Last February, Western students broke the Guinness World Record for most STI tests done in a single day. Promoting safe sex and frequent STI testing are important to sexual health awareness, but what happens when the tests come back positive?
Although the dialogue surrounding STIs is happening more frequently, it still holds a negative stigma.
“Traditionally women were always treated as the vector of disease… the main source of infection,” says health studies professor Treena Orchard. “It also builds upon existing ideas we have about female sexuality as being dangerous."
“I think women have often had the blame for STIs and I think that there’s quite a large amount of theoretical material that deals with it in relation to the AIDS crisis,” explains women’s studies department chair Wendy Pearson.
However, this negative stigma doesn't seem to be tied to only one gender or sexuality. Currently and historically, STIs have shed a negative veil over anyone who has one or anyone who simply wants to get tested.
The assumption that STIs constitute “dirtiness” is similar to the '80s AIDS crisis and the backlash that targeted the queer community. Misunderstanding of AIDS, formerly referred to as gay-related immune deficiency (GRID), lead to inaccurate assumptions that the illness was restricted to homosexual men.
This negative view of STIs also attacks self esteem. There seems to be an intersection between STIs and the body acceptance movement.
When people say their test results come back "clean," this language suggests that those who are diagnosed with an STI are considered "unclean." It is a binary that has snowballed into making people "dirty" because of their illness. Orchard feels that this way of thinking needs to change so that people don’t feel ashamed.
When people are made to feel unclean or “bad” for having an STI, what results is a socially-fuelled “body hierarchy.” Now people don’t just feel ashamed about how their body looks on the outside, they get to feel ashamed with the inside of their body as well.
STI stigma has become a form of marginalization, scaring those who are STI positive into believing they are in isolation.
“Personally, it’s nerve-wracking to go get tested,” admits third-year psychology and French linguistics student, Gabrielle Christie. Christie was part of the group that set the record for #GetTested Western and says that while the day itself was very supportive and positive, this isn’t the case every day.
When someone needs to make the decision to get tested on their own without crowds of students cheering them on to set a world record, the experience becomes much more individual, difficult and “shocking” to others, as Christie points out.
The fact that simply deciding to get tested for STIs can illicit such shock and fear speaks to the larger issue of the stigma at hand. Christie explains that even talking about going to get tested will cause people to look at someone differently and make assumptions about their sexual health and sexual habits. This is dangerous because it could limit people from getting tested and taking steps towards improving their health.
At the end of the day, the derogatory implications surrounding STIs is a multifaceted issue, that goes beyond the health implications.
“I think [STIs] can have a really serious impact on self esteem issues and issues with body acceptance, especially if people are already struggling to begin with,” says Christie. She feels that cultivating healthy and open discussion on a regular basis is something that needs to be implemented in order to fight STI stigma.
“There’s no shame in addressing these health concerns, and [STIs] don’t change who you are.”
Changing the negative stigma around STIs begins with starting a positive dialogue around getting tested and encouraging others to do the same.