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27th April 2023

STI Stigma: Why we must stop being ashamed of discussing sexual health

It’s time to accept that the squeamish taboo around talking about STIs is having serious implications for our health and wellbeing.
STI Stigma: Why we must stop being ashamed of discussing sexual health
Photo: Cottonbro Studio @ Pexels

Our generation shares more with strangers online than ever before, yet the one conversation which needs to regularly happen has been vetoed. Why is discussing sexual health still taboo? In an age where dating sites have sections that ask if, and how often, you take illegal drugs, why are STIs off-limits? 

TV shows like Sex Education, Sex, Love & Goop, and Planet Sex have, at least to some extent, made young people more confident in discussing their sexuality. Conversations about fetishes, polyamory, and kinks have decreased in controversy. The aspect of sex which can have health implications, however, has not been given the same grace by Gen Z. 

For my parents’ generation, STIs were homophobically associated with the AIDS crisis. The generation before that saw them as a result of prostitution. However, in 2023 one would assume that society had finally shifted towards a more progressive view of sexual health. 

Contracting an STI is still treated as though it reflects something about you and your sexual preferences. Truthfully, it hardly signifies more than catching a cold does. In 2019, there were 468,342 new STI diagnoses made by Sexual Health Services in England alone. STIs are common, and more manageable now than ever before. Chlamydia, gonorrhoea, and syphilis are all curable and antivirals can modulate HIV and herpes. There is nothing to be ashamed of. 

Despite increased understanding about how to treat STIs, many people still learn about them from gossip at school, not from reputable or informed sources. Education is the first step in tackling societal issues so this must improve. 

The COVID-19 pandemic increased general knowledge about self-testing. People now understand the imperativeness of routine testing and keeping yourself to yourself until you have the all-clear. If people are comfortable with gagging on a cotton swab in nightclub queues, then why be hesitant to do a urine sample in the privacy of their own homes? 

Before the pandemic halted research, statistics were charting an increase in STIs. Public Health England released data showing that new chlamydia diagnoses jumped by around 21% between 2000 and 2019. Gonorrhoea diagnosis has increased by around 249% over the same period. In 2021, 311,604 new STIs were diagnosed in England, an increase of 1,683 compared to 2020.

The National Library of Medicine’s 2018 investigation found that despite 64% of men and 73% of women rating themselves as not at risk of STIs, “>70% (of) men and > 85% (of) women classified as having had unsafe sex in the past year.” Although more recent statistics would be helpful, this reveals a huge discrepancy between the way people think about their own sexual health and reality. Society has vilified STIs so much that people have become detached from how common they are, and how easy they are to treat. 

Accessibility also hinders social reform. For our parents’ generation, it was much more difficult to get tested. You had to locate a clinic, without the internet, and then find your way there and hope that no one saw you entering or leaving. This is simply not the case today. 

I can’t speak for the whole UK, but in the cities and suburbs at least there are online services such as SHL, Brook, and SH:24 that allow you to freely order full test kits to your home and send them off with discreet packaging. Pharmacies like Superdrug and Boots also have started offering reasonably priced testing kits.

So, if people know what STIs are, how they are contracted, and how to test and treat them, then why are the rates still so high? It comes down to embarrassment. 

I have had my share of dating experiences, and the consistent shame around discussing sexual health always surprises and upsets me. Over 1 million STIs are acquired worldwide every day. Not talking about them doesn’t make them less common, it just increases the chance of them going untreated. 

Honest conversations are the only way to decrease and destigmatise these infections. Society must normalise asking someone when they were last tested. Asking if they can please send the results. These questions are often shut down, perpetuating the risk. Would people rather call every ex-partner and tell them they might be infected, than simply test? 

In my research for this piece, I tried to talk to my GP but this only solidified the sense of embarrassment that shrouds this topic. They said it was not their area, and that I had to find a special clinic. This made me feel ashamed and confused as if enquiring about STIs was much dirtier than wondering about something like tonsillitis or salmonella.

Online dating has increased hook-up culture, so sexual health needs to be foregrounded. If people on Hinge are going to openly admit to strangers that they take illegal drugs, we need to also have a section stating your sexual health status.

Considering that regular testing is the only way to decrease the spread of STIs, honesty must be prioritised. Perhaps dating sites could market their own tests to help destigmatise, and make the conversation less uncomfortable for everyone.

People are inventing other ways to determine someone’s sexual health status. Asking “Are you seeing other people?” as if this will allow you to magically place them in the ‘clean’ or ‘dirty’ category. This is ludicrous. Someone could have been celibate for 10 years and still be infectious from the first time they had sex. 

Furthermore, asking someone you have just met if they have other sexual partners detracts from the true intention. People sometimes conclude that by inquiring about their sexual health status, you are trying to get them to commit. For the sake of sexual liberation, we must untie chastity and chlamydia! 

It is our duty to talk about this. I know it feels awkward to begin with, but evidently, the discussion is the only way that we can stop the spread. If society continues to shroud these topics in shame, people will go untreated. The majority of STIs are not dangerous if treated quickly, they only lead to serious health implications if people are too scared to get tested. 

Let’s end the stigma together. Talk about it. Learn the facts. Ask people. Get tested. Contracting an STI is nothing to be ashamed of, but being too embarrassed to talk about it is. 

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