While the world reels from the Covid-19 pandemic, another epidemic is slowly escalating. The STI epidemic is hidden, silent, and dangerous. However, this situation is not a new development. Several public health organizations issued urgent warnings about a potential STD crisis. The simple fact is that our first line of defense against STIs is underfunded and overwhelmed.
Things have taken a turn for the worse during the pandemic. STI programs faced significant funding cuts as the public health system shifted focus to an urgent pandemic. Most worryingly, STIs inordinately target the most vulnerable groups. Young adults, adolescents, and underprivileged groups are more likely to contract an STI. Furthermore, as the pandemic got worse, more people began to engage in risky sexual behavior as a coping mechanism. And the stay-at-home orders mandated by authorities reduced the availability of sexual health services.
IT does not help matters that STIs are stigmatized. This stigma is due to a combination of psychological and sociological factors. People are judgemental about sex. So, they may consider someone with an STI as dirty or slutty. Therefore, patients suffering from STIs do not talk about their diagnosis because of fear of facing public ridicule and shame. Often, patients have to face systemic discrimination and harassment after their diagnosis becomes public. STI patients are also more likely to suffer from intimate partner violence. The shame and fear surrounding these issues are a barrier to testing.
Fortunately, several public health officials are already working on the issue. Armed with suitable credentials, such as online MPH degrees, these individuals are trying to destigmatize the conversation on STIs and STDs. However, we can contribute to the situation as well. Following are some ways we can have a conversation about STIs/STDs without stigma:
- Have the conversation early on: The less we talk about sexual health, the more likely kids are to engage in risky behavior. Curiosity about our bodily needs is a normal part of life. And when parents do not teach children about sex, kids learn about it from somewhere else. They may get incorrect and incomplete information from friends and social media that may be dangerous. As adults, we have to eliminate the taboos regarding sex. Parents should encourage children to call body parts by their names. They should also teach parents about the necessity of maintaining sexual health.
- Do not joke about STIs and STDs: By joking about STIs, people add to the stigmatization of the disease. Even politically correct comedians have used STDs as punchlines to uninspired routines. The constant puns and ridicule can push patients into isolation. Furthermore, most jokes paint patients as cheating-types or promiscuous and immoral deviants.
- Avoid using words like “clean”: The most common term used for STI-negative people is “clean.” This word implies that people suffering from STDs are tainted and impure. So, calling yourself clean means you are judging others. Most STI patients often feel dirty and broken in the first days after the diagnosis. And the use of such terms reinforces this problematic idea. Understand that your words have power and choose them wisely.
- Use person-centered language: it is vital to focus on the patient instead of the infection to decrease the stigmatization of STIs. Usually, STD-related language emphasizes the infection that ends in depersonalization, stereotyping, and labeling. Therefore, always talk in terms approved by STD patients. Try to use medically accurate language to avoid implicitly blaming the victim.
- Keep in mind that STIs are common: People think that only promiscuous people contract STIs, but that is not true. According to the WHO, people contract more than 1 million STIs every day. Some STIs are asymptomatic or have very mild symptoms. People often ignore these signs and think they do not have an infection. So, people might have an STI or STD without knowing about it. Therefore, getting an STI is very common and normal.
- Encourage positive conversations about sex: While abstinence is one way of avoiding STIs, it is not very successful. Programs advocating abstinence leave people without valuable information for sexual intercourse. Furthermore, the language used in such programs reinforces gender stereotypes. Instead, you should talk more about sexual health in sex-positive ways. Encourage everyone to make consensual safer sex decisions for themselves by informing them about sexual health.
- Share your negative status appropriately: Everyone wants to remain healthy and infection-free. But, boasting about your negative status dismisses the plight of people with STIs. It makes it seem like STI patients deserve the disease because of their actions. So, always be sensitive when you talk about your sexual health.
- Understand your role: Everyone can play a positive role in preventing more STIs. As educators, parents, and activists, we have to speak up on public health issues. However, do not talk about what you do not know. While speaking up is vital, ignorant comments and unverified information are very harmful. Using scare tactics and hyperbole when talking about STDs does not stop the spread. It only discourages people from screening for infections.
STD patients face several hurdles in their daily lives, from having troubles in their personal lives to feeling shameful. However, it is necessary to avoid blaming the victims. Most people contract STIs when they unknowingly have sexual intercourse with someone with an infected person. Even condoms are not always effective against the transmission of these diseases. Instead of stigmatizing the situation, it is vital to have open and honest conversations about sexual health.