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

STD Awareness: How Do I Tell Someone I Have Herpes? Or HPV? Or HIV?

Image provided by Katie to Vice

Of all the novel ways to jump-start a difficult conversation, presenting someone with a hand-drawn comic about herpes is among the most creative. A couple of weeks ago, Vice shared the story of Katie, a millennial with genital herpes who struggled to find the optimal way to disclose her status to potential partners. In a fit of inspiration, she wrote and illustrated a pamphlet that not only shared her history and status — it also included important stats and other facts about genital herpes, a highly stigmatized and widely misunderstood condition. Her pamphlet has been received well by potential partners, dispelling myths while also lightening the mood during what can be a highly fraught conversation.


Begin your relationship with transparency and respect.


Katie’s struggle is shared by a lot of people with treatable — but incurable — STDs, such as genital herpes, human papillomavirus (HPV), and HIV. (Herpes and HIV stay in the body for life, but 9 out of 10 times HPV will be defeated by the immune system. But sometimes, HPV lingers for years or even life.) Most of us don’t want to disclose too early, when we haven’t yet established trust, but we also might be wary of waiting too long, lest we be accused of dishonesty. And disclosing before it seems like sex is in the cards might seem presumptuous. It can be a fine line to walk.

Whether you design your own comic like Katie did, or try another route, the ability to disclose your STD status to a potential partner is an important communication skill to develop. Healthy relationships are built on a foundation of honesty and respect, and your potential partners need to make their own decisions when it comes to their comfort with possible exposure. To make an informed decision, they must be armed with all the facts — and you can help them! Continue reading

STD Awareness: How Common Is Herpes?

Those of you with an eye for weird news might have noticed recent headlines about wild monkeys in Florida suffering from a herpes epidemic.

Two things in that sentence might have tripped you up. One, Florida has wild monkeys? Yup. In the late 1930s, after a Tarzan movie was wrapped, three male and three female rhesus monkeys were released into the Florida wilds, giving rise to an estimated 1,000 monkeys roaming the Sunshine State today.


Both oral herpes and genital herpes are on the decline.


The second thing that might have given you pause: Monkeys can get herpes? Yes again! The Herpesviridae family is huge, with at least 100 members infecting mammals, birds, reptiles, bony fish, amphibians, and oysters — even dinosaurs are thought to have been infected by herpesviruses! The virus has been evolving alongside us since before the dawn of humanity, so it knows us like the back of its hand (metaphorically speaking), allowing it to stow away in our bodies and hide from the immune system.

The “Tarzan” monkeys suffer from a type of herpesvirus called herpes B, which can be deadly in humans, though it’s rare — just try not to find yourself on the receiving end of a monkey bite or scratch. Not so rare in humans are human herpesviruses, of which there are eight types. Types 1 and 2 — aka herpes simplex virus (HSV) 1 and 2 — can both cause genital herpes, one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). HSV-1 mostly causes cold sores, but can also infect the genitals to cause genital herpes, while HSV-2 mostly causes genital herpes, but can also infect the facial area to cause cold sores. (A little confusing, I know.) Continue reading

STD Awareness: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) have been with us since the dawn of time — or at least since the dawn of sex. And, as we continue to hone our approach to preventing and treating them, STDs will always grab headlines, whether the news is bad or good.

The Good

Can the HIV epidemic be stopped?

For more than a decade, AIDS, the illness caused by HIV, was seen as a death sentence. It wasn’t until the mid-’90s that antiretroviral drugs kept the virus in check, prolonging lifespans for people with access to these medications and transforming the infection into a chronic disease. Now, those dreaming of an end to HIV are seeing reasons for optimism. No, a cure isn’t in the works — but many researchers believe we can end the epidemic through prevention.

Ending HIV transmission will take money and an efficient health care infrastructure, but we have the tools to do it. It starts with expanding access to HIV testing — an estimated 15 percent of Americans with HIV are unaware of their status. The next step is to ensure that everyone testing positive has access to antiretroviral drugs. When used correctly, these medications keep viral levels so low that the chances of transmission are virtually nonexistent. More recently, medications called PrEP — pre-exposure prophylaxis — enable people without HIV to protect themselves from infection. Condoms, of course, are a time-tested prevention tool. Gathered together, we have a pretty mighty arsenal. Here in the United States, we could stop HIV transmission in its tracks in just a handful of years. Of course, people all around the world will need access to testing and treatment to halt this scourge on a global level. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Herpes in the Headlines

Two separate stories about herpes have popped up in recent headlines, and the news isn’t good. A “citizen-scientist” injected an untested herpes treatment live on Facebook, sidestepping preliminary studies on safety and effectiveness. Meanwhile, research into a promising herpes vaccine was shut down as the extent of one scientist’s severe ethics violations came to light. Both stories show that there is a strong demand for ways to prevent, treat, and cure herpes — and both are case studies in the wrong way to bring such therapies to market.


