I still remember a conversation I had with Liezl Mathews, head of Little Angels, a not-for-profit in the township of Hangberg in Hout Bay, South Africa. Quite a few years ago someone in the community was diagnosed with HIV and was really angry about it. She, believe it or not, had her child bite people to try to spread the disease. At the same time, she was petrified that if she spoke about it, she’d be stigmatized. So she hid her disease. Liezl, a trained HIV counselor, helped her out. In the end, the woman stood up in a church and spoke about it.
There is still stigma attached to HIV. I know several people who are suffering from the disease; some speak about it openly, while others hide it away. Should people really have to hide? I think not. But what can we do to remove the stigma from STDs? Let’s have a think, shall we?
How Many People Suffer from STDs?
Some years ago in Los Angeles, I read a profile on a dating site. The man in the profile proclaimed that he would not date anyone with STDs.
Statistically, this man is going to have a hard time finding love. An estimated 67% of the human population under 50 have oral herpes according to the World Health Organization. 80% of sexually active people in America also get HPV (the human papillon virus) according to the American Sexual Health Organization.
As these are viruses that don’t really leave the body (though they may cause no outbreaks, or just the one, and are not always contagious), that means that you’re pretty toast if you’re looking for someone without STDs.
The Ridiculous Notion of Stigma
I still remember when a girl in my class when I was a teenager walked up to me and asked me who gave me herpes. I was horrified. Not least because I’d never been kissed.
Herpes is hereditary. People in my family sometimes get blisters on their mouth when they have a cold. While it may be a bit annoying, it’s not exactly the end of the world. It certainly causes less pain than the cold itself!
A cold sore, or herpes, really isn’t much worse than a painful bruise, yet how the world views it, is completely different. This is likely because it’s contagious, but think about it: you may get a cold sore once a year if you kiss someone with herpes. Is it worth it to stop kissing because of that? Would you stop playing football because you sometimes get a bruise?
Getting it down below is, of course, not particularly pleasant, but again, how much discomfort will it truly cause?
HPV and HIV
HPV and HIV are different from herpes, in that they don’t just cause an annoying little blister. They can be deadly.
Today HIV, while it cannot be cured, can be managed. There’s nothing saying you can’t live well into your 80s with HIV. What’s more, if you’re in treatment, the chances of you infecting someone else is close to nil. It’s also easier to prevent getting infected, even if you don’t know the sexual history of a partner, as safe sex prevents it from being spread.
HPV is a bit trickier as it’s transmitted through intimate skin-to-skin contact. In other words: you can be a virgin and still contract it.
While most strands of HPV are fairly harmless, some cause warts and others cancers. Now, in most cases, the body can cure an HPV infection on its own and then the HPV virus becomes dormant. In fact, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 70 percent of new HPV infections (including those that are "high risk") go away within one year, and 91 percent are gone within two years.
In the unlikely chance it doesn’t go away, you can normally treat it easily, if detected in time. The important thing? Test yourself. Take responsibility, both for your own health and your sexual partners’.
Stigma Versus Responsibility
HPV and HIV can be deadly if left untreated. Does that mean they should come with a stigma? No, absolutely not.
The notion that HIV or HPV should be stigmatized is as ridiculous as the idea that any other disease should be stigmatized. Who are the people who say catching an STD is something to be ashamed of? The people who never have sex? Because, really, that’s what it boils down to. The only reason you’d frown upon someone for contracting these diseases is if the idea of sex mortifies you.
That, on the other hand, does not mean you don’t have a responsibility to test yourself. There was a time when HPV was undetectable in men, as well as in women who had no cell changes. That’s not the case anymore. There are tests, both for HPV and HIV. And while most of us have come to believe that sexual health checks should be done annually, if you want to ensure you don’t spread any STD, you need to get tested after you’ve had a new partner as you cannot protect yourself from HPV. There is no “safe sex” anymore.
Why the Stigma?
Many STDs can be cured with a course of antibiotics, such as syphilis and gonorrhea. Others require other kinds of treatment. For herpes, there is no treatment, but unless getting a blister scares you, it’s not much of an obstacle.
However, some STDs can be dangerous. And we can probably all confess to having fear — fear of getting sick. Fear of dying. Chances are, this is why we, as humans, take to stigmatizing STDs.
Stigmatizing someone else, is just our own fear of disease and dying.
Maybe if we came to accept our own fear and took responsibility for our own sexual health, stigma would, once and for all, go away.
Maybe it’s also related to fear in other ways — we could all get tested and demand sexual partners do the same, but no one wants to stand naked in the bedroom and ask for a doctor’s report. I don’t know about you, but I find it’s always kind of though to bring up the topic of STDs. “So, darling, not to ruin the mood or anything, but when did you last get tested? Instead of serving me wine, can’t you just nip down to the Ob-Gyn instead?”
Should we really feel fear in protecting our health though? No. But for that conversation NOT to be awkward, stigma first needs to be removed.
It may also be that the stigma is something that has stuck to STDs from previous eras. Back then STDs were often contracted from brothels. And they had dire consequences — dying from syphilis is not pleasant.
Put Yourself in Their Shoes
Imagine finding out you have HPV and it might take your body two years to shake it. Hooray. Even worse, you find out you have one of the bad strains and you’re at risk for cancer, or have already contracted cancer. Finding love just became that much more complicated.
Or what about finding out that, that one time you got drunk at a party and went home with someone, you ended up getting HIV. Now you have to take meds for life and explain to every new sexual partner that you have HIV. Not that it should matter, because if you’re on your meds, you shouldn’t be contagious. But to many, it will, sadly, still matter.
Now imagine being in their shoes. And it’s not that hard. If you’re sexually active, you have an 80% chance of landing yourself with HPV at some point. Either way, just imagine the feeling of being diagnosed with a disease. The uncertainty. The fear. The what ifs. The sudden realization that you’re mortal, after all. Wouldn’t you, truly, want to support that person?
Stigmatizing people who contract STDs, is the equivalent of looking down on anyone who is sexually active — anyone out there dating and looking for love, or pleasure. Is pleasure something you should feel guilty about? If so, should you feel guilty about eating chocolate too? Or having a long bath?
Herpes and HPV can further be contracted without having sex. So that’s like looking down on people for no good reason whatsoever. Plus, chances are you have it yourself, even if you never noticed, because it becomes dormant pretty quickly in most cases.
If we want to live in a society where we feel free to be honest and talk to each other openly; if we want to receive support when we need it (such as when being diagnosed with an STD), then it’s important we stop looking down on others. It’s also important we start being honest, instead of hiding away when we have something that can be stigmatized. We all need to stand up for ourselves.
So here’s to all the people out there, who knows what it’s like to get blisters for the sake of love, or have to pop meds because they got tangled up in an affair, or have had a course of antibiotics to fight the fact they fell in love, or had a cancer scare because they suffered an incurable attraction.