What comes into your mind when someone mentions a Sexually Transmitted Disease or Infection ( STD or STI) such as Chlamydia, Herpes, or Human Papillomavirus (HPV)?
I might be able to guess that the words “gross”, “dirty”, or “frightening” may come up. While stigma and disease often coincide, it seems as though the negative attitudes surrounding STD and STIs are particularly prevalent.
STI Stigma In The Media
The negative portrayal of STIs in modern media such as TV, social media, songs, etc. makes society think negatively about people who have STIs. Although over 2.4 million cases of STIs were reported in 2021, society has only stigmatized these people’s experiences. Instead of normalizing or working to find a solution to these growing rates, the media has poked fun at these staggering numbers and stigmatized diseases.
For example, a Saturday Night Live skit character says “I’m with Herpes” when asked who he came with. Referring to a woman with the STI, herpes as “Herpes” makes it seem as though having herpes is this woman’s only important characteristic. Herpes is depicted as so disgusting that it impacts the way in which society views her. This simple joke perpetuates the viewers’ fear and general view of STIs as gross.
In addition to the media portrayal, simple language regarding STIs heavily impacts the way they are viewed. Have you ever heard someone say they are “clean” when they do not have a sexually transmitted infection?
Although “clean” may sound like a straightforward and inconsequential word, it can have intense repercussions. Referring to someone without STIs as “clean” means that people who have them are “dirty”. These words subtly preserve the stigmas about STI and can lead to people being categorized as “dirty” and feeling inferior and embarrassed.
Where Does STI Stigma Come From?
But why does society have this negative and stigmatized perception of STIs in the first place? The negative perception of STIs largely stems from general discomfort surrounding sexual activity.
The stigmas are a result of societal attitudes surrounding sex and not the diseases themselves. Being sexually active is often looked down upon so one can imagine that receiving an infection or disease from these encounters would have an equally negative perception.
Simple choices can be a very effective way of combating negative stigmas regarding STD and STIs. So, next time you hear a peer call someone with an STI “dirty” or refer to someone without an STI as “clean” , consider explaining the harm of that word choice. Or if you view a piece of media that harmfully jokes about STIs, ponder what you can do to limit its reach.
If you are interested in getting tested for STIs or learning more, find a clinic near you!