Keeping it clean: The dirt on STD-stigma

Are you clean?

And no, I’m not asking whether you’ve taken a shower today or not. I mean, are you STD-free? Ya know, clean. If so, are you proud of that fact?

The reason I ask the question is because I saw The Spy Who Dumped Me the other day and there was one brief moment that stuck out to me (trust me, there’s a connection here). There is a scene where Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon’s characters are blurting out secrets about the other to the assassin who is about to kill them (it really is a wonderful movie) and each of them tells the assassin that the other has HPV. Like it was the most normal thing in the world.

And, guess what? It is!

By the way, I really love that Hollywood is starting to make some original movies with strong female leads that are not re-treads of old male-dominated movies where the male leads are just replaced by female characters, e.g. Ghostbusters and Ocean’s 8, but back to the story.

The “outing” kind of took me aback, because I’m not used to hearing anything about STDs unless it is a tasteless joke, a type of shaming, or as part of a conversation that has the gravity of a black hole… here’s a hint for those of you not in the know, black holes have crazy-strong gravitational pull, so those would be some heavy conversations. We have attached such heavy and pervasive stigma that it’s more comfortable to talk about racism than it is to talk about STDs.

Why do we do this, though? Why is a disease that 80% of people will get in their lifetime such a tragedy to get? Yes, 80%. If you follow that link I included four paragraphs ago, you will see that this is the Center for Disease Control’s statistic, so it’s probably fairly accurate. That means that the odds are that you have had, or will have, an HPV infection at some point in your life. And, if you’re fortunate enough not to (hey, it’s not stigmatizing to not want to get a disease – there’s a middle ground here), you know people who have.

Yet we do not live in a society where it’s okay to openly talk about it.

When I sat down to write this column, I was terrified, so I did what I often do when I need to talk through something. I called Ann, one of my best friends. When I told her that I was writing about STD-stigma, she suddenly got very serious and told me that contracting an STD is a really big deal (pretty much proving my point about STD-stigma). I told her that they really aren’t, though (and not just to argue with her because it’s fun). I mean, of course, if you have one it means you’re morally loose and should immediately be stoned to death, you harlot, but, seriously, most of them aren’t really a big deal.

Think about syphilis and gonorrhea, for example. Forget about the diseases themselves, they’re just such terrifying words. I’m afraid to even say them aloud lest someone overhear their mere utterance and I am banished to a sanitorium to live out my days wearing a soiled shroud of shame, pretending to ignore the sideways glances of disgust I receive from Nurse Ratchett and her flock of shame-matrons.

And they used to be that big of a deal. If you contracted one of them in the old days, assuming you survived your day in the stocks, of course, you would lose your sight, hearing, and eventually your sanity before you died covered in the filth of your ostracism. As one famous example amongst many, composer Bedrich Smetena went deaf and ultimately died from syphilis while countless other composers, from Mozart to Beethoven, also suffered from it.

I guess STDs never stopped great people from doing great things, though, right?

Today, you take a shot of heavy antibiotics and they’re cured, never to be seen nor heard from again. If you catch them before they have any further impact on your system, it is no different than contracting the common cold (well, except that you can’t orgasm from catching the common cold). So syphilis and gonorrhea are still diseases that you don’t want to contract and they still require treatment, but it’s really not a big deal beyond that. So why is the mere thought of their names so terrifying?

Shame. Stigma.

Forget about STDs, we already know that anything we say or do is going to be talked about and judged by people. I mean, who among us hasn’t gossiped about someone or something? And, if you have, do you really think the same people you gossiped with haven’t gossiped about you when you’re not around? We seriously have so little respect for other, it is shocking!

Now imagine if you told someone you have HPV, for example. How many seconds do you think will pass before they’re dishing your dirt to someone else and you’re instantly branded as dirty? Do they have an app that measures such small increments of time? The box of scarlet letters is in the back of the closet behind the cobwebs. It’s no wonder we don’t talk about STDs; why we keep them society’s deep, dark secret.

The stigma works on an even more insidious level, though. You may not have noticed it, but this post has been laden with STD-stigma from the very first sentence (and even the title). Are you clean? If not, then what are you? What’s the opposite of clean? The implication of my initial question is that, if you have an STD, you’re dirty. Cast ye out of our midst, lest we all succumb to your evil.

It’s like modern-day leprosy.

And, if you’re proud of your “cleanliness,” does that mean the 80+% of the population who does, has, or will have an STD should be ashamed of themselves? Shame is the opposite of pride, after all.

It’s not like contracting an STD means you’re a bad person. Hell, it doesn’t even mean you’re promiscuous. Despite the fact that they have lots of sex with an extraordinarily large number of partners (sometimes even at the same time), porn stars are probably the “cleanest” people you’re likely to come across. And there are plenty of people who have been infected with an STD after only one sexual encounter. So STD infection has very little to do with morals or worth and very much to do with shame and stigma.

So, in the interest of clearing a few things up, here are some quick facts about sexually transmitted diseases:

  • Having an STD does not make you a bad person.
  • If you have an STD, you sure as shit are not alone. Welcome to the majority!
  • We do more harm than good by cultivating a culture where people can’t feel comfortable talking about STDs.
  • If we don’t change the way we talk about STDs, we’re just going to continue to not talk about STDs and the stigma will grow.

Now I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t engage in safe and responsible sexual practices to try to avoid STDs, because you should. I’m also not suggesting that we shouldn’t want to avoid STDs. I mean, they can have very serious long-term consequences if left untreated.

But many of them can be treated and cured or will simply go away on their own (yes, even HPV) so there is no reason to stress out about them, nor is there a reason to treat someone who has one differently than you did before you knew about their infection.

If I have had a sexually transmitted disease and been completely cured of it (like syphilis as an example), how does that make me any different from someone who contracted the flu and was cured? Neither of us have the disease anymore and you certainly can’t get it from either of us.

The point I’m making here is very simple. We do a shitty job of talking about something that is so common and normal. We shame people, judge them, and embarrass them; we hurl words like “herpes” around like racial slurs, intending to insult and shame people whether they have the disease or not; but the simple truth is that we are the very people we shame. 80+% of us will have some STD at some point in our lives. Let he who is without sin, am I right?

Sexually transmitted diseases are nothing to be ashamed of because sex is nothing to be ashamed of. If we want to break down the stigmas surrounding one, we must break down the stigmas surrounding the other. The puritanical and repressive way our society views STDs spreads fear, shame, and disgust as it eats away at our ability to have an open, mature dialogue. Like a virus, it eats away at society’s health and well-being.

If you ask me, regardless of the medical implications of all of the other STDs, stigma is the worst STD of all and communication is the only cure.

So let’s cure it!

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