STIs are a part of sex – shame about them shouldn’t be
This article is dedicated to anyone who has ever received an STI diagnosis. Anyone who’s sat in their doctor’s office and had their deep fear confirmed. “You have herpes, chlamydia, genital warts or gonorrhoea”. Anyone who has felt that sinking feeling and thought, “Oh my god I’m so dirty”, “I’ll never have sex again” or, “what’s wrong with me?!”
I’m a teacher, sex educator and I answer questions from all kinds of people at @askangeanything, my sex-ed Instagram page. I’ve always been passionate about sex education, which makes me privy to a lot of personal information. I’ve heard so many stories of this specific pain, I’ve also felt it myself. None of it is necessary. You don’t deserve to feel that shame, you never did.
I’ve heard so many stories of this specific pain, I’ve also felt it myself. None of it is necessary. You don’t deserve to feel that shame, you never did.
Anyone who wants to be sexually active runs the risk of contracting an STI. Anyone. It’s just part of the package. And honestly, most of them just aren’t that big of a deal. I remember a specific experience of sitting in my poor doctor’s office for the fourth time that month, paranoid as all hell, when she patiently reminded me, “Ange, these things aren’t life threatening, they don’t even make you particularly sick, respectfully, chill the fuck out”. That helped me heaps.
STI stigma and shame aren’t just personally devastating for the people who often suffer in silence, they also increase the chances of STIs being passed on. Society’s continued demonisation of STIs means people are less likely to get tested for fear of what they might find, and simultaneously less likely to disclose to a potential partner for fear of the response it might generate.
Of course, there are ramifications of STIs, and they should be treated with the same respect and responsibility any other illness. Take care of yourself, get medical advice, and try not to pass it on to people. But beyond that, it’s just another illness, and should be treated with the same compassion as a virus or twisted ankle.
So, what are some practical things you can do to help decrease STI stigma and shame?
Talk more with your friends and open the conversation with curiosity and gentleness. We all have things we can learn in this space – talking and listening to lived experience is an excellent way reduce shame around STIs and sexual health. The more we discuss STIs, the more we normalise the experience and shine light on the dark corners that foster shame.
Go get tested!
Your first time can be a little intimidating, but the more you do it, the more comfortable it’ll feel. Some doctors recommend higher risk groups like men who have sex with men (MSM) get checked every 3 months, some people make it an annual thing whereas sex workers and porn actors get tested every few weeks for work. Luckily in Australia these tests are free, private and completely confidential.
You can take a friend to wait with you in the waiting room or into the consultation if that helps you feel more comfortable. Like a lot of things, getting tested the first time can be scary so find someone who’s been before – they’ll help you calm your nerves because they know what’s involved.
Don’t make that shit joke about herpes (or any STIs for that matter)
Like any sort of joke relating to someone’s health and wellbeing – it’s just not funny. Think about how it would feel if someone that heard the joke had or has an STI. Jokes compound their pain, and if a partner or friend, sexual or not, discloses their status to you – meet them with kindness and compassion, that’s what they’re bringing to you.
What happens if you get diagnosed with an STI?
Treatment is straightforward for most, and even the scarier ones (hello Herpes, sorry about your bad rap) aren’t as worrying when you realise a) one in eight Australians have it and b) it’s actually really manageable. As with all STIs, good communication, empathy and openness play a big role in management. The psychological side can be just as important as the physical because it leads to acceptance and safer practices. So, if you test positive, take a deep breath, remember an STI diagnosis has nothing to do with the sort of person you are and often has very little effect on your life in the long run.
What should you take from all this?
No STI should be scary or unspoken about. It’s through secrecy, shame and lack of communication that sexual infections continue to exist and spread. Reducing shame and transmission of STIs is as easy as committing to communication with our sexual partners and getting tested when we’re sexually active (remember it’s free, private and relatively pain free!). Sex is fun and pleasure feels great, so let’s be open, kind and responsible about risk, reward and our health and wellbeing for our own sake, and the sake of our community.
If you’d like to ask a question, I’d love to hear from you at @askangeanything.
This link lists every single sexual health clinic in Australia so you can find them with ease.
Ange is a high school science, maths, psychology and sexuality education teacher. You can follow Ange on Facebook here, Instagram here and YouTube here.