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: When Syphilis Goes North

The bacteria that cause syphilis are shaped like corkscrews. Image: David Cox, CDC

Last month, a “weird” medical case made headlines. An Australian man with unexplained headaches and eye pain got a diagnosis for his mysterious symptoms when his doctors discovered he had syphilis — and the infection had spread to his head. Syphilis had caused both optic nerves to become swollen, triggering pain that worsened whenever he moved his eyes.

It might seem strange that a disease most people associate with below-the-belt symptoms can wreak havoc above the neck, but syphilis is a wanderer that can travel all over the body, sowing chaos wherever it goes.


Syphilis can quickly enter the nervous system and travel to the head, where it can cause blindness, psychiatric problems, and other trouble.


Ocular Syphilis

The bacteria that cause syphilis can be passed from one person to another through contact with a sore, which can appear on or around the mouth, genitals, or anus. Any type of sexual contact, including oral sex, can transmit these bacteria. Sores are painless, contain a highly infectious liquid, and can appear between three weeks to three months after infection. These sores aren’t always visible, which means you can’t tell if someone has syphilis just by looking at them.

Although the bacteria typically land in the mouth, genitals, or anus, they can also be sexually transmitted directly into the eye, causing redness and vision problems. After infection, syphilis sores can appear on the eyelids, tear ducts, and soft tissues around the eyes. Bacteria can also travel to the eye by entering the nervous system and blazing a trail to the optic nerve — no direct contact between the eye and a sore necessary. Continue reading

2019: A Year in Blogging

Nearly three years into the Trump administration, a lot of us are tired. The headlines got more and more draining, culminating in impeachment proceedings at the end of the year. But in response, we’re so fired up that we’re ready to storm the polls next November — and make sure our friends and family do so as well. And 2019 was also a time to be hopeful. In January, a record 102 women walked into the House of Representatives, ready to serve their constituents — making up nearly a quarter of House members, the highest proportion in U.S. history. The Senate saw gains as well, with 25 female senators out of a total of 100. Many of these newcomers made it their mission to fight for the very human and civil rights that are currently under attack.

Outside of politics, we’re still committed to connecting people to the information they need via technology, such as Planned Parenthood’s abortion finder tool, or the Roo app, a sexual-health chatbot that was named by TIME Magazine as one of the year’s best inventions.

Throughout the year, our bloggers were here to shed light on the political happenings and spread awareness about important sexual and reproductive health issues. We asked them to pick their favorite posts of 2019. They’re definitely all worth a second look!

Anne covered the fifth anniversary of the Hobby Lobby decision, which marked the Supreme Court’s ruling that some for-profit corporations could, like human beings, exercise religious beliefs. The Hobby Lobby decision placed religion over science, allowing employers to limit employees’ access to birth control methods otherwise guaranteed by the Affordable Care Act — exploiting a legal loophole to give corporations the right to damage their employees’ health in the name of religion. Five years later, its destructive legacy lives on: The Hobby Lobby decision has since been commandeered to deny birth control, attack the LGBTQ community, make a mess of health care administration, and more.

Matt’s favorite post pointed a spotlight on an important but overshadowed piece of history, the case of People v. Belous, which 50 years ago marked the first time a patient’s constitutional right to abortion was upheld in the courts. The post introduces us to Dr. Leon Belous, a Southern California physician who believed abortion bans were antiquated and barbaric — and was arrested for “conspiracy to commit abortion” after referring a patient to a safe abortion provider in the 1960s. The California Supreme Court vindicated Dr. Belous, setting the stage for Roe v. Wade and the expansion of abortion rights a few years later. As Matt tells us, “I think this case is especially relevant to the borderlands area and the complex role that border towns played in abortion access and the social attitudes toward the procedure.”

Ava wrote about the criminalization of miscarriage. That might not sound possible — the idea that someone could be arrested or imprisoned for having a miscarriage — but plenty of people find themselves in this perplexing and outrageous situation. People who lose their pregnancies may be blamed for these losses if others decide they engaged in risky behaviors, despite the medical fact that most of the time, miscarried or stillborn fetuses die of natural causes, and miscarriage within the first 20 weeks of pregnancy is astonishingly common. These laws may also target people of color, as Black, Latinx, and Native-American people are more likely to experience pregnancy loss than non-Hispanic white people. Simply put, criminalizing pregnancy loss casts pregnant people as vessels rather than people.

Tracey shared her own powerful and personal story about miscarriage. She described that string of four simple words — “I had a miscarriage” — as intimately felt and inconceivable to say. For Tracey, talking about the loss of a baby was almost as hard as losing the baby. She now uses her story to fight stigma, and to encourage other people to do the same. When we are silent around the issue, so many of us suffer in silence, while the reality of the prevalence of miscarriage is distorted for the rest of us. And when people don’t realize how common miscarriage is, they are more likely to blame and demonize those who lose their pregnancies.

