Why We Need to Talk About STI Stigmas

Normally, I consider myself a good test taker. Whether it’s fill-in-the-blank or multiple-choice, I either know what to put or become an expert at guessing. However, when my boyfriend and I decided to go get tested for STIs for the first time, I could no longer employ my usual tactics. For a reason I couldn’t pinpoint until a little later, I was a nervous wreck. I hadn’t been exposed as far as I knew and had no symptoms, but my eyes wouldn’t stop darting back and forth simply walking into the Student Health Care Center.

Despite my worries, I forged forward and am so glad I did. I knew I wanted to get tested to make sure I was being safe and considerate to my boyfriend, especially since 1 in 5 people in the United States has an STI on any given day according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2018. Some further motivation to get tested was that almost half of all new STI cases were from people in the U.S. aged 15 to 24, making me the targeted demographic.

As I talked with my friends about getting tested over morning coffee, I realized that we were all mildly uncomfortable with the topic. Sure, we all talked about everything under the sun when it came to our private lives, but this one subject seemed untouchable. It seemed if one of us were to catch an STI, we would be met with fake reassurances, and they would feel relief knowing they hadn’t caught one yet.

Reflecting on this, I realized it was because STIs carry a heavy stigma in our society. If someone has the flu or a similarly acquired illness, it is treated as a common incident and given barely a second glance. However, if someone gets an STI, they are immediately cast aside and made to feel like ‘damaged goods.’

Why is that? After all, more than 1 million STIs are acquired each day worldwide; shouldn’t STIs be normalized since they are so common? However, we all know that is not the case.

It’s simple: STIs aren’t normalized in our society because of the way they are acquired. It doesn’t matter that despite taking precautions and being safe everyone is still at risk—all that matters is that you had sex to get it.

Our society has seemingly always punished the act, not just if it results in an STI. Whether it be the refusal to let their daughters use birth control when it first came out for fear of promoting sex, or parents not wanting to ‘encourage sex’ by giving their kids the HPV vaccine, there has always been a form of ‘punishment’ when it comes to the topic.

This punishment can even be found in the language associated with STIs in everyday life: diseased, dirty or used as a joke. There is no reason why these words need to be associated with STIs, after all, the four most common types can be solved with antibiotics—the same treatment that is used for a variety of non-stigmatized infections.

This stigma causes more harm than it does in prevention. If anything, it scares people from getting tested, which further promotes the spread of STIs since many are asymptomatic and unknowingly spread them. This can be seen in the low rates of women under the age of 25 getting screened annually for chlamydia and gonorrhea, despite a recommendation from the CDC.

Additionally, this stigma can affect the mental health and personal image of those who have STIs. They may feel ‘tainted’ or like ‘damaged goods,’ despite having no reason to feel that way over an increasingly common infection.

After all, it has been shown that the stigma and lack of education surrounding sex don’t prevent unexpected pregnancy or spread of STIs—if anything, it increases the rate of them. If teens and young adults don’t have access to the proper contraceptives, knowledge of safe sex practices and the ability to access sex education, then they are not equipped to prevent the spread of STIs.

On the flip side, if they do have access to barrier methods of birth control, they may feel awkward or embarrassed to ask their partner to use it, especially if they think it implies they think their partner is ‘dirty’ or untrustworthy. If anything, we are leaving our youth more susceptible to STIs by stigmatizing them and preventing open conversations that would be helpful.

Now that I have one test under my belt, I am making sure from now on I will include it in my yearly checkup. This experience has made me tired of the stigma surrounding STIs and more willing to bring the topic up with friends—even if I’m met with an awkward silence. While I didn’t feel as confident as I normally do during a normal test, I felt so much better knowing I am doing what I can to protect my boyfriend and my health, even if it means a few judgemental stares.

If you are asymptomatic and a current student at UF, you are qualified to get tested for the most common STIs at the Student Health Care Center for only $15 at the GYT Clinic. If you are symptomatic, it is recommended to seek care from your primary care doctor or at the Student Health main clinic. Additionally, you can get tested at many clinics in Gainesville, at your primary care doctor checkup and through the Alachua County Health Department.