Unscrupulous researchers may take advantage of people with stigmatized infections like herpes.


Herpes is a sexually transmitted virus that can cause “outbreaks” of painful genital sores. Afterward, the virus goes dormant in the nerve cells, hiding from the immune system. In some people, the virus can “wake up” to cause temporary flare-ups of symptoms. Given how common this virus is, a preventive shot could help a lot of couples discuss their herpes status without as much fear of judgment and stigma.

While someday an effective herpes vaccine might be developed, recent headlines have been unfortunate examples of scientific experimentation gone horribly wrong.

Citizen-Scientists Doing it Wrong

On February 4, at a biohacking conference, Aaron Traywick took off his pants in front of an audience and injected his thigh with a syringe containing a never-before-tested herpes treatment — a type of gene therapy, a treatment that alters a patient’s DNA by inserting genes into their cells. Frustrated by the testing that pharmaceutical companies must do, and the regulations they’re saddled with, he thought his startup company could leapfrog over these steps and go straight from the lab to human testing, using himself as a guinea pig. In addition to the alleged herpes “cure” that Traywick injected himself with, his company makes a similar herpes vaccine, which they hope will prevent herpes infections in those who don’t have it. Continue reading

Dental Dams Help Spread Intimacy, Not STDs

It’s that time of the year when people focus on intimacy and romance. Most people think jewelry and roses are good gifts to give for Valentine’s Day. They’re nice, but you know what’s even better? Dental dams.

What’s a dental dam, you ask? Like condoms, dental dams are a way to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) by covering the vagina or anus during oral sex. Dental dams are usually made of latex, and some are made from polyurethane. Since they’re used for oral sex, dental dams often come in different flavors, and they’re flexible enough to fit in your purse.


Dental dams are an essential component of protecting your sexual health.


Dental dams are particularly useful for lesbian partners, since oral sex is a common form of sexual activity, but anyone who engages in cunnilingus (the oral stimulation of female genitals) can use them. Dental dams are also beneficial for consenting partners who enjoy anal play (aka “rimming”). Dental dams serve as a barrier against most STDs, since many sexually transmitted diseases, such as syphilis, human papillomavirus (HPV), and herpes, can be passed simply by skin-to-skin contact. Gonorrhea, chlamydia, and hepatitis A and B viruses can also be spread through oral sex. HIV can be transmitted through oral sex if blood is present.

Unfortunately, dental dams aren’t distributed as widely as condoms are. You’re not likely to find a dental dam dispenser in a public restroom, and many community organizations provide dental dams on a request-only basis because they’re more expensive than condoms. And most drug stores don’t carry dental dams in the same aisle as condoms and lube because dental dams were originally created to be used during dental procedures. (Get it — dental dams.) Continue reading

STD Awareness: STI vs. STD … What’s the Difference?

When it comes to sexually transmitted diseases, the terminology can be confusing. Some people use the phrase “STD,” some people insist “STI” is the proper set of initials, and every once in a while you might catch someone using the term “VD.” Over the years, the parlance has changed. What’s the deal?

VD: Venereal Disease

Blaming women for STDs (aka VD) is an age-old tradition.

“Venereal disease” has been in use since at least the 1600s (the Oxford English Dictionary cites a 1667 publication referring to a “a lusty robust Souldier dangerously infected with the Venereal Disease”). Around a century ago, Americans flirted with heavily euphemistic expressions, such as “social diseases,” but mostly, “venereal disease” was the terminology of choice for the better part of four centuries — slightly less euphemistic, as “venereal” was derived from Venus, the Roman goddess of love, sex, and fertility. Additionally, since at least the 1920s it was frequently shortened to “VD.” Those of us of a certain age might still remember hushed talk of VD among our grandparents, parents, or peers.

Around the 1930s, public health experts started wondering if referring to VD as a separate category of disease stigmatized these infections and those who carried them, dampening motivation to fight them with the same fervor with which the community battled other infectious diseases like influenza, smallpox, and scarlet fever. In 1936, Nels A. Nelson proposed replacing “venereal disease” with “genito-infectious diseases,” but that never caught on — you haven’t heard of GIDs, right? Continue reading