Why STD Stigma Needs To End

by Rafaella Gunz

In the summer of 2015, I was diagnosed with genital herpes. Since then, I’ve become hyper-aware of how STD/STI stigma creeps up on us.

One quick note, STD (Sexually Transmitted Disease) and STI (Sexually Transmitted Infection) are often used interchangeably, but in the last few years, doctors and OBGYNs have started to use “STI” more frequently, as they believe it carries less of a stigma than STD.

Before my diagnosis, like most people, STD/STI stigma wasn’t something I thought about. But being diagnosed at age 21 with herpes from a fuckboy on Tinder changed all that completely. I now cringe whenever I hear a herpes joke, like in John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight segment about pennies. Discussing how pennies are worthless, Oliver says, “There are certain things we know are impossible to get rid of — terrorism, herpes, and Guy Fieri. But the penny is a nuisance we could actually do something about.”

While herpes is a virus that stays dormant in one’s body for life (like chickenpox — which is a form of herpes, or mono), it typically doesn’t cause many issues. While it can be reactivated from time to time, the longer one has had herpes, the more antibodies they have to the virus, and the likelihood of it reactivating decreases. And both for treating outbreaks and preventing them, we have antiviral drugs like Valtrex. Additionally, two-thirds of the world’s population has HSV-1 (typically known as “oral” herpes/cold sores, but can be genital, as in my case) and 1 in 6 Americans have HSV-2 (which typically causes “genital” herpes). So, contrary to what Oliver said, herpes is a “nuisance” we can, in fact, do something about, especially considering how incredibly common it is.

It’s not even just herpes jokes that can be stigmatizing. Even colloquial language we use to discuss our STD/STI status can be problematic. Many tend to say they’re “clean” if they’re STD/STI free. This implies those who do live with STD/STIs are “dirty,” which can lead to slut-shaming and victim blaming, especially targeted at STD/STI-positive women.

Sex education in America has done a terrible job of informing youth about the various nuances of sexually transmitted diseases and infections. When I took Sex Ed in 9th grade, it was taught by a gym teacher. He pretty much told us to use condoms, get tested… and not much else.

When I contracted herpes, I had been tested recently, asked my partner if he was STD/STI free, and used a condom. Little did I know that herpes isn’t even tested for in the standard STI panel and that condoms don’t fully protect against the virus, as it’s spread via skin-to-skin contact. As I have genital HSV-1, I likely caught it from this partner’s mouth while he performed oral sex on me. Not only were dental dams not covered in my incomplete Sex Ed course, but they’re also not widely available the way condoms are. So I didn’t know I could contract oral herpes genitally, especially since this partner had no cold sores present.

Speaking of cold sores, they’re a type of herpes but they’re not stigmatized nearly as much as genital herpes, seeing as products like Abreva are readily available at the drugstore. Consequently, though oral and genital herpes are caused by the same virus, the stigma starts when sexuality comes into play. Despite how sex-saturated our society and culture are, we have still internalized puritanical beliefs about sex, like the idea that contracting an STD/STI makes one “immoral” or “slutty.” Yet viruses don’t abide by socially constructed ideologies such as these and don’t discriminate. And considering how common STDs like herpes are, it’s likely those abiding by these outdated beliefs might even have the virus themselves, seeing as it’s so common to contract HSV-1 as a kid before sexuality even enters one’s mind.

With April being STD/STI Awareness Month, it’s important to challenge the stigmas that surround STD/STIs like herpes, and realize that combatting such stigmas is a feminist issue.

Top Image via Wikimedia Commons

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