One of the easiest ways to determine how our society views sex is to look at how we treat people with STDs. While things like the flu or the common cold don’t provoke harsh judgment from others, conditions like herpes, chlamydia, or things that aren’t just transmitted through sex like HIV, are often met with judgment.
The AIDS crisis in the eighties is a prime example of how judgmental attitudes about sex can have a negative impact on attitudes towards people with STDs. Initially, the virus appeared to only be targeting gay men, further inflaming hateful attitudes towards those affected by the virus, and in turn increasing hate towards the gay community. At the beginning of the AIDS pandemic, patients diagnosed with the virus were often denied treatment, or received poor treatment, and funeral homes would often turn away the bodies of those who had died of the virus. Children were targeted even though they had usually contracted the virus through nonsexual means such as blood transfusions or in utero. In the eighties a young boy named Ryan White fought, unsuccessfully, to be allowed to attend school when some parents became concerned that he would “infect” their child with the virus. By that point we knew the virus couldn’t be transmitted by being in the same room with someone who was positive but ignorance still prevailed. Even as recently as 2008 children continue to be targeted due to their HIV status. A teenager named Paige Rawl disclosed her HIV status to a friend (Rawl became positive through perinatal transmission) and shortly after became the target of harassment and bullying by her schoolmates. While some people took a more compassionate approach towards people like Ryan White by referring to them as “innocent AIDS victims,” the word “innocent” is loaded with judgment as it implies that people who became positive through a sexual encounter got what they deserved. It wasn’t until people like Ryan White and Kimberly Bergalis, a young heterosexual woman with no sexual history and no history of IV drug use, became positive that the government started caring and taking the AIDS pandemic seriously.
The stigma attached to having an STD creates a dangerous situation for those who have one. It also creates a problematic situation from a public health perspective. When I worked at a mental health agency, where we had a variety of services for people living with HIV, the majority of my work with clients was shame reduction. Stigma and shame harms people living with an STD because it forces them to go into a sort of hiding. When a person has to hide their condition, they may not take their medication as prescribed for fear of other people seeing their medication and figuring out their diagnosis. They may not seek medical help or get tested because of the fear of being judged and discriminated against by peers as well as medical professionals. They may even be afraid to disclose their status to a potential partner for fear of being rejected or judged. Some of my clients often told me that they avoided taking their medication because it was reminder of their diagnosis, and the shame and stigma attached to it. If we can work to reduce the shame, and create a more compassionate environment for people diagnosed with an STD, we may be able to create a safer environment for everyone.
There are many ways you can help reduce stigma related to STDs. Language is important and words matter greatly. Understanding the impact of a particular word can be a step in the right direction. For example, using the word “clean” is problematic because it implies that people who have an STD are the opposite, which is dirty. Many people still say “infection” or “infected” which also increases feelings of shame and can further stigmatize people living with an STD. Even replacing “safe” sex with “condomless” sex can make a difference.
Many of the myths around STDs contribute to the stigma as well. One common myth is that people who have an STD got what they deserve because they were making bad choices. Some of these “bad choices” include sharing needles (drug use) and multiple sexual partners. First of all, everyone makes bad choices at some point in their life. Sex is a natural and beautiful part of being a human being. You can get an STD from having sex with just one person, including the first time you have a sexual encounter. As far as drug use is concerned, addiction is an actual mental health disorder that is usually the result of repeated attempts to self-medicate physical or emotional pain. A very wise psychologist I once worked with described drug use as a treatment plan that was unsustainable and therefor needed to be replaced with one that is sustainable. Addiction isn’t a character flaw or a weakness; it is a very real mental health diagnosis that needs treatment as well as compassion.
Another common myth I often hear is that a person can tell whether or not someone has an STD by looking at them. This isn’t true. As a matter of fact, the CDC estimates that approximately 87.4% of individuals with type 2 genital herpes (HSV-2) may never have received a clinical diagnosis; it is not uncommon for people who contract genital herpes to be asymptomatic, meaning a large portion of the population has herpes while not knowing they have it.
Unfortunately, it will be very challenging to change our attitudes towards people with STDs if we don’t start with rethinking our attitudes about sex. How we view and treat people with STDs says so much more about ourselves and our overall attitudes about sex. Once we begin fostering a more open-minded and loving approach to sex, we can begin to view people with STDs more compassionately, thereby creating a safe environment for all. If you can choose to be anything in this world right now, choose to be kind.