STIs are not something one typically plans on dealing with as part of their sex lives. Yet for many (1 in 2 sexually active American under the age of 25 to be precise) it is a reality they will have to cope with. Harsh, I know. And you know what’s even harsher than having an STI? Finding out you have one.
Scratch the ‘OMG what’s going on down there?’ scenario that popped into your head since STIs (especially chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes and hpv) are in most cases asymptomatic. Instead, picture a face to face conversation with a medical provider who’s here to let you know your test results came back abnormal.
Indeed, healthcare providers play a critical role in how we relate to STIs. They can help prevent STIs through sexual health education that is relevant to our sexual orientation and identity. They can help control the spread of STIs by encouraging us to get tested, and recommending testing solutions that best align with our testing preferences (at home tests are an option, for example). They can also impact how we emotionally process our status, should we test positive for an STI.
But with this great power comes great responsibility…
Unfortunately, doctors don’t screen patients frequently enough. Fewer than one in three physicians screen patients for STIs. Although STDs often cause no symptoms, twenty-seven percent stated that they could accurately diagnose STDs in patients “based on their symptoms.” Someone can have a virus living inside their body without it ever causing symptoms to alarm its carrier, hence why regular STI screening is hell-of- important! And apparently discussing sexual identity is too risqué, as 80% of emergency department physicians believe patients would refuse to answer questions about their sexual identity, when in fact only 10 percent of patients said they would actually refuse to do so.
The medical industry has a *deep* embarrassment with regards to acknowledging sex as culture knows it, and this hurts the level of care a patient should be able to expect from a health care provider.
In all fairness, it’s not entirely their fault. Medical students receive 3-10 hours of sexual education in their entire 4 year curriculum, which is rarely inclusive and treats sex as an anatomy subject rather than an activity that might lead to pleasure. So even though doctors are people too, they are not trained to talk about sex the way people have it. Sometimes, they’re just not trained at all.
Where does this all lead us in the context of being diagnosed with an STI? Nowhere nice, really. Take it from someone who was diagnosed with genital herpes 6 years ago.
My doctor diagnosed me as a case rather than a person: no empathy, little explanation, and a few prescriptions for the medication I would have to punctually take for the rest of my life. When I went for a second opinion, I was lucky to get a pamphlet, which although useful, only contributed to feeling that what I contracted couldn’t be talked about. I felt like a stranger in my own body, and the weight of how little I knew about how herpes actually works was suffocating. Since then, I have started a YouTube channel to share my own findings through trial and error. But back then, I had no one to turn to to prevent my diagnosis from wrecking the self confidence and self worth I had so impeccably built along the years until then. I wanted guidance for learning how to date responsibly, to figure out how and when to tell my status to a potential partner, to deal with occasional rejection and preserve my mental health… basically how to start living my same old life with this brand new addition.
So if that’s precisely where you are, don’t move. Your doctor and their potential lack of empathy are not the only resources you have at hand to process what your diagnosis means to your health and your everyday life. Below you’ll find a few trail blazers changing the narrative around STI stigma, and leveraging their own experiences to tackle it.
Emily Depasse – Emily is a sexologist and sex educator living with herpes. Her Instagram account is dedicated to deconstructing complex perceptions and behaviors in simple digestible bits. Her posts often spark interesting conversations so make sure to check out her feed, as much as comments!
Jenelle Marie Pierce – Jenelle is the founder of the STD project, and has been openly living with herpes for about 7 years. When she’s not enriching her own platform, she’s actively educating people on other platforms such as Pornhub.
Courtney Brame – Courtney is the founder and host of the podcast Something Positive for Positive People and has been openly living with genital herpes for a couple years. He moderates thoughtful and taboo free conversations with a wide spectrum of people who are also living with an STI.
Ella Dawson – Ella’s blog My Business Is Generally Pleasurable is a must read for any person who is living with herpes and in need of resilience. Besides her fantastic writing style, Ella’s strong POV on how to tackle STI stigma (also shared in her Ted Talk) is one that can only make you grow, regardless of your status.
My Boyfriend Has Herpes – Follow the story of Momo and Felix, a couple who share their journey from meeting, to disclosing, to the decision making process of being intimate, to their first sexual encounter, all of it told through beautiful comic style illustrations.
Love profound – Founded by Devin Wilson, the Love Profound meetups are a monthly safe space for people living with herpes to meet one another in New York. There are no pre-set discussions or mandatory public disclosures required, just a desire to connect with people living a similar experience.
Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust – Although this Instagram account is not dedicated to following the life of a single person living with HPV, it is incredibly resourceful in busting taboos, highlighting cervical cancer survivors and changing the conversation on how we relate to testing overall.
Public Cervix Announcement – Led by Gemma Lou Quinton, this Instagram account offers down to earth education about the uterus, the importance of pap smears, what to expect for first timers. Gemma is starting to bring these conversations out in the world, recently raising awareness of the importance of pap smears amongst Boohoo’s workforce.
Cervical Health Hannah – This account supports women in their quest for a safe reproductive health, showcasing stories of women for whom regular testing has been crucial.
Raif Derrazi – Raif is a fitness model and bodybuilder living with HIV. Through his Instagram and YouTube accounts, Raif showcases the role fitness plays in his life being undetectable and shares moments of growth, vulnerability or pain with his viewers.
Brenda Emily – Brenda contracted HIV at birth, and is an inspiring HIV stigma buster who uses her dating experiences and conversations with friends to illustrate how a 23 year old can live a fulfilling life being undetectable.
Jennifer Vaughan – Jennifer is a mother of three, who shows unapologetically how she lives with an undetectable HIV status. Misconceptions around HIV have no room left to breathe on her YouTube channel, giving viewers many reasons why they should update their perspective on HIV.
Lexi Gibson – Lexi contracted HIV at birth and has grown into a powerful advocate for education on the topic of HIV and sexual health overall. From interviewing strangers on the street about HIV, to voluntary humanitarian work abroad, Lexi is an inspiring resource whose digital presence alone will calm your thoughts.
The Body – The Body is an educational platform that talks about HIV in light of the social, economical and political realities of today’s day and age. I particularly enjoy how they tailor their content to the diversity of background and interests of their community, making it a resource that checks all the marks in my book!