Imagine a world where testing for sexual transmitted infections (STIs) was as normal and routine as getting a flu shot or your teeth cleaned. Imagine if there was no shame in asking to be tested for chlamydia or gonorrhea or HIV. Imagine how many people–who may have been infected without knowing it– could live healthier lives because they didn’t fear the social repercussions of having an STI.
Sexually transmitted infections (also known as sexually transmitted diseases/ STDs) are self-explanatory: infections that are primarily transmitted through sexual behavior such as vaginal, anal, or oral sex. About 20 million new infections occur every year in the U.S., and about half of those will be among people under the age of 25. If left untreated, STIs can lead to a number of health problems– including infertility, cancer, chronic pain, high-risk pregnancy, and even death.
But here’s the tricky thing about STIs….
Most people won’t notice any symptoms when they’ve been infected. People without symptoms aren’t as motivated to seek testing or treatment, which is one of the reasons the CDC estimates that half of all sexually active people will have had or currently be infected with an STI by age 25 .
The good news? All STIs are preventable, all are treatable, and many can be cured. But the only way to know if you have one is to get tested.
It goes without saying that there’s a lot of fear, misinformation, guilt, shame, and blame that surrounds STIs. This stigma prevents people from getting tested, talking to their partners, and seeking treatment. Less than one third of U.S. health care providers routinely screen patients for STIs, and less than half of people between 18 to 44 years old have ever been tested for an STI other than HIV. It’s not difficult to recognize that negative cultural attitudes and beliefs about sex can create barriers to open communication and limit access to testing and treatment.
Many of the strict abstinence-only messages in our society ignore the reality of our situation. Almost half of all high school students report having sexual intercourse ; we know that sex is a normal part of being human, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, economic status, profession, social status, relationship status, or culture. However, people are still judged for what kind of sex they’re having, whom they’re having it with, how frequently they have it, what point in their life they have it, and their reasons for having sex.
The assumption that people get STIs because they’re promiscuous is still widely-held and misguided. True, your risk increases if you have more partners, but it’s possible to become infected with just one sex act. STIs like gonorrhea can be transmitted through oral sex, and HPV can be transmitted from skin-to-skin contact without any fluids exchanged. A parent can give their child herpes simply by kissing them—which isn’t sex at all!
When you think about it, all STI infections can’t really tell us much about a person. We can’t—and shouldn’t—judge people by infections. Illness and infection are a part of life, and so is sexuality.
If we want to reduce the spread of STIs, addressing sexual stigma is necessary.
The first step to take is to know thyself: find a clinic, get tested, and know your status. Then, start talking with other people about testing; maybe you’ll empower someone else to learn their status! Knowledge is power, and taking control of your own sexual health will only make you healthier in the long run.
This guest post was written by a member of The Buzz.