Destigmatizing STIs

By Jess Bird

STIs are scary—they’re that dirty “disease” that makes people that much more nervous after having unprotected sex, or that much more annoyed that they have to use protection. But the truth is, they’re often more stigmatized than need be, and also more common than talked about. The stigmatization of STIs (Sexually Transmitted Infections, also referred to as Sexually Transmitted Diseases) pushes conversations about the risks and realities of the infection behind closed doors—or rather, the topic is ignored altogether due to its shameful connotations.

The lack of awareness around STIs further prevents people from getting tested, and thus results in an increase in the spread of the infection. On the other hand, the lack of conversation and honesty around this topic leads more and more people to believe that it is not a prevalent issue. For example, a common misconception around STIs is that only people who engage in “dirty” sexual activities such as paid sex or sex with multiple partners will acquire one. This is NOT true, I repeat, NOT TRUE! Fifty percent of you reading this article will get an STI by age 25, and most of you will probably never notice.

This is because symptoms often remain dormant, specifically in common STIs like chlamydia and herpes. You could be sleeping monogamously with your partner for months without ever realizing that they have passed an infection to you. This is why it is important to get tested on a regular basis, and to be honest and open with your partner about your sexual history rather than avoiding the conversation due to its stigma.

Treatment for many STIs like gonorrhea and the majority of treatments for chlamydia are easier than curing a common cold, as they simply requires a single dose antibiotic that flushes the infection out of your system in less than one week—and symptoms will not reoccur. However, herpes, the most common STI of them all, remains incurable. Most people with herpes do not “have” herpes, as in fighting an active breakout, but rather have simply been “exposed” to it. Because 60% of those who have herpes are dormant carriers, and a blood test is needed for diagnosis, most people are unaware that they actually have it.

The World Health Organization estimates that more than 3.7 billion people under the age of 50 – or 67% of the population – are infected with oral herpes (HSV-1), and this number reaches 90% by adulthood.  It can be acquired from simply sharing drinks with someone who has a cold sore, or more uncommonly, someone who is experiencing asymptomatic “shedding” (flaking of the skin that occurs on about 10% of days, according to a John Hopkins study).

About 20% percent of people in the U.S. have genital herpes (HSV-2), but as mentioned earlier, only about 60% experience symptoms. Both forms of herpes can be passed to the opposite region, most commonly during oral sex. However, a breakout cannot reoccur in the area that it is not native to. For example, if you get herpes 1 (oral herpes) on your genitals, you may experiences soars, but will not contract the infection, and vice versa.

Oddly enough, herpes is the most common STI, yet it remains the most stigmatized and a subject for ridicule. Ever heard a herpes joke? Herpes is an easy target for humor because it’s not fatal and the people who suffer from this STI are not usually considered ill, but rather it as seen as something you ‘bring upon yourself’ as a consequence of being promiscuous, or just plain stupid. The jokes generally go unchecked since those who find them offensive or cruel are silenced by the fear of association with having it.

Though we now understand that the cause of infection is due to viruses or bacteria rather than a disease, its connotation as “dirty” is still pervasive. Having conversations about herpes and other STIs is the only way to stop perpetuating these myths and create more awareness in order to successfully reduce transmission rates. If you are sexually active, I encourage you to get tested, and to have open and honest conversations with both your partners and your peers. Having an STI sounds scary, but what is far scarier is not knowing that you may have passed one on.