Have you ever described yourself or someone else as “clean” when talking about sexual health? It’s really common for people to use this kind of terminology when what they really mean is that they don’t have any current sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Most people don’t think twice about using this kind of language but such terms actually contribute significantly to the stigma associated with STIs. It is part of the culture that shames people for their sexual health status and makes others afraid to get tested, communicate their status, or have open conversations about sexual health. Stigma can have a huge impact on a person’s feelings of self-worth, the spread of disease, and the marginalization of people.
Impacts of Stigma
Those who test positive with a sexually transmitted infection, even one that can easily be cured by antibiotics, often feel embarrassment, shame, and a lowering of self-worth. They often are afraid to tell others in their lives about the test results, even those who could be impacted by those test results. If people are feeling enough shame, they may also not seek help or treatment for an infection. This is a crucial impact because untreated infections can have long-lasting health impacts or even result in death. Those who are diagnosed with more lifelong diseases, such as HIV or Herpes, can feel that their life is over. They can end up withdrawing from romantic relationships and friendships alike. The social isolation can have further impacts on their mental and physical health.
People who feel the stigma of sexually transmitted infections can experience
Loss of hope
Loss of income
Increased feelings of worthlessness
Increased internalized stigma
Poor care in the healthcare system
Loss of reputation in their social circles
Another major impact of sexual health stigma is that if people are avoiding being tested or having frank conversations about sexual health, it can lead to the spread of more disease. People can end up passing infections on to multiple partners. When conversations about sexual health are seen as uncomfortable, they tend to be avoided and can compound the issue.
All of this stigma leads society to marginalize those who do test positive with an STI, particularly any we can’t currently cure. These communities face a lot of discrimination by not only people but can feel those effects from different professions, including the medical field. Anyone who has ever experienced discrimination or marginalization will tell you how horrible it is. It limits your ability to connect with supports, get help, and connect with other people. It can also increase the negative impacts on a person’s self-esteem.
Why Do People Use Stigmatizing Language?
So why do we make people feel so much shame about their sexual health status? The answer to this isn’t exactly a simple one and the stigma is reinforced from a number of different angles. There is usually a lack of proper education when it comes to sexual health. In many places, there are no standard sex education programs that teach set curriculums, they are often determined by the different individual school districts. Parents also have the option to opt their children out of these classes. This leads to many people either failing to get any education on sexual health or having spotty or incomplete education.
Many sex-ed programs also focus on an abstinence-based approach. These programs use information about sexual health and sexually transmitted infections as scare tactics to try to frighten teens into choosing abstinence. Young people are shown pictures of the worst-case scenario of each infection, usually with little to no information beyond the symptoms. These programs usually also fail to cover treatment options. This leads many people who get this kind of education to form the opinion that STIs are life-altering or ending consequences. The other issue is that when this type of scare approach is used, it rarely is presented in a way that encourages young people to engage with the content, ask questions, or retain any of the information. It is a big part of what starts the process of fear and stigma because the big take away is that sexually transmitted infections are scary and horrible.
The other major source of the stigma attached to a person’s sexual health status comes from the stigma associated with sex in general. In some cultures and religions, sex is regarded in a very negative light. It is stigmatized in its own way and these views extend to anything related to sex, including sexual health. People who hold these views tend to avoid any open conversation about sex or sexual health. It can impact those around them, including children, by spreading the idea that it’s a taboo subject that shouldn’t be discussed.
Language Matters in Reducing Stigma
Language and words are how we connect with each other and communicate ideas. It is how we express our approval or disapproval. They can influence and even shape our perceptions of people and situations. Words and language make a huge difference. Oppression and discrimination are reinforced through our use of language. They can be used to bully, scare, and put people down.
When we use language like “clean” to refer to testing negative to STIs, the obvious inference is that those who test positive are “dirty”. Most people don’t use this word but the implication is there and it comes out in how people act to the news that they, or someone they know, has tested positive. Often people get upset, they can look for someone to blame, or they can just breakdown. People will often shy away from those they know to be positive for an STI as if they could easily catch the infection by simple interactions. All of these actions reinforce stigma and they are all rooted in attitudes communicated by language and understanding.
For many infections, we can actually treat most of them. The ones that are still lifelong have had tremendous breakthroughs. They do not have the same impact on a person’s health that they used to. So when we are talking about sexually transmitted infections, particularly life-long ones, it’s important that we see the person before the illness. We need to get those horrible scare tactic pictures of the worst-case scenarios out of our heads and remember that the person who has them is a person. They can be cured or manage the infection with the help of medications. They are still a person, they are not just an infection.
How we talk about those who test positive impacts how we and others treat them.
Re-Thinking Your Attitude Towards Stigma & STIs
In order to continue to grow as people, it’s always good that we stop to learn more and re-evaluate what we know about different things. How we talk about things, like sexual health, has a huge impact on other people and our own attitudes about health. How will you impact those around you? Will you provide support or perpetuate the stigma?