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

Best of the Blog: 2017 Edition

It’s been a rough year. Ever since the 45th president was inaugurated in January, we have been pushing back against attempts to overturn the rights of women, LGBTQ folks, immigrants, people of color, and other marginalized populations. Racist and xenophobic voices have been emboldened by an administration that validates their hatred and minimizes their violence. It feels like the progress we’ve been making in advancing reproductive justice, gay rights, trans rights, and voters’ rights has stopped dead in its tracks.

But 2017 was also a year that shook many people out of their complacency — and re-energized longtime activists. January’s Women’s March may have been the largest protest in our nation’s history. Throughout the year, we rose up and shut down Republican attempts to destroy Obamacare, setting the stage for November, when enrollment records were shattered. A year after the gut punch of the 2016 presidential election, women, LGBTQ folks, people of color, and immigrants enjoyed well-earned victories across the nation in the 2017 elections. We need to keep working — staying on this trajectory can turn the tide in the 2018 midterm elections if we take control back from the legislative branch and douse the executive ego with a bucket of ice-cold water.

Our bloggers have been with us every step of the way, whether they are on the front lines of the fight to keep lifesaving laws intact and hold our culture accountable for its multifaceted bigotry, or helping to keep members of the resistance (and everyone else) healthy, informed, and compassionate in this new era.

Rachel kept close track of Republicans’ attempts to destroy the Affordable Care Act throughout the year. Pre-ACA, insurance policies could employ sex-based discrimination, refuse coverage to people with pre-existing conditions, kick people off their plans, and not cover essential services that keep people healthy. Each attempt revealed its creators’ wish list for destroying health care. In 2017, our activism worked, but the fight isn’t over, and we must remain vigilant. Stay tuned throughout 2018!

Matt has been watching the growing, right-wing extremism at the crossroads of racism and misogyny, a subject he covers in his response to the violent events in Charlottesville in August. Matt’s piece explores a political force that has put racial hatred on full display, but also one where misogyny resonates in a culture of disaffected — and often dangerous — men. We need to be intersectional as we fight for justice for everyone who is marginalized by white supremacist extremism.

Amanda observed American Heart Month by sharing the story of the sudden, heartbreaking death of her mother, who lost her life to a heart attack. As you mull over New Years resolutions, consider that heart disease is a top killer in the United States, but you can make lifestyle changes to help prevent it. The best gift for those you hold closest to your heart is to keep your heart healthy and strong, and Planned Parenthood Arizona provides care to help you maintain your heart’s health!

Gene made a slight departure from the blog’s mission to provide good guidance for readers to take care of their sexual health — his favorite post highlighted some of the most ridiculous things you could do for your sexual health. Whether he was lampooning stick-on condom alternatives, labia-sealing tampon alternatives, or egg-shaped rocks made to be inserted into the vagina, Gene took on some of the Internet’s looniest ideas surrounding sexual health and the human body.

Anna has been writing about sexually transmitted infections since 2011, and has become increasingly sensitive to the stigma surrounding these infections — and how people often internalize that stigma. Pairing STDs with fear and guilt has compromised medical care for generations. Folks who worry that the HPV vaccine or pre-exposure prophylaxis encourage promiscuity borrow century-old arguments from opponents of condoms, antibiotics, and other STD prevention methods. We think you’ll learn a ton of fascinating tidbits from this article!

Anne traveled all the way to Washington, DC, to meet lawmakers and represent the one woman out of every three who has had (or will have) an abortion. In a country that is becoming increasingly hostile to reproductive rights, we need people like Anne to put a face on abortion, a legal medical procedure that most of us have colluded to keep taboo. As Anne put it, “We were all darned tired of being characterized by ignorant anti-abortion advocates as shadowy, irresponsible, hypothetical women. We’re real people.”

Serena observed National American Indian Heritage Month by shining a spotlight on the little-known, shameful history of forced sterilization of Native American women. More recently, Native women’s control over their fertility has been further impeded by the Indian Health Service’s inconsistent access to emergency contraception and refusal to provide access to abortion. The ability to control our own bodies is essential to our dignity and self-determination, and it must not be abridged, whether it is interfering with our ability to have children or our ability to prevent or discontinue pregnancy.

Pride paradeCare observed Pride Month by remembering Pride’s roots. For a lot of us, Pride means parades and parties, but these annual celebrations didn’t originate that way — Pride Month commemorates the Stonewall Riots, which erupted 48 years ago. Care explains why the current political climate makes remembering Pride’s roots of the utmost importance. We need to stay vigilant, because when it comes to keeping and expanding the rights of LGBTQ people, and ensuring their safety and dignity, we’re all in this together.

Harvey MilkKelley, Planned Parenthood employee and honorary blogger, celebrated Pride Month by introducing us to Harvey Milk, whose call to LGBTQ people to “come out” led to a seismic societal shift, as hearts and minds were connected through empathy and storytelling. Today, we’re calling on you to take the torch of pioneers like Harvey Milk and keep fighting for LGBTQ rights and reproductive justice — for human dignity, bodily autonomy, and love.

STD Awareness: Prevention vs. Punishment

Before antibiotics, syphilis could kill and gonorrhea was responsible for most cases of infertility. Both diseases could spread from husband to wife to baby, potentially destroying families. So you’d think medical breakthroughs in prevention and cures would be welcomed with open arms.

The actual history, like the humans who create it, is much more complicated.


Compassion, rather than fear and guilt, should guide medical practice.


During World War I, sexually transmitted diseases were a huge problem — second only to the 1918 flu pandemic in the number of sick days they caused (7 million, if you’re counting). The Roaring Twenties saw a sexual revolution, and by World War II, the military was once more fretting about losing manpower to debilitating infections that drew men away from the front lines and into the sick bays.

The armed forces did what it could to suppress prostitution and distract soldiers with recreational activities. But the human sex drive could not be contained: The vast majority of U.S. soldiers were having sex — even an estimated half of married soldiers were not faithful to their wives during WWII. Victory depended on soldiers’ health, so during both WWI and WWII, the military provided its sexually active soldiers with “prophylaxis,” medical treatments that could reduce risk for venereal disease — or VD, as sexually transmitted diseases were called back then.

Anyone who thinks condoms are a hassle or “don’t feel good” should read medical historian Allan M. Brandt’s description of a WWI-era prophylactic station, which soldiers were instructed to visit after sexual contact: Continue reading