Ladies, Let's Destigmatize STIs: Here is How to be Positive With Dating and Sex
The word on the street is that STIs are far more common than most people believe, but it has done little to whittle away the stigma surrounding diagnosis and every intimate moment thereafter. This makes it harder for people to talk about it, disclose their status to their partners, and take effective action to minimize risks and discomforts with living with STIs. As sex writer Ella Dawson describes in her TEDx talk, the unique combination of abstinence-only and non-comprehensive sex education does little to equip most Americans with the tools to make informed, realistic choices related to STIs - and actually encourages less effective decisions.
Stigma surrounds all STIs, but especially those that do not currently have a cure. Focus is shifting rapidly when it comes to HIV/AIDS, due to the availability of medication that lowers the presence of the virus to untransmittable levels, or prophylactic medication for negative individuals. But for herpes (HSV 1 or 2) or HPV, the virus that can lead to genital warts or an increased risk of cervical and other cancers; therefore, the stigma persists disproportionate to how common they are. According to Dawson’s figures, 2 of 3 people have Herpes Simplex 1, the virus that causes oral cold sores, but can appear on genitals. Herpes Simplex 2 is more commonly known as genital herpes, and affects 1 in 6 people, incidentally 1 in 5 women, and 1 in 4 New Yorkers. In cases of genital herpes men are often less likely to become infected than women due to their physiological make up.
Armed with the knowledge that talking about a scary thing automatically makes it less scary, Dawson and her comrades launched the #ShoutYourStatus campaign in April of 2016, AKA STI Awareness Month. Unfortunately some of the documentation makes liberal use of “proud” and “brave,” which are problematic terms in this type of activism. Just as Dawson says in her talk, “telling someone that you have an STI should not be brave or shocking. It should be normal, and kind of boring.” Most of the participants in the campaign were just telling it like it is - disclosing without shame or sadness is just describing a status, not being proud. Telling someone they are brave for disclosing perpetuates the idea that they are doing something most people could not do. Describing such an act as proud muddies the issue, just as labelling it brave is counterproductive.
For people that know their status as STI positive, a lot of what comes after is unmapped. In popular culture, STIs are something to be steered clear of, but as the statistics show, exposure is somewhat inevitable. Diagnosis isn’t a punchline as it is nearly exclusively portrayed in sitcoms or movies; it’s an event after which comes the rest of your life. It is an inconvenience at best, a lifelong game-changer sometimes, and a source of shame at worst, because of that social stigma. But there are resources and tools being built for what is fortunately developing into a community of people with specific needs.
The responsible thing to do once diagnosed is to inform recent sexual partners, and to disclose to future partners. This is a mixed bag for various reasons. For some common chronic STIs such as HPV and HSV, testing is unreliable and inconsistently administered, even when you ask for a thorough STI screening. So you may have had the virus in your system for a long time before symptoms became apparent or perhaps receive an abnormal PAP result. This can make it impossible to know who you contracted the virus from, and therefore how far back in your sexual history you may need to delve.
Despite these logistics, there is an easier way to inform previous partners about your status - especially if one barrier to informing them is revealing identity. STDcheck.com is an example of such a notification site that sends a message via text or e-mail. The system is imperfect since you can’t customize the message to include which STI they should get tested for, so if you have become aware that you have HPV and you were with male partners, the utility is limited - there is not an HPV test for men. But otherwise, the service is very helpful if you have been diagnosed with HIV or another screenable infection, and have any reason to not message partners directly - this could even come down to matters of personal safety.
Dating while STI positive has its own set of challenges, and there are various strategies for those. While some people continue to use mainstream dating apps, there are some apps that include status disclosure options, as well as apps for positive folks specifically. PositiveSingles, Hope, and PozMatch are all specialized dating sites or apps that streamline at least one aspect of dating that can be a little awkward, and they often have additional support resources built in, from treatment advice message boards, to care center navigators, and the simple luxury of knowing that other users are either in the same boat or will be compassionate to your status. Grindr was lauded when it included support for status disclosure, but it has shared that data with third parties. In the activism grand scheme of things, this isn’t necessarily a negative, but such sharing should be consensual.
Even if you are (to the best of your knowledge) free of STIs, the subject will affect you at some point. This extends to individuals regardless of where you are on the gay/straight spectrum, if you’re monogamous or asexual, herpes can spread through kissing or even wrestling. Even if you aren’t positive, it’s still in your interest to be an ally, so be informed, be compassionate, and as always, be unashamed!
Cover photo via LDS Living