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: Shaving, Waxing, and Trimming, Oh My!

Last month, the connection between body-hair removal and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) once again gave rise to a flurry of headlines. Media had previously reported on “studies” purporting that the popularity of waxing is leading to the extinction of pubic lice, or that shaving increases risk for a little-known STD called molluscum contagiosum.

The idea that waxing one’s nether regions is tantamount to habitat destruction for the lowly pubic louse makes a certain amount of sense. But was it really true that waxing was leading to diminished pubic-lice populations, or just a case of the media blowing an obscure medical factoid out of proportion? Ditto with the claims about molluscum contagiosum — though they were based on perfectly plausible premises, having to do with shaving causing microscopic skin injuries that create openings for infectious viruses, the average reader might not have been able to rely on a journalist’s ability to translate a scientific article from “medical-ese” into an easy-to-understand, yet fully nuanced, magazine blurb.


The case isn’t closed on the link between body-hair removal and STDs.


As we’ve written before, the reporting in the popular media left out important details — such as the fact that these weren’t studies at all, but rather educated guesses based on observations, published as letters to the editor. No one was comparing pubic lice infestations or sexually transmitted infections between groups of people with and without pubic hair.

Until now.

The medical journal Sexually Transmitted Infections recently published a study based on a survey of 7,470 American adults who had had at least one sexual partner. The salient point the media pounced on was that removing pubic hair increases STD risk by 400 percent: NPR screamed that “Going Bare Down There May Boost The Risk Of STDs,” Time proclaimed “Grooming is linked to a higher risk of STIs,” and The Guardian spooked readers with a rather tasteless piece about “the health dangers of bikini waxing.” Even Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update got in on the action, albeit with a crude joke about old men’s genitals.

But let’s leave headlines behind and delve right into the medical journal itself. Continue reading

Is Pap Testing Better Than HPV Vaccination?

Good news: The decision to be vaccinated for HPV or receive regular Pap testing isn't either/or. Image: Andy Newson

Good news: The decision to be vaccinated for HPV or receive regular Pap testing isn’t either/or. Image: Andy Newson

It’s January, which means that it’s Cervical Health Awareness Month! If you have a cervix, there are two big things you can do to protect its health: get vaccinated against human papillomavirus (HPV) before becoming sexually active, and receive regular Pap testing after becoming sexually active. When you take both of these steps, you can maximize what modern medicine has to offer. However, some people think you can just do one and ignore the other. Are they right?

You’ve probably heard of HPV, which causes genital warts and certain cancers. This virus has the dubious honor of being the most common sexually transmitted pathogen — some call it “the common cold of STDs.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “HPV is so common that nearly all sexually-active men and women get it at some point in their lives. This is true even for people who only have sex with one person in their lifetime.”


HPV isn’t just the “cervical cancer virus” — it’s a jack of all trades that can trigger cellular abnormalities all over the body.


One of the cancers most commonly caused by HPV is cervical cancer. In fact, when Gardasil, the most popular HPV vaccine in the United States, made its debut, it was marketed as a “cervical cancer vaccine,” despite the fact that HPV can cause other types of cancer. Nevertheless, a vaccine that could protect against such a common and potentially dangerous virus was good news indeed. However, some critics were quick to point out that cervical cancer is rare in the United States, thanks to widespread access to Pap testing, an effective screening procedure that can catch cellular abnormalities when they are still in their “precancerous” stages, allowing them to be treated before progressing to cancer.

For those of us planning to receive regular Pap testing, is vaccination really necessary? Likewise, if we’ve been vaccinated against HPV, do we really need regular Pap tests? Let’s examine both questions separately. Continue reading

Arm Yourself Against Genital Warts and Cancer!

RosieVaccineBWVaccines are pretty nifty: Injecting a few tiny particles stimulates your immune system to build antibodies, which can bind to and help destroy harmful pathogens. A well-oiled immune system can neutralize these invaders before they have a chance to make you sick! In the war against infectious disease, we should be boosting our immune systems at every opportunity, and vaccines are one of the best weapons in our arsenal.

You’ve probably heard of HPV, or human papillomavirus, which causes genital warts and certain cancers. HPV has the dubious honor of being the most common sexually transmitted pathogen — some call it “the common cold of STDs.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “HPV is so common that nearly all sexually-active men and women get it at some point in their lives. This is true even for people who only have sex with one person in their lifetime.”


You might not know how easy it is to contract HPV — vaccination allows you to take charge of your health.


There are many strains of HPV. “Low-risk” strains can cause genital warts, which aren’t usually harmful but might be upsetting. “High-risk” strains can cause cancers of the cervix, anus, vagina, vulva, penis, mouth, and throat. The good news is that a vaccine called Gardasil protects against HPV-6 and HPV-11, which cause 90 percent of genital warts, and HPV-16 and HPV-18, which cause 70 percent of cervical cancers and 90 percent of anal cancers.

With protection available against a common virus that can cause upsetting warts or fatal cancer, you’d think that everyone would be lining up for Gardasil shots — but, unfortunately, vaccination rates are very low in the United States. Many of us opt out of vaccination for ourselves or our children because we don’t realize how easily HPV is acquired, or we minimize its potential to harm.

