Many people find them unpleasant to talk about, but STDs are an important part of public health. They’ve been around since records began, and are one of the most common experiences that sexually active people go through, yet society considers it an unsuitable topic for conversation. Rather than keep people in the dark, feeling ashamed, it’s time to bring STDs into the light – they’re highly preventable, highly treatable and practically normal, so talking about them should be, too.
To start with the basics, STD stands for Sexually Transmitted Disease. The term STI, or Sexually Transmitted Infection, is also used, and some organizations, such as the University of Maryland, consider this to be the more accurate of the two, as it encompasses a wider range of situations – including when there’s no symptoms. It’s the preferred term of the World Health Organization (WHO), although the Center for Disease Control (CDC) favors STD.
Symptoms and Stigma
Whichever term you use, both organizations agree that STIs and STDs are spread through sexual contact. This includes vaginal, anal and oral sex – a few are even transmitted through simple skin-to-skin genital contact.
There are many resources out there to inform you about common STDs, how they spread, possible symptoms, how to prevent them, and methods of treatment.
Remember, some STDs don’t have symptoms, and some symptoms are shared with different diagnoses, but if you experience any of the following, you should get checked out, just in case:
- sores or bumps on and around your genitals, thighs, or butt cheeks
- weird discharge from your vagina or penis
- burning when you pee and/or having to pee a lot
- itching, pain, irritation and/or swelling in your penis, vagina, vulva, or anus
- flu-like symptoms like fever, body aches, swollen glands, and feeling tired
What did you think when you read those symptoms? “Gross”? Did you pull a face, or think that it was off-putting? Although it’s always worth repeating the facts, this was also a test of taboo in action.
It’s hard to say for sure why STDs are taboo, but it’s not hard to theorize. For years, sex and anything related to it was considered sinful, despite being one of the most common acts in nature. And breaking out of a taboo is extremely difficult, especially when people in power ensure that others are punished for diverging from the norm, whether physically or through psychological methods such as ostracism.
A Swedish study from Karolinska Institutet’s Emotion Lab, as reported on Medical Daily, explains how punishment is strong psychological factor in maintaining taboos, and conversely how rewards can help to break people out of them. It’s entirely possible to make conversations about STDs a normal part of life, and all we have to do is to consider how we react to one another – punishment or reward. It’s not often that societal change is so easy, but in this case, we have the power.
Disease doesn’t discriminate
It’s important that we use this power, because the article also mentions the negative effects of upholding taboos and other, damaging traditions. Human Rights Watch has documented how people across the world are disadvantaged in many areas of their lives, and deprived of rights because they’re different from the norm. For any minority group, this “justification” process won’t come as a surprise.
It’s damaging in other ways, too. When people find out that they have an STD they can feel shame and stigma, and there are various studies that link shame to suicide, and STDs to depression. Unfortunately, this experience is more common among minority communities, such as the LGBTQIAP+ community and women of color. Both groups have been found to have a higher rate of reported STDs, which has been found in other studies to be related to the stigma attached to it, such as the belief that someone with an STD is promiscuous (and the judgement which sadly often follows this belief).
Stigma increases the number of cases of STDs.
This might seem counter-intuitive, but taboos often come hand-in-hand with a lack of education about a topic, and where infection is involved, this is a recipe for unhappy endings. It makes sense – how can you protect yourself against something that you don’t know exists, or don’t understand how it spreads? “Knowledge is power” isn’t just a saying.
Even in developed countries it can be a problem. Research published in PLOS ONE has concluded that teaching abstinence-only methods rather than practical sexual education increases both STD and teen pregnancy rates in the United States. The solution is the same: only by talking about STDs can we give people the information they need to stay healthy.
It may be a strong taboo in certain places, but talking about STDs is the only way we’re going to stop the negative consequences of leaving them be. Next time it comes up, consider having a discussion with your friend and partner – or even if it doesn’t come up. Make an effort to normalize it, and we could all reap the benefits.