The days of the pandemic have opened our eyes to the prejudices and stigmas attached to the simple fact of being human. One such dominant stigma is that of sexually transmitted infections, which have the potential to increase as life turns more naturally after lockdowns and restrictions.
Although the rate of infections fell last year, this may be due to a number of factors, including less sex and less testing. Since March last year, STI clinics have seen their services drastically reduced by the crisis, which makes us wonder where the current STI figure stands? Are we proactive and testing more, are we more careful about who we sleep with, or has the pandemic hidden a potentially high number? And are we still shamed and stigmatized for our sexual behaviors, which prevent screening and testing?
With sex back on the cards with the reopening of society due to the vaccination program, there is an opportunity to change the narrative around STIs, encouraging a sex-positive society that does not stigmatize any aspect of our sex lives. The conversation surrounding sexually transmitted infections and diseases remains by nature silent. We don’t talk about them although no one wants to contract them. Without the conversation and knowledge, there is most certainly abject protection that puts us at greater risk of contracting an STI.
Stigma is most certainly amplified by the way STIs are contracted with sex embedded in a long history of negative perceptions that are seen as socially unacceptable. “The stigma around STIs is a terrible holdover from the past where we didn’t have the same treatments as we do today,” says Shawna Scott, sex educator and owner of the multi-award winning, sex-positive Irish online store. SexSiopa.ie. “In a culture where sexual abstinence outside of marriage is a virtue, contracting an STI is often seen as almost karmic justice for moral failure. Although it is known that most people will get HPV [Human Papilloma Virus] in their lives and even the scariest STIs like HIV can be treated, they are still to this day accustomed to others and vilify groups of people that society deems “too promiscuous”, mainly women, gay men and blacks.
The pandemic has not helped the situation, given that the stigma that unfolded before our eyes at the beginning showed a prevalence of stigma associated with contracting Covid-19. There are speculations about how Covid-19 was contracted, drawing the conclusion that public health guidelines were not followed. It’s the same internal stigma as with STIs, which suggests negative practices or casual sex. A positive test creates judgment and shame, as if we have done something fundamentally wrong or against perceived societal norms.
The fact is that sexually transmitted infections are remarkably widespread, with experts suggesting that safe sex does not exist because every encounter can potentially carry a risk. In a frustrating combination, the stigma of STIs adds to their spread as people feel nervous, worried or afraid to get tested. Symptoms can bring embarrassment and without overcoming this, the trip to the clinic is on the finger. This fear and shame translates into poor or non-existent testing, but the sex life continues, which means we can unknowingly transmit STIs to others and continually harm our own health.
Destigmatizing STIs to encourage a test-and-treat mindset means opening up the conversation about sexual health and normalizing our behaviors, including actively protecting ourselves and practicing safer sex.
“We can reverse the stigma through education in our schools and developing a culture of free and regular testing across the country,” Scott says. “It’s not enough to tell young people, ‘Don’t have sex for fear of getting an STI.’ It won’t stop anyone from having sex, and it only creates more STI stigma. Regular sexual health screenings should be framed the same way we encourage people to go to the dentist for regular checkups and teeth cleaning. This way, if there is anything that needs treatment, it can be detected early and cause the least amount of hassle.
We may not be comfortable divulging bedroom secrets openly, but we’re not talking about openly sharing the details of our sexual behaviors, but rather a narrative of promoting safe sex practices, to inform us about STIs, how to get tested, the symptoms, and what treatments are available. For many of us, we know the names but don’t know the symptoms or how they can affect our health. Education is key to highlighting where the stigma is and reducing it.
“We desperately need more rigorous sex and relationship education in schools,” says Scott. “I still hear young people who would have done their Leaving Cert in the last five years telling me that their sex education was either non-existent or woefully inadequate. This has deep ramifications in our society that contribute to everything from rape culture, homophobia and transphobia to STI stigma.
Stigma surrounding STIs can prevent us from getting tested, which ultimately prevents treatment. Adding to this dilemma, many infections are asymptomatic, which means you may not even know you have an STI and pass it on to others. To break this cycle, we need to de-stigmatize STIs, making people feel empowered to get tested and protect themselves and their partners.
Fostering a sex-positive attitude in society means recognizing that sex and sexuality are normal and healthy parts of life. This means not humiliating or stigmatizing ourselves or others for our sexual choices and being comfortable with our bodies and our sexuality. Taking care of our bodies is part of positive sex, which means knowing and understanding our bodies and how to actively take care of them, recognizing changes and communicating with our partners to reduce our risk of contracting an STI.
We take vitamins, eat healthy and exercise. We visit the dentist if our teeth or gums hurt, get our eyes tested, and visit the GP if anything comes up. Add to that a visit to your local STI or GUM clinic, GP or pharmacist for advice when something goes wrong or routine STI checks when you have a new partner. Let’s be proactive about our sexual health.
If you have questions about sexual health and testing, visit sexualwellness.ie.
Post-pandemic sex series
Part 1: Behavior is not easy to predict
Part 2: Talk to your kids
Part 3: Get sexual health checkups