Published in CLEO, March 2010 issue. Copyright Rachel Hills 2010.
Reckon you’re in the clear because you’ve only ever slept with nice guys? Time for a re-think, says Rachel Hills.
When I was at uni, my friends and I wrote a song about herpes. The premise was that various guys we knew - who we suspected got around a fair bit - had contracted the virus and no girls would have sex with them anymore. We thought it was terrifically funny, and would sing it at every opportunity we got, even calling one friend who was on exchange in Germany to share it with him.
With a few years additional wisdom I now realise that as jokes go, it was a pretty stupid and insensitive one. With one in eight Australians suffering from herpes and up to 20 per cent becoming infected chlamydia at some point, chances are that someone we knew really did have an STI. And probably didn’t find our song very funny.
But while writing songs about herpes might be a particularly childish manifestation of the stigma surrounding STIs, we weren’t the only ones guilty of holding the bias. The joke relied on a number of assumptions: that STIs were bad, that they were a form of punishment, that only promiscuous people got them - and, most importantly, that none of us would ever have one.
"I am invincible"
But that’s the thing about STIs - almost no one expects to contract one. Not if they’re in a monogamous relationship, not if they use condoms, not even if they have sex with someone who they know is infected. Dr Adina Nack, author of Damaged Goods? Women Living with Incurable Sexually Transmitted Diseases (Temple University Press, $50.95), calls this perception “STI invincibility”.
“There’s a huge list of negative attributes that people associate with STIs,” Nack explains. “People assume that [infections] only happen to people who are promiscuous, who aren’t physically hygienic, who are uneducated or unintelligent, naïve, irresponsible and so on.” Therefore, if you aren’t any of those things - if you’re smart, discerning, monogamous, only have sex with lawyers (hey, some people actually think it works like that!) - it won’t happen to you.
“Many people think they can see STIs on their partner,” says Dr Christine Read, medical director of Family Planning NSW. “In fact you can’t tell by looking or smelling, or by clothing or education. STIs just don’t respect any of those sorts of things.”
"I’m not like that!"
But while it’s easy enough to understand that on an intellectual level, taking it in on an emotional level - when it’s actually happening to you - is another matter.
Katie, 29, is intelligent, progressive and unabashedly sex positive. Yet when she first found out she had asymptomatic herpes, she was “extremely upset.”
“I had two partners who knew and disclosed to me that they had herpes, but I never imagined I’d get it. I felt really ashamed and disconnected from my own body. It took me a very long time - and this isn’t a process that’s over by any means - to feel desirable again, rather than dirty and doomed for life.”
She continues, “I know that I paid lip service to the fact that people with STIs didn’t do anything to deserve them, but the degree of shame and self-hatred that came up for me after I was diagnosed leads me to believe that I was judging them more than I thought I was.”
This feeling that you’ve done something wrong - of being “damaged goods”, as Claire, 27, puts it - is common amongst women who have recently been diagnosed with an STI, says Nack. She tells the story of one woman she interviewed, a 19-year-old virgin who contracted HPV (human papillomavirus) when fighting off a rapist.
“I asked her how she felt when she found out, and she said, ‘Like a slut’,” says Nack. “For me, that was a very powerful statement of just how strong that stereotype is. We might say that doesn’t make sense - she’s a virgin who fought off a rapist. But that’s the power of these negative and inaccurate stereotypes.”
"What do you mean I’ve got something?"
Lena Chen, 22, is one young woman who’s working to dispel the stigmas and stereotypes surrounding STIs. When a recent Pap smear came back abnormal, she didn’t keep quiet like most people. Just the opposite: she wrote about her experience on her blog (thechicktionary.com) and on Twitter. “Luckily, I’m not that indoctrinated that I’m ready to slap on a scarlet D for ‘diseasemonger’,” she wrote. Still, even she admits to having felt “a twinge of shame”.
“I knew that by being very open about my sexual experiences, people would probably think, ‘Oh, she must be a magnet for STIs’,” Lena explains. “On one hand, I didn’t want to reinforce those ideas about what promiscuity leads to. On the other hand, though, this is something we really should talk about, because there are lots of people who do not make the same lifestyle choices that I did, who are still affected by this. Even if you‘re not having intercourse, you can still get an STI.”
As she noted in one of her posts: “I’m sure some people would consider all my cervix talk a major ‘overshare’, but there’s no reason why most discussion about STIs is only in the abstract. Pretty much everyone has HPV, so why can’t we discuss it like we (and our friends) are potential carriers?”
"I can deal with it"
A major part of losing the stigma is acknowledging that, painful treatments and symptoms aside, STIs are something people can live with. It doesn’t have to completely reshape how you think of yourself - or how others think of you, for that matter. As Read puts it: “People who have an STI should not be condemned to not having sex for the rest of their lives.” Nor, with regular testing and appropriate treatment, does it need to have a permanent impact on your health.
“I think that’s one of the critical things,” says Read. “Having an STI doesn’t mean that you’re a slut. It’s a fact of life, and we all have situations that are beyond our control sometimes, where we’ve taken every precaution we can and, still, it happens.”
“You just need to be able to get help when you need it and move on.”
Related: Why I’m writing about STIs (an FYI)
Elsewhere: Why I won’t shut up about having HPV (the ch!cktionary)
Damaged Goods? Women Living with Incurable Sexually Transmitted Diseases