approach.” Just about sex.”

“STI prevention doesn’t have to be this kind of separate, sex-negative thing in sex education. It can actually be really well complemented with a sex-positive or pleasure-focused approach.” Practicing safe sex, for example, explains Bennett. Like using a condom, it can actually improve your sex life. It doesn’t have to reduce the quality of your sex life because practicing safer sex can help reduce anxiety and any concerns about contracting an STI or even an unintended pregnancy, depending on the sex you’re having. It can help you really focus on what you’re trying to do with your partner, which is to have an enjoyable, intimate, and enjoyable experience.”

Another element is avoiding focusing on directives and absolutes when discussing STDs and sexual health; Don’t tell people what they should and shouldn’t do with their bodies, says Pearce.

“Telling someone they should always—’should’ be the directive and ‘always’ is the absolute—condom use alienates people and doesn’t match them up,” says Pearce. “We need to understand that each person has to make their own choices about their own sexual health practices, and it is our duty to provide them with the most comprehensive information that will enable them to make the right decisions for themselves and their partners.”

This has proven successful in the past, says Adalja, who notes that when educators use “straightforward and honest” language about treatment and prevention, rather than making the message “about a person’s individual choices,” it is more likely to change someone’s behavior.

“When you’re really honest and remove all the stigma and hardcore bias, people are actually receptive and you can actually gain momentum in whatever you’re trying to control,” he says.

For parents: Create a shame-free zone

Experts recommend that parents have age-appropriate conversations with their children about their bodies, consent, and how to stand up for themselves in relationships early on.

“The best advice for parents is to have ongoing conversations. It’s not just a simple conversation between birds and bees,” says Pearce, who also notes the importance of using correct names for body parts to help “establish that bodies aren’t shameful.” “Making sure we encourage our children to ask before touching someone and that they can also say no to touching teaches us consent,” says Pearce.

She says it’s also OK to say you don’t know the answer and go back to your kids after doing a little research. “We’re all human, we learn and grow, and pausing to think about your answer shows the vulnerability necessary to build strong, trusting relationships,” says Pearce.

Resources such as Planned Parenthood chat/text And Chatia / Textia Programs can also help parents answer questions about sexual health. (You can submit “PPNOW” or “AHORA” to contact a trained teacher for answers in English or Spanish.)

Honesty is key to creating a healthy perspective for young people about sex and their bodies, notes Adalja.

“This should not be something that is talked about in whispers,” he says. “Obviously it has to be age-appropriate when parents have these conversations, but it’s fundamental to human physiology and we shouldn’t feel uncomfortable talking about it.”

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