STD Awareness: Stigma and Sexually Transmitted Diseases

Stigma and disease have always gone hand in hand, with some diseases more stigmatized than others. Over the millennia, people living with diseases ranging from leprosy to AIDS have been burdened by moral judgments, while people with conditions like common colds or Alzheimer’s disease are seen as randomly — and innocently — afflicted.


Even the most “sex-positive” among us might find ourselves inadvertently stigmatizing others.


These days, stigma swirls around the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, arising from the fear and anxiety that has recently gripped the world. As reports of hate crimes against people of Asian descent show, some people are confusing vigilance about protecting public health with excuses to lash out at certain populations. This stigma can also show itself in seemingly benign comments, like apologizing for coughing and promising that it’s “only allergies” — which I have seen happen even in conversations taking place in “virtual spaces” like Zoom or Skype, where disease transmission wouldn’t have been possible. The idea is that a COVID-19 infection is shameful, while allergies are socially acceptable.

Probably no set of diseases is more stigmatized than sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) — despite the fact that they’re also some of the most common infections across the spectrum of humanity. In fact, we’re in the midst of an STD epidemic, with tens of millions of cases every year in this country alone. Gynecologist Jen Gunter writes about how an STD diagnosis, like no other disease save cancer, has the unique power to bring a patient to tears. A common STD like herpes or genital warts can make someone feel like “damaged goods.” But clearly it’s not the virus itself that makes someone “damaged goods” — it’s the way it was transmitted. For proof, look at the way people react to infections caused by genetically related viruses, such as the herpesvirus that causes chickenpox or the strains of HPV that cause warts on someone’s fingers or toes.

Using Stigma to Punish

Even the most “sex-positive” among us might find ourselves inadvertently stigmatizing others when we talk about having a “clean” STD test or make people with herpes the butt of a joke. When we do that, we participate in a system that frames STDs as just punishments for engaging in the “wrong” kinds of sexual activities. Continue reading

Does Douching Work?

illustration of a douching apparatus from an 1882 medical handbook

As a newly minted teenager, I was helping my mother go through some of my recently deceased great-grandmother’s things. I held a mysterious object in my hands and studied it curiously, puzzling over its unfamiliar form, pastel color scheme, and floral pattern. Finally, I gave up: “What is this?” I exclaimed. My mom, instantly uncomfortable, muttered her answer through clenched teeth: “It’s a douche bag,” she replied.

I remember being rather scandalized, but also a bit amused to be holding a piece of ancient misogynist history in my hands. Even as a junior high student, I knew that douching was marketed toward women with the message that their vaginas were “dirty” and in need of “cleansing” — scientifically invalidated ideas to which we surely no longer adhered. It seemed fitting that we were sorting through the belongings of a person born in the 19th century, dividing them into the useful and useless. Surely the douche bag belonged in the latter category.


Just because douching products are available in drugstores doesn’t mean they’re safe or effective.


Little did I know, more than 20 years ago, that douching hasn’t exactly been relegated to a historical footnote. Overall, nearly 25 percent of American women 15 to 44 years old douche regularly — which is down from nearly a third in 2002. Douching rates may vary by ethnic group: CDC data from 2005 found that 59 percent of non-Hispanic black women, 36 percent of Latinas, and 27 percent of white women douche. Socioeconomic status and education level can also be a factor.

For those of you who don’t know, vaginal douching is the practice of flushing the vagina with a liquid, which is administered through a nozzle that is inserted into the vagina. Some people believe that douching cleanses or deodorizes the vagina, or can prevent pregnancy or infections. Some might think their partners expect them to douche, or that douching will “tighten” or “rejuvenate” their vaginas.  Continue reading