As a woman who has been living with an incurable STI for almost five years, I know all too well about STI stigma.
It has taken me years to overcome the stigma and unlearn the toxic expectations of women in western society when it comes to sex. And through this unlearning process I have learnt many things, some of which I feel other women can benefit from. So here are 4 sexual health facts to break common myths that I battled with internally before I became stigma-free.
HSV (Herpes Simplex Virus) is very common, especially amongst people who have a vagina
Herpes is more prevalent in people who own a vagina. The mucous membrane of the vaginal wall can act as a breeding ground for bacteria, so this makes it easier for people with vaginas to contract STIs. Herpes in general is common—according to the World Health Organisation, more than two thirds of the world population under 50 carry HSV-1. Most people do not know that they have herpes because it is usually asymptomatic, which makes it easier to pass on.
HSV is also a skin-to-skin condition, so it is commonly mistaken as being only sexually transmitted. There is also a misconception that there are “good” and “bad” herpes; I have heard a lot of people deny the fact that cold sores around the mouth indicate one of the two strains of HSV and can be passed from mouth to genitals interchangeably.
Both HSV-1 and 2 can exist on the genitals and mouth but tend to have varying effects. HSV-1 is usually the cause of cold sores and can be passed on through oral sex but rarely causes genital outbreaks. People with HSV-2 on the other hand experience frequent genital outbreaks but rarely is the strain passed on through oral sex.
As a woman with a vagina and living with HSV, knowing how common it was freed me from the thought that I was somehow “marked” forever. Knowing that I really wasn’t alone freed me from stigma.
STIs are not “dirty”
There is a common misconception that sexually transmitted infections are “dirty”. This belief stems from society’s internalised negative perception of sex as a dirty act.
The way most people talk about their sexual health is also proof that we tend to view sex as dirty. For example, the moment that your STI results come back negative and you share them with your partner letting them know that you are “clean”. The opposite of clean is “dirty”, so to refer to your status as clean is to imply that having an infection makes you unclean. This is all down to your perception of sex and the acts within it.
This is also what creates STI stigma. Our internalised stigmatisation makes us view STIs as consequences of our actions. Because of this, the thought of contracting an infection sexually scares us, and that fear widens the barrier between ourselves and knowing the correct information.
Getting tested regularly does not make you “loose”
Getting tested regularly, especially as a woman, is actually incredibly liberating.
I receive a lot of messages from young women who share with me how they felt ashamed and embarrassed to get tested at the clinic or to ask their partners for their STI results. The years of suppression that female sexuality has faced is the reason why many women feel sexual shame.
Once you realise that knowing your body, maintaining your sexual health, pleasure and sex itself is your right, you let go of sexual shame.
Getting tested regularly protects you and keeps you in the loop with what is happening within your body. It is a form of self-care; it is an act of mindfulness. Never let anybody or society shame you for looking after yourself.
All STIs can be cured, treated or managed
Another main reason why so many of us internalise STI stigma is due to the belief that STIs are some sort of death sentence. This is untrue.
STIs are grouped into 3 categories: bacterial, parasitic and viral. Bacterial and parasitic infections such as chlamydia and trichomoniasis can be cured, but viral infections such as HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), hepatitis B or HPV (human papillomavirus) can be well managed, or can even leave your body on their own.
From the AIDS epidemic of the 80s and 90s, to the very graphic imagery and negative language used to scaremonger young people during their sex ed classes at school, there is a lot of misinformation about STIs we need to unlearn.
The stigma starts to disappear once you understand what these infections are, how they affect your body, how to properly treat them, and most importantly, how to protect and look after your own sexual health.
For example, it is still not common knowledge that PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) can be taken daily if you are at risk of HIV. Or the fact that PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) can be taken within 72 hours of being exposed to the virus, and for 28 days after in order to prevent becoming infected. Or how people who are HIV-positive can take daily medication (antiretroviral therapy) to lower their viral load and stop them from passing on the infection to other partners.
Or how even though chlamydia can be treated through a week of antibiotics, it tends to be a silent infection that can go unnoticed for several years.
Clear and accurate information on STIs which encourages you to take better care of your sexual health rather than create unnecessary fear within you is important because it helps to alleviate negative perceptions.
Once I did the research not only on the infection that I carried, but on all STIs, I felt relieved. I felt relieved because I understood my situation and was able to understand others who had come into contact with infections too.
Having an incurable STI is never an ideal situation but understanding how it will affect your body, as well as how to manage it, is crucial to dismantling internalised stigma.