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

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?


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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

Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day: Tracey’s Story

The following post comes to us via Tracey Sands, a graduate student at Arizona State University’s West Campus studying communication as it relates to advocacy. Tracey believes dialogue is an act of love and strives to empower others to find and use their voice. She is an education outreach intern at Planned Parenthood Arizona.

It was a Monday. It was just like every other day. I went to work, ate lunch with my coworkers, went home, ran a few miles, watched a few episodes on Netflix (Parks and Recreation, of course), and went to bed all cozied up in my warm, winter-themed footie pajamas. It was just like every other day. And then it wasn’t. On Monday, January 13, 2015, I had a miscarriage.

At 11:30 p.m., I woke up screaming and in the fetal position. I was in so much pain, which came out of nowhere. I couldn’t process what was happening. I went to the bathroom to change my tampon and blood was everywhere. My gut already knew what I couldn’t let my mind or heart accept: I was having a miscarriage.


Today is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day. Let’s use this day to share our stories.


After coming to my senses, I went to the emergency department. I was brought into a room within five minutes of my arrival and was given an IV of morphine. The pain didn’t go away. It came, and it went. I was having contractions, yet my head and heart still did not want to accept the fact that I was (1) even pregnant and (2) having a miscarriage.

After experiencing what may have been the most excruciating physical pain of my life, the existential questions that scarred my mind afterward were of a different, much deeper type of pain. How ignorant am I not to know my own body enough to realize I was pregnant? How do I mourn the loss of my baby when I didn’t know I was pregnant? How do I mourn the loss of my baby when I didn’t even want one? Due to the intensity and confusion of the feelings surrounding my miscarriage, these distressing thoughts had nowhere to go, staying within the walls of my own experience, ultimately creating a vacuum of shame and guilt. Continue reading

How Birth Control Empowered Me

The following post comes to us via Ava Budavari-Glenn, a political communications major and a nonprofit communications minor who is entering her sophomore year at Emerson College. She is a writer whose work focuses mainly on advocacy, and a community organizer who has worked for nonprofit organizations and political campaigns. She is a media and communications intern at Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona.

As many of you reading this blog post probably already know, birth control is not “optional” health care. It is not a bartering chip, nor is it something our society can do without. It is a needed part of health care, just like any other medication.

Rarely does the birth control conversation extend far beyond pregnancy prevention. But actually, what birth control does for women has a far wider reach, because birth control empowers us to live our own lives, exercise bodily autonomy, and have a choice over what the future looks like for us, in more ways than one. I know firsthand how birth control can do that.


Everyone deserves bodily autonomy.


Because birth control gave me my life back.

Growing up, periods were something nobody really talked about with me. There was just a set of norms I had to face. Your period was never something you talked about above a whisper, or through the use of code names that no male around you was supposed to understand. If you leaked blood through the pad, you were supposed to find a way to hide it and not tell anyone, because it would be shameful if anyone around you knew you were menstruating.

I had grown up with other aspects of my body being sexualized by people around me (breasts, hips, really any new curves that suddenly showed up), but this was a different kind of shame. My period was gross. The time of the month where I bled suddenly made me disgusting, even though it was a normal part of growing up. Stereotypes of women having their periods as being bitchy, having mood swings, screaming in pain, or something for people to stay away from because it was that “time of the month again,” suddenly applied to me. So I just learned not to talk about it, and hide it as best as I could. Continue reading

Book Club: Shout Your Abortion

Shout Your Abortion hit the book shelves in time for us to celebrate the 46th anniversary of Roe v. Wade on January 22, 2019. That Supreme Court decision (finally) recognized that abortion is a normal part of a woman’s reproductive life and a right guaranteed by the Constitution. The book, edited by Amelia Bonow and Emily Nokes, presents the real-life abortion “shouts” of 44 women and how they think about what is typically a routine medical procedure.

Shout Your Abortion, edited by Amelia Bonow and Emily Nokes

In 1973, when Roe was decided, eight years had already passed since my (illegal) abortion, and I was raising two daughters. I was relieved to know that women, including my two kiddos, would never again need to risk their lives to get reproductive health care they might need.

I didn’t think we would ever go back to unsafe abortions or forced motherhood. It never occurred to me (and many other women) that staying quiet and just getting on with life would leave an open mic for anti-abortion zealots to chip away at our protection. Alas, we were wrong.

Planned Parenthood Action Fund article

Fast forward 46 years. “Stop! We’re not having it! Listen to us! We’ve had abortions!” Minority anti-abortion voices are no longer drowning out the majority of the American people (72 percent) who do not want to see Roe overturned and are taking action to prevent it, including our book’s “shouters.”

The genesis of the book was Amelia Bonow’s Facebook post about her abortion, passed along by Lindy West as #ShoutYourAbortion, prompting a deluge of “shouters.” Continue reading