There's a constant social stigma around the topic of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and it doesn't manifest in any singular way. People don't like to talk about sex in general; it's a taboo subject, one that's often considered impolite, tasteless, or at the very least, embarrassing to talk about, even with people close to you. On another level, STDs are often publicly viewed as a repercussion of excessive or irresponsible promiscuity, alienating those afflicted as outcasts. STDs are often exaggerated or misunderstood as well, and since nobody likes to talk about them, these myths and rumors become a reality of perception for many citizens.
The end result is a self-perpetuating feedback loop of disdain, avoidance, misconceptions, and shame that encourage further spread of disease.
Why the Stigma Needs to End
We need to work proactively to end the stigma of STDs, and here's why:
- Sexual health is a basic component of health.People often forget the "heath" component of "sexual health." The truth is, sexual health is a basic subject that everyone should be informed about. The only reason we continue to exist as a species is because we continue to have sex, and understanding this element of our lives is as important as understanding the nutritive components of the food we eat, and how to handle other afflictions that affect our bodies, such as chronic illnesses or injuries.
- Greater knowledge means greater prevention.There's no question that increased knowledge about STDs is associated with greater efforts toward prevention on an individual level. If you understand how these diseases work, how they can affect you, what the symptoms are, and what the risk factors are, you'll probably take deliberate measures to prevent yourself from acquiring them. Apply this to a national scale by increasing knowledge among many ages and socioeconomic classes, and you can prevent the majority of cases before they even occur. Unfortunately, the stigma serves as a barrier to promoting this type of education.
- Open dialogue allows more people to be open with their afflictions.An individual with an STD who feels unable to talk about his/her affliction may be reluctant to disclose this information with a potential partner for fear of being alienated or treated with disgust; this leads to further spreading of the disease. Improving open dialogue means current sufferers will be able to provide more open information more proactively, helping everyone better understand the risks and realities.
- Less shame means more testing and treatment.People aware of the stigma of STDs (i.e., almost everybody) often feel ashamed or embarrassed to walk into a testing clinic. Those afflicted with a disease are ashamed to seek treatment. But the reality is, testing and treatment centers are indispensable for mitigating the spread of these diseases and giving people better options for treatment. More testing and more treatment mean the spread of disease will be mitigated, and more people will have more knowledge about their own bodies.
- There's no pragmatic reason for the stigma in the first place.There are psychological and historical reasons for why the stigma of STDs developed, but think about it from a practical perspective—what possible reason could there be to avoid talking about STDs altogether? If it feels uncomfortable to talk about, that's only because we've made it uncomfortable to talk about, and conversely, we can make it comfortable to talk about again.
How We Can Get There
It's intimidatingly hard to solve a problem that rests in a collective social perception, but there are some ways we can begin addressing this stigma as a society:
- Educate yourself.Start by understanding how and why STDs spread in the first place—it isn't restricted to sexual deviants, and many diseases may not function the way you think. Understanding these better will help you engage in better preventative practices, and clear up any misconceptions you may hear in your own circles.
- Support education programs.Whenever you have the opportunity to support sexual education programs, do so. Not everyone has the resources to access this information on their own, especially children in households where the stigma is present.
- Engage with others openly.Talk about sexual health. The simple act of talking about it perplexingly makes it easier to talk about.
These three strategies won't make the situation better overnight, nor will they have a national impact if left to individuals, but if even a fraction of us start taking these steps in our own lives, we can work to end the stigma of STDs in a few generations—maybe even in a number of years. Start eliminating the stigma in your own head, and you could make a positive impact on your community.