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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

'Living with an STI'

Reflections on a CatalystCon Workshop

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Earlier this month, I attended CatalystCon East 2014 in Arlington, Va. My March 20 column contained some Catalyst-inspired musings on sex, ability and aging. This week, I want to reflect on another great conference session, “Living with an STI.”

During the course of my work, I talk to many people who have herpes, HPV or HIV, three viral STIs (sexually transmitted infections) for which there are treatments, but no cure. I’ve written previously about the increase in shame and fear surrounding an HPV diagnosis (Please, Don’t Be Devastated When You Find Out You Have HPV) that is way out of proportion to the impact that HPV usually has on the life of a person who has access to health care (acknowledging that unequal access to health care is a serious problem in the U.S. and throughout the world). When I talk to students at our campus health center who have recently discovered that they have herpes, they often feel like their sex lives are over because having herpes is so shameful that no one will ever want to have sex with them again.

This shame, fear and sadness has a lot more to do with the state of sexuality education in the U.S. and with the stigma placed on having an STI than it does on the effects of STIs themselves. As the panelists in the “Living with an STI” session discussed, stigma about STIs is created in many ways: through sexuality education programs that try to use fear of STIs as a way of keeping young people from having sex (which doesn’t work, by the way). Through the language we use when we talk about having STIs, e.g., asking a new partner, “Are you clean?”—which implies that those who have STIs are “dirty.” Through casual joking about STIs, such as the Facebook thread that one of my student peer educators recently described to me, where someone they knew posted the question, “Would you rather have herpes or wear a rollerblade on your left foot for three years?” followed by lots of comments to the effect that having herpes would be the worst thing that could possibly happen to someone.

Shame and fear does not help anyone. It doesn’t prevent STIs from happening, and it makes people who have STIs feel terrible. It makes it harder for people to have honest, open discussions with their partners about STIs and safer sex. I suggest that we all pledge to stop participating in fear-based sex ed, stop using the word “clean” to describe someone who does not have an STI and stop joking about STIs in a stigmatizing way. I assume, and I encourage my peer educators to assume, that anytime they’re talking to a group of people, there’s someone in that group who has herpes, HPV or HIV. STIs aren’t something that happens to “other people”—they’re something that happens to lots of us, thousands of us.

At the “Living with an STI” panel, I learned about an amazing resource: The Herpes Opportunity. This project offers a blog, a forum, life coaching and a weekend workshop for people who have herpes, as well as a wonderful e-book about how to tell partners about herpes in a positive way (one of the most frequently-asked questions that I get from newly diagnosed people). The basic philosophy behind The Herpes Opportunity is that instead of looking at herpes as a shameful, terrible thing, it can be viewed as something that makes you stronger, a better communicator and more in touch with what you want and need from relationships and sex. If we all viewed STIs this way, imagine how different the world would be.

Laura Anne Stuart owns the Tool Shed, an erotic boutique on Milwaukee’s East Side. She has a master’s degree in public health and has worked as a sexuality educator for more than fifteen years. Want Laura to answer your questions in SEXPress? Send them to laura@shepex.com. Not all questions received will be answered in the column, and Laura cannot provide personal answers to questions that do not appear here. Questions sent to this address may be reproduced in this column, both in print and online, and may be edited for clarity and content.