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How STD Stigma Shapes the Masses

March 12th, 2020     by Jori Hamilton     Comments

Photo by Benedikt Geyer via Unsplash

Please note this post contains some spoilers for Season 2 of Sex Education.

Over the past 10 years, the ‘sex-positive’ movement has grown dramatically. The movement advocates for embracing sexuality as an important part of identity and health, regardless of age or social constructs. In other words, it says sex is human, and you’re human, so it’s a healthy part of your life. Educate yourself, and embrace it.

Another interesting trend is the growth in sexually transmitted disease (STD) rates. In 2019, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which uses the terms STD and sexually transmitted infection (STI) interchangeably, reported another rise in three common STDs, including gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis. These statistics raise a number of intriguing questions to explore.

If more people are seeing sex as something positive, then why are STDs on the rise? Shouldn’t sex-positivity spark better education regarding sexual health? It’s possible that even though myths about who should and shouldn’t enjoy sex have been dispelled, some of the stigma surrounding STDs remains.

STDs in the Media

In the first episode of Season 2 of the Netflix hit Sex Education) (SPOILER ALERT) Moordale Academy is hit by a chlamydia outbreak. People are running around in masks screaming about catching chlamydia from the air, a clarinet, and toilet seats. The audience should know this is ridiculous, and it’s played for comedic effect. But why does a storyline like this still land? Whether because (or despite) of the internet, there’s a lot of misinformation and strange myths about STDs even now.

We live in an era where there are myriad articles online about health and wellness, yet to truly separate the facts about STDS from the hype, it takes a savvy searcher who knows what questions to ask. No, you can’t get an STD from a toilet seat. Yes, you can also get an STD if you only have one partner.

Discussions about the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) are particularly susceptible to myths and lies: including everything from who can contract HIV to what happens after infection. There often remains a shroud — as well as a shred — of mystery despite there being plenty of available information about new prescriptions like Truvada) (, which help to reduce the risk of transmission of the virus. One of the biggest myths is that HIV is a death sentence: as Jonathan van Ness has now told us over and over again, you can live a normal life and be HIV positive.

The STD Shame is Still Very Real

At the end of the season premiere of Sex Education, you learn that the culprit of the chlamydia outbreak is a poor lad who got treated but is too ashamed to admit he gave it to his partners. Even though he knew he could have prevented the further spread of the STD, he stayed silent and let the school tear itself apart rather than endure the shame.

Shame contributes both to the spread of STDs but also the worsening of them. Women, in particular, are vulnerable to the shame of infection and may refuse to visit a doctor for gynecological care. But refusing that care can lead to serious issues for women, such as cervical cancer or infertility from lack of treatment.

The stigma of STDs is an important factor to reckon with if we want to be: (1) truly sex-positive and (2) stop the growing infection rates. Studies show that STD-related stigma is an important barrier to screening among young adults. One study published in the Journal Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health found that when young people reported receiving an STD test, it was offered through a routine health care visit. They didn’t seek getting tested out on their own. Getting an STD/HIV test is great, but it signals that the stigma may be stopping people who aren’t going in for their annual physical. Additionally, further research found that stigma and shame also undermine both treatment and partner notification.

Sex Education’s depiction of contracting chlamydia in the air was a call out to the strange lies that still dominate the sexual discourse. But unfortunately, hiding your diagnosis for fear of shame and letting an infection run rampant isn’t a myth.

STDs Aren’t Our Enemy - Shame Is

Today, STDs are traceable and largely curable. We know how they’re transmitted and how to avoid them without sticking to the ‘wait until marriage’ gambit, which doesn’t actually prevent STD transmission.

While having sex doesn’t guarantee you will contract an STD, they are a part of sexual health that we should be aware of. Contracting an STD doesn’t mean anything other than that you engaged in any sexual activity with a person who happens to carry one. And because many STDs (most notably HPV) often present with few or no symptoms, an individual may not have had any idea in the first place that they are a carrier. Which is why regular testing is so important.

Our enemy isn’t a virus but the way of thinking that encourages the further spread of infection and the shaming of those who contract them. The shame means people fail to seek basic healthcare, avoid telling their partners, and even struggle with declining quality of life and mental health.

If Sex Education’s Otis is anything to go by, the kids will be alright. They have access to a more diverse array of accurate and digestible information than previous generations did during their formative years. But what does that mean for the rest of us? For those of us who came of age during the years of purity culture — or traditional family values? After all, sexual exploration isn’t just limited to our teen years. It’s for life.

Tags: health, sexuality, youth

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