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Why Aren’t We Talking About STDs?

By , 17, Staff Writer Originally Published: June 5, 2017 Revised: January 3, 2019

Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are not something people talk about very often. Even as a staff writer for Sex, Etc., I find it difficult to bring up STDs. It’s easier for me to talk about the health or medical aspects of STDs, like condoms and testing, but harder to talk about the social and emotional side, like the fear and shame of getting an STD.

Fear, Shame & Denial

STDs are sometimes perceived as something disgusting, so it is no surprise that people are afraid of getting one and ashamed if they do get one. There are stereotypes that people who have STDs are dirty, but this is not true. Getting an STD has nothing to do with how clean or dirty you. Anyone can get an STD.

I’ve heard teens using “herpes,” “syphilis” and “gonorrhea” as insults. This can make people who have an STD feel embarrassed and self-conscious. It may result in them not seeking medical attention or not talking about it for fear that they will be ridiculed or abandoned by their friends. The stigma of STDs is so strong that even people who don’t have or haven’t had STDs may not talk about them.

There are also people who don’t talk about STDs because they think they will never get an STD. They think, “Yeah, it happened to so-and-so, but I’m careful so it won’t happen to me.” But just believing you won’t get an STD because it seems inconceivable doesn’t make you immune to them. (Plus, many people with STDs don’t have any symptoms, which is all the more reason to get tested.) It’s almost taboo among teens to acknowledge that STDs exist on a serious level rather than just something someone mentions as a joke.

It might be easier to talk about STDs if there wasn’t this notion that having an STD is the end of the world, especially for teens.

Taking It Seriously

I’ve never had a serious conversation with my friends or classmates about STDs. The few times we have talked about it, it’s usually referring to how horrible it would be to get one or making jokes. In movies, you might see couples panicking because one of them got an STD, and then their friends find out and make fun of them. While my friends and I may not be having serious conversations about STDs, they are a serious reality for many.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that, in the U.S. in 2015, 15- to 24-year-olds accounted for the highest numbers of chlamydia and gonorrhea cases. (The numbers are likely even higher because chlamydia and gonorrhea usually don’t cause symptoms, so they can go undiagnosed and unreported.) It’s clear from the CDC’s reports that a lot of teens have been diagnosed or live with STDs every day, and this should be talked about, not avoