STIs: Silencing the Stigma

We are living in an increasingly sexualised world, with the media being monopolised by sexual images, films, lyrics and choreography. However, despite the increasingly public nature of discussing sex, we are still embarrassed about the topic of sexual health; more specifically we are embarrassed about getting regular checks and talking to our partners about our sexual history. The stigma attached to STI's is an issue that deters treatment and thus increases the spread of infections.

Not only is this an issue for treatable diseases, it is also an issue for individuals suffering from incurable diseases like HIV or recurring diseases like HPV and herpes. According to a study by AM J Public Health (2002), 59% of men never tested for HIV admitted this was due to the negative stigma attached.

Whilst it is evident that the stigma of HIV is largely the result of fear and misconceptions, it is important to raise awareness and inform people that HIV, HPV and herpes are not simply the result of unsafe sex. Whilst condoms reduce the likelihood of contracting an STI, condoms do not cover the entire genital area and thus infections that are passed on through skin contacts like warts, can still be contracted.

The stigma results in the judgement and shaming of sufferers, with the assumption that individuals have participated in unsafe sex. However, this is not always the case: whilst these infections are classed as "sexually transmitted", herpes can be passed on through kissing and oral sex from someone even if they are not showing symptoms at the time of contact. Using condoms dramatically decreases the risk of catching an STI, but it isn't 100% effective.  Additionally, some individuals living with herpes contracted it years into a monogamous relationship, not as a result of a one night stand taking a risk by not using a condom. Thus, misconceptions about STI's force many individuals to separate themselves from non sufferers and not talk about it, which is not only damaging to the individual but is a factor in passing it on to future partners.

On blogs like passtheherpes, sufferers share their stories of how they caught their diseases and how the diagnosis has affected their lives, the importance being to reduce the suffering of these individuals and highlight that whilst it may change the way you conduct relationships-both sexual or otherwise-it does not prevent you from living the life you want.  

Ella Dawson, has spoken out about her experience with herpes on She tells the camera about how after telling her boyfriend at the time about her diagnosis he said, "This is what I get for falling for a girl like you." These kinds of reactions not only humiliate and shame the individual, but also make it harder to tell future partners for fear of negative responses.  

STI shaming is an issue and is worsened by abstinence groups which often shame sufferers and suggest it is their fault. Simple prevention: don't have sex. Reality: sex is great and if you are unfortunate enough to have contracted an STI as a result of enjoying consensual sex-despite having used protection and having regular checks- why should you also be shamed?

Watch Ella's video on STI shaming here: Don't forget that there is no shame in being sexually liberated: continue to use condoms, talk to new partners about sexual history and get tested with every new partner. Most importantly, if a partner judges your history do you really want to be with that person?



Edited by Tia Ralhan