Why We Need To Stop Being Ashamed Of STIs… By Someone Who’s Had One

Stigma around STIs is especially perplexing because these infections are pretty common.

When I think about the first time I was diagnosed with a sexually transmissible infection, I have to laugh. Honestly, when the nurse told me that I had syphilis I had no idea what she was talking about.

I was in my second year studying classical piano at university and my only frame of reference for syphilis was the fun fact that every other famous old-timey composer seemed to be riddled with it.

And I’ll never forget just how uncomfortable I felt once I got off the phone. It was almost as if I could feel the bacteria inside my body… Inexplicably, I stayed up most of the night washing my bedding. (Side note: syphilis definitely cannot be transmitted via bedding or clothing, in fact, it dies rather quickly when outside the body.)

I realise now that I was being totally hysterical and like most people diagnosed with an STI, my infection was treated easily with a course of good-old-antibiotics. I’d had infections in the past – the flu, common cold, whooping cough – and none of these had produced anything like the freak out I experienced with my first STI.

Why The Stigma?

Quite simply, many people still view STIs as something of which to be ashamed and embarrassed. My internalisation of this attitude is what caused such a visceral reaction.

Even years later, I still can still feel the stigma that caused me to freak out. Case-in-point, when I was asked to write this piece, I hesitated. I had to ask myself if I really wanted to publicly discuss my experience getting an STI. I’m a sexual health researcher, for goodness sake, and even I have a hard time shaking this ridiculous idea that STIs are somehow different from other infections.

Stigma around STIs is especially perplexing because these infections are pretty common.

Shame around STIs is, in large part, about society’s relationship with sex more broadly. Even though attitudes towards sex have changed quite a bit over the past decades, not so long ago anything other than married heterosexual sex was totally unacceptable. STIs were a sign of loose morals – particularly among women – and although today we might logically recognise this as ridiculous, it takes a long time for attitudes to change. Stigma can linger for generations.

Stigma around STIs is especially perplexing because, well, these infections are pretty common. Survey research has found that around one in six Australians report experiencing at least one STI in their lifetime.

Young Australians are particularly at risk for carrying an STI. In the year to June 2017, 11,728 Western Australians tested positive for chlamydia and 3,657 for gonorrhoea. Of these, 53 and 40 per cent respectively were in the 16-24-year-old age group.

Shame Stops Us From Getting Tested

Beyond feelings of discomfort, stigma can also act as a barrier to sexual health testing. Testing for STIs is so important because most people do not experience symptoms, which means it might not be obvious if they are infected. Being unaware of your infection can lead to some pretty serious health complications and means that you may unknowingly infect others.

The message ‘get tested’ isn’t, I suspect, terribly revolutionary. Most of us have probably been told at least once in our lives that testing for STIs is important. And yet, Australian data show just how uncommon STI testing is, particularly among young people.

Many people don’t get tested because they underestimate their risk for infection.

Researchers have also found that many people don’t get tested because they underestimate their risk for infection. In psychology, we refer to this as optimism bias, which means that while we are aware of negative events we underestimate the likelihood of them happening to us personally.

The fact is that chlamydia and gonorrhoea can live in our throats, bums and urethras, which means that they can be spread via oral, vaginal or anal sex. And some researchers now think that gonorrhoea can be spread just via saliva.

The point to be made is that these infections are cunning, and they can be spread through many different sexual acts, including those you may think of as low-risk. Even if you’re in a relationship, monogamy is not what I would consider a failsafe strategy against infection.

Just Get Tested Already!

So please, please, please do yourself and your partners a favour and get tested. If you are sexually active, get tested at least once a year. It’s definitely a good idea to get tested more regularly if you have many different partners.

The good news is that it truly couldn’t be easier to get tested these days. Check out this website, which provides information on risk and where you can get tested. You can always ask your general practitioner for a sexual health screen, find a clinic here, or Google ‘sexual health clinic’ to find one close to you. Getting tested is quick and I find it strangely satisfying. And, of course, you should encourage your partner(s) to get tested if you receive a positive result.

Sex is not something to be ashamed of and STIs are a normal part of being sexually active. Getting tested should be part of everyday life, too.

(Lead image: Friends/Warner Bros. Television)

Visit now for a free online STI test, or to ask a question – a health professional will respond confidentially within 48 hours.