Did you know that April is STI Awareness Month? The reason why we need to dedicate an entire month to STIs is to underscore the importance of the issue and clear up the misconceptions and shame surrounding STIs.
In Canada, reported rates of chlamydia, gonorrhoea, and syphilis have been steadily rising since the late 1990s. Sexually transmitted infections are preventable but continue to be a significant public health issue. The biggest question to ask is why? Since STIs are preventable and there is more than enough public health clinics to help reduce and manage the transmission of infection, why are so many folks unaware or ashamed to ask questions, access treatment or obtain an education. It essentially boils down to the stigma attached to STIs.
“I was regularly getting tested through a family doctor,” explains Kristen, 23 of Toronto noting that being routinely checked was part of her regular conversation with her female doctor. “Recently, I found out that they weren’t submitting me for the full battery of tests and you have to specifically ask to be tested for herpes.” For Kristen, this was a shock, as she was unaware she needed to ask for a different test in order to be tested for the herpes virus and figured that when her doctor said they were testing her for STIs, it would be all of them. Less than three months ago, Kristen was diagnosed with herpes and if she hadn’t asked for the test, she never would have known she was infected.
Untreated sexually transmitted infections can result in long-term health outcomes but can also weigh heavily on a person’s mental and emotional health. Kristen explains that once she received her diagnosis she felt lonely, confused and full of self-hatred. She is not alone.
For many folks living with an STI, there is an immense isolation they can feel. This is why activists like Ella Dawson alongside social work student Kayla Axelrod, freelance writer Britni de la Cretaz, and writer/activist Lachrista Greco started the hashtag #ShoutYourStatus to help destigmatize STIs and have a more open conversation about living with STIs. Margeaux, 31 of Toronto who has been diagnosed with herpes since 2009, thinks that campaigns like #ShoutYourStatus create visibility and make people feel less alone while living with STIs. Margeaux shared, “campaigns like #ShoutYourStatus can hold a lot of power in fostering conversation. They create visibility and the possibility for dialogue to occur.”
When it comes to STIs, people make a lot of assumptions. Most of the time, they’re way off base. “There’s such a lack of dialogue around STIs and then there are the continued stigmas that surround STIs, from how you got one (that you must be a promiscuous person who has had unprotected sex with a stranger) to the assumption that STIs are an anomaly. We live in a world where we don’t really talk about illness as it is, so when that illness is an STI then there’s even more of an impetus to remain silent,” Margeaux shares. STIs are still so stigmatised, they’re seen as a reflection of someone’s character, and the public feels entitled to information when really what we should be providing those people is self-awareness and compassion.
There are many reasons STI shaming has to stop, the most important being that if we continue to shame people who are infected, chances are they will not feel comfortable enough to speak up about it. We should start this change by first providing young folks with better sexual education and trying to break the cycle of making people feel shame or regret towards sex.
Why do you think there is so much shame surrounding STIs? Let Vv Magazine know in the comment section or tweet us at @ViewtheVibe.