make those decisions on their own.”STI stigma negatively affects self-worth, relationships, prevention.
help them make the decisions that are best for them.”
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are more common than many people realize, and yet there is a great deal of stigma surrounding them. This stigma is rooted in a long history of moral judgement and fear surrounding sex, and it has had a profound psychological impact on people’s self-worth and ability to advocate for themselves. This stigma is perpetuated by language that implies those with STIs are “dirty” and “unclean”, and by an unequal access to comprehensive sex education. To combat this, we need to update the language we use, focus on providing people with the information they need to make their own decisions, and ensure that sex education is inclusive and medically accurate.
STI stigma has been around for thousands of years, with religious and political leaders using morality as the basis to label someone as “clean” or “unclean”. This has led to a puritanical code that views sex as only meant for procreation, and to a distortion of the ownership we have in our own bodies. This code has bled into all facets of life, including how we educate young people about sex in America.
Words are powerful, and the language used when talking about STIs has the power to either generate shame or eliminate it. People-first language is key, as it puts someone’s personhood before their diagnosis or status. We also need to avoid focusing on directives and absolutes, and instead provide people with the most comprehensive information to help them make the decisions that are best for them.
The fear and stigma of STIs can also impact the relationships we have with our significant others, and can be isolating. It can also deter people from getting tested and treated, thus creating opportunities to unknowingly transmit the STI to others. Self-harm is a real concern, especially for those who test positive for chronic infections.
We can combat STI stigma by having honest conversations, updating our language, and providing comprehensive sex education. We need to understand that everyone is coming from unique circumstances and many people are facing health disparities and inequities that impact their sexual agency. We must not project our own internalized shame and morality onto others, and instead focus on taking the shame away when discussing STIs. This will help us make real progress in public health, and ensure that everyone has access to the information and support they need.