Anna celebrated one of 2019’s medical victories, which was announced earlier this year. In her favorite blog post, she introduced readers to the “Berlin patient” and the “London patient,” two people who had HIV before coming down with blood cancers. After receiving bone marrow transplants from donors with genetic “immunity” to HIV, an amazing thing happened: Not only did their cancers go into remission — so did their HIV infections. When this feat was first performed more than a decade ago with the Berlin patient, people were hopeful it could be replicated in future cancer patients — but it took until this year for the success to be duplicated in the London patient. What do these cases mean for the millions of other people living with HIV?


Make your voice heard in 2020! Join our blogging team by becoming a Planned Parenthood Arizona volunteer. We want to help amplify your voice!

STD Awareness: Is Withholding HIV Status a Crime?

If your sexual partner had HIV and did not tell you about it, how would you feel? Most of us would feel betrayed, lied to. We might be scared that we’d contracted the virus, too. If we had known, maybe we would have chosen not to have sex, or might have taken different precautions. Perhaps we’d be angry that someone took away our ability to evaluate the risk for ourselves, and instead decided for us that the sex was worth the risk.


Disclosing HIV status can make someone vulnerable to risks, but open communication forms the basis of healthy relationships.


Many people think it should be against the law for someone with HIV to withhold their status from a sexual partner. To do so seems like a violation of someone’s right to make their own decisions about the sex they have, a denial of pertinent information that needs to be factored into one’s decision-making.

Then why are organizations like American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association, and the U.S. Department of Justice opposed to these types of laws?

Meet Nick

In June 2008 in Iowa, Nick met Adam on a dating website. They hung out at Nick’s apartment, spent a few hours getting to know each other, and eventually had sex. A few days later, Adam heard through the grapevine that Nick was HIV-positive.

The next month, three armed detectives stormed Nick’s workplace, took him to the local hospital, and ordered nurses to take his blood. Meanwhile, police were searching his house for drugs — not illicit drugs, but lifesaving antiretroviral drugs. Nick was arrested. His crime? Criminal transmission of HIV.

Even though Adam never got HIV. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Can Gene Editing Cure HIV?

For the first time in history, someone with HIV has been treated with cells edited in the lab. It was a bold attempt to try to replicate previous successes in “curing” HIV through bone marrow transplants, but the results were a mixed bag.

Your DNA is like a book, and each sentence is a gene. Imagine a word is misspelled. Sometimes, a misspelling won’t affect your ability to understand the sentence, but other times, it will be so bad that you’ll have trouble figuring out the intended meaning. Think of the difference between “I drive a car” and “I driv a car,” or “I like food” and “I like flod.” You might not be able to tell what that last sentence is even trying to say! Those misspellings are mutations, and sometimes mutations are relatively benign (“I driv a car”), while other times they can cause diseases (“I like flod”).


A mutated version of the CCR5 gene confers near-immunity to HIV — but increases susceptibility to other viruses.


CRISPR, pronounced crisper, is a powerful new technology that can edit genes. By cutting DNA at a specific location and replacing some of the letters in the genetic alphabet, CRISPR can edit genes like you can edit a document using “find and replace.” The hope is that, someday, CRISPR could be used to fight disease by tweaking faulty genes. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Trichomoniasis, the Pear-Shaped, Blood-Sucking, Silent Scourge

What’s shaped like a pear, hangs with a posse of bacteria, and is a silent scourge upon millions of urogenital tracts? I hope you guessed Trichomonas vaginalis, the single-celled parasite that causes trichomoniasis, or trich (pronounced “trick”). Trich is the most common curable sexually transmitted disease out there — currently afflicting around 3.7 million Americans and 156 million Earthlings.


These single-celled creatures pack a punch, but the body fights back.


When trich causes symptoms, sufferers might experience vaginal discharge (which sometimes has a bad odor), penile burning or discharge, spotting, and itching or swelling in the genital area. But around 70 percent of infections have no symptoms at all, making it a mostly “silent” disease. Based on the totality of the evidence, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) doesn’t currently recommend routine screening for trich in people without symptoms.

But it’s the subject of some debate. Since both symptoms and screenings are rare, and the disease isn’t reportable, some health experts worry that trich could be doing a lot of damage right under our noses. An infection during pregnancy could increase risk for preterm labor or low birth weight. It can increase risk for both acquiring and transmitting HIV from or to a partner. Women with trich are more likely to acquire an HIV infection when sexually exposed to the virus — in fact, one study estimated that 6.2 percent of all HIV infections among U.S. women could be attributed to trich. It’s also easier to catch HIV from a man with trich than from a man without trich. Continue reading