HPV is easier to contract than you might think, so if you think the risk is too small to outweigh other justifications against immunization, read on — you might not be aware of just how easy it is to acquire this wily virus. Vaccination is an empowering option for those of us who want to do all we can to take our health into our own hands. And, by being immunized, we can play a role in driving cancer-causing viruses into extinction, which would be feasible with sufficiently improved vaccination rates. Continue reading

Over 90 Percent of What Planned Parenthood Does, Part 13: Treating Penile Skin Lesions

MichelangeloWelcome to the latest installment of “Over 90 Percent of What Planned Parenthood Does,” a series on Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona’s blog that highlights Planned Parenthood’s diverse array of services — the ones Jon Kyl never knew about.

Today kicks off Men’s Health Week, which means it’s time to remind you that Planned Parenthood Arizona has plenty of men’s health services. Sexual and reproductive health are our bread and butter, and we’re here for you if you need condoms or routine STD screening, or if something is amiss in your nether regions and you’d like us to take a look! One thing we do is evaluate and treat penile skin lesions.


Is something amiss on your penis? We can check it out!


What is a lesion, anyway? “Lesion” is a general term that can refer to any kind of abnormality that appears on your skin or elsewhere in the body, like on an organ. Usually they’re well-defined, as in blisters, spots, bumps, warts, or what have you. A change of appearance on the penis can be caused by all sorts of things. Maybe it’s something minor, like an irritation or an allergic reaction. Or it could be a relatively benign dermatological condition, like pimples or skin tags.

But sometimes, an infectious agent might be at play. You might be suffering from a yeast infection, a sexually transmitted disease (STD), or even penile cancer. For the sake of your health — and your peace of mind — you should be evaluated by a health professional, just so you can know for sure what’s going on and receive treatment if necessary. Continue reading

Does Waxing Get Rid of Crabs?

5266_lores croppedEver since I started writing this blog’s monthly STD Awareness column, I’ve kept my eye out for news related to sexually transmitted diseases. And, while some might find my enthusiasm for STD-related items to be slightly odd, I have been intrigued by what has been splashed across headlines so far this year.

First, in January, the claim surfaced that pubic lice (colloquially known as crabs) are being driven to extinction as their natural habitat is felled by razors and waxes. Then, just last month, a little-known STD called molluscum contagiosum got its 15 minutes when it was associated with the increased popularity of hairless pubic regions.


Some say hair removal is causing a decline of pubic lice; others say it increases virus risk. So what’s the deal?


These headlines might raise some questions: Does waxing or shaving my pubic area decrease my risk of crabs, but increase my risk of molluscum contagiosum? Should I shave or not? The answers to these questions aren’t quite as simple as the headlines make them out to be. Let’s take them one by one.

Does Waxing Prevent Pubic Lice Infestations?

The claim: As reported in the media, pubic lice are disappearing, and the Brazilian wax is the culprit. Articles cite statistics that pubic-hair removal is more popular among young people, and then jump to the conclusion that this trendy hairlessness is spurring a decrease in pubic-lice prevalence.

What the science says: The problem with this claim is that it isn’t backed by solid scientific data — it’s supported by anecdotes from doctors who have noticed a decline in pubic lice among their patients. As the saying goes, though, the plural of anecdote is not data: Without well-designed population studies spanning many years, we can’t actually know if there are fewer pubic lice today than there were before our groins were subjected en masse to depilation techniques. Furthermore, as that other saying goes, correlation does not equal causation: Even if there were a correlation between the Brazilian’s popularity and a decline in public lice, we would need more specialized data to determine if pubic-hair removal actually caused the lowly louse’s depopulation. Continue reading

STD Awareness: 10 Myths About Sexually Transmitted Diseases

The Internet is brimming with contradictory claims about sexual health, and you don’t know what to believe. Your friends give you advice, but you’re not sure if it sounds right. To make things worse, you might not have had evidence-based, medically accurate sex education in your school. In this edition of our STD Awareness series, we’ll take on a few myths about sexually transmitted diseases to help you sort fact from fiction.

1 MYTH: You can tell if someone has an STD by looking at them.
You might expect that if someone has an STD, their genitals would have blisters, warts, or noticeable discharge. But your partner looks fine, so you might think there’s no need to ask when his or her last STD test was.

However, while many people with STDs do have visible symptoms, they’re the exception rather than the rule. For example, three out of four women and half of men with chlamydia have no symptoms. Herpes is often spread when there are no symptoms present. Someone can be infected with HIV — and capable of transmitting it to others — and go years without showing any signs. A quick visual inspection can’t tell you very much about someone’s STD status.

2 MYTH: You can’t get an STD from oral sex.
While it is generally true that oral sex presents less of a risk for contracting STDs, this risk is not trivial. Most STDs can be passed along by oral sex, including chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, hepatitis B, herpes, human papillomavirus (HPV), and HIV. You can reduce your risk by using barrier methods like condoms and dental dams consistently and correctly.

3 MYTH: Condoms can’t prevent the spread of HIV.
Many proponents of abstinence-only education state that condoms don’t protect against HIV, claiming that latex condoms have holes that are large enough for viruses to pass through. This claim isn’t backed by evidence. An intact latex condom dramatically reduces your risk of being exposed to sexually transmitted viruses such as HIV. (It is true that a lambskin condom does not provide adequate protection against HIV.) Continue reading