Myth-busting Monday: STDs are from unprotected sex (false-ish), STDs are a death sentence (nope), and STDs are rare (also false).
There are many myths around STDs that we need to dismantle. Starting with the name. Did you know that the name STI is preferred? The phrasing ‘sexually transmitted infection’ is less stigmatizing and more accurate. ‘Infections’ can be asymptomatic, compared to ‘disease’ which implies some kind of symptomology or visibility. For some people, their STI is asymptomatic (ex https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12649059/ )
You can acquire some STIs during ‘protected’ encounters. When we think of protection, we normally think of barriers like condoms or dental dams. But some STIs, such as herpes, HPV, and syphilis, are transmitted during skin to skin contact. So using a barrier method does not prevent all STIs; you can even acquire STIs prior to your own sexual debut, such as an infant during pregnancy or the birth process ( see https://www.cdc.gov/std/pregnancy/stdfact-pregnancy.htm ). The challenge with preventing all STIs with barrier methods aligns with the idea that there is no safe sex, only safer sex, made possible in part by being risk-aware, using protection, and getting regularly tested.
Unlike decades earlier, STIs like HIV are no longer a death sentence. For example, with antiretrovirals to slow the growth of HIV for an individual, and preventatives and post-exposure prophalixis like PreP and PEP, HIV transmission is slowing. However, social stigma from the infection can limit accessibility of preventative and desire to seek treatment, and that delay and stigma can be deadly (ex see http://hivhub.ir/hiv-can-be-treated-but-stigma-kills/ )
Some STIs are fairly common, such as herpes, which is a mostly benign skin condition and can be asymptomatic, and HPV, which some say if you have had sex, you have probably had or been exposed to HPV (side note: please consider getting the HPV vaccine which can help prevent cancers associated with HPV). Despite being common, there is stigma surrounding these viruses, particularly herpes. And as mentioned above in reference to HIV, stigma can be more of a problem than the infection itself, contributing to poor self esteem, delay in seeking treatment, anxiety, depression, even suicidality (see https://www.cosmopolitan.com/sex-love/news/a48497/herpes-is-not-a-sexual-death-sentence/ and https://sexpositivefamilies.com/012-courtney-brame/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=012-courtney-brame and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YcIl-hclrLI ).
How can you help? Normalize testing for STIs. When were you last tested? Here’s the thing – YOU are ultimately responsible for YOUR sexual health. Know your stats and get tested regularly, even if you are in a monogamous or monogamish relationship/s. Another idea: normalizing talking about STIs, with partners and your family (as appropriate), which will get more comfortable with time and is part of sexual intelligence and responsibility (through risk-awareness). And as you started to by reading the above, continue to educate yourself on how common STIs are, that they are not death sentences, that they are not entirely preventable, and that they don’t have a certain look (people can be asymptomatic).
If you have an STI, how have you worked to overcome the stigma? If you are in the sexuality education/counselor/therapy profession, how do you work to end the stigma professionally? What other myths around STIs need to be dissected?
If you are suffering from stigma associated with having an STI, please know that you are not alone and actively seek out the emotional and medical support you need.
A few more links to check out on the topic:
https://www.plannedparenthoodaction.org/planned-parenthood-advocates-arizona/blog/std-awareness-stigma-and-sexually-transmitted-diseases and https://powertodecide.org/news/sti-vs-std-overcoming-stigma and https://www.varsity.co.uk/opinion/18354 Also see the CDCs website for general information including statistics https://www.cdc.gov/std/statistics/default.htm and Planned Parenthood https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/stds-hiv-safer-sex
Happy myth-busting Monday, beauties. Here’s to dismantling toxic stigmas for a happier and more loving world!
The above content is written by Dr. Allison Mitch, PT (DPT), sexuality counselor and educator (in supervision); copyright protected, please cite accordingly. The picture is from Pexels. To work with me or for more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
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*Please note that none of the above information is specific medical advice, but is meant as educational information only. If you have concerns about your health, please contact a trusted healthcare professional*