I’ve been ‘sexually active’ for nearly a decade. In that time I’ve been fortunate enough to have never contracted an STI. However, I have many friends who have – from HPV strains, to chlamydia and gonorrhea. Almost every time a friend comes to me to tell me that they have caught something from a partner the conversation inevitably turns to shame.
For many women, knowledge that a disease they have caught is linked to sexual activity leads to an inexorable feeling of humiliation or self-consciousness – a possible belief that this contraction is linked to their worth as a person, partner and woman who previously felt that she had a ‘clean’ bill of sexual health.
Each time a friend confides these feelings to me I tell her the same thing, ‘would you be ashamed of catching the flu? Of tonsillitis? No!’
At the same time, I can’t understand their feeling of shame as I’ve never contracted one. My motive as a friend is to ensure that they feel the same way about an STI as they would any other illness, and try to ensure they stop equating what they’ve caught with their sense of self-worth.
STI’s – in particular HPV, Herpes, Chlamydia and Gonorrhea are incredibly common – but they are still considered a taboo subject within society, and when entering into a relationship with a new partner. In a study of women living in Manchester, UK an estimated 40% of women between the ages of 20-24 were found to be carrying HPV. Unsurprisingly if, like me, you have ever comforted a friend through an STI scare, many of these women reported feelings of shame upon finding out that HPV was a sexually transmitted disease.
“Knowledge that HPV is sexually transmitted was associated with higher levels
of stigma and shame, but not anxiety. Women who knew that HPV is sexually transmitted but not that it is highly prevalent had the highest scores for stigma and shame.”
The same study suggested that ‘normalising’ HPV and informing the participants of the study in regard to how common HPV contractions are helped reduce feelings of shame and stigma within these women.
“The lower stigma and shame scores in the women who were aware of the high prevalence of HPV suggest that this information might have a ‘‘normalising’’ effect.”
The study also noted that this effect was similar to those noted in experimental research which has suggested that participants felt that infections they perceived as ‘common’ were “less serious than those perceived to be rare”.
STI’s sometimes fall victim to schoolyard myths and urban legends – not to mention widespread mainstream media scare tactics designed to ‘stop’ teenagers having sex, in misguided attempts to prevent teenage pregnancy.
Personally I am of the opinion that STI screens should be introduced in schools. In Australia roughly 50% of people will have had sex by the age of 16 or 17, It’s not unheard of to discuss sex in schools, with topics like consent, pregnancy, and STI’s covered – high school is also the place we receive our HPV vaccines. However, the national curriculum falls short when it comes to discussing the ties between feelings of shame and lack of self-worth that can be linked to the sexual experiences, sexuality, and sexual orientation of individuals. An ‘unlearning’ where sex-based urban mythologies are concerned is a necessary introduction to help teenagers and young adults navigate not only a safe, but an emotionally intelligent and well-rounded sexual experience as they feel ready for it.
Shame and sexual health seem to go hand in hand, as yet another leftover from our days of Victorian moralising, and claims that our sexuality and sense of self-respect or societal value are interlinked. Where schools and mainstream media outlets aren’t stepping up, yourself and your peers can: To reduce feelings of shame surrounding STI’s within yourself and others, arm yourself with knowledge. Learn to self-educate with reputable sources, and to unlearn the myths of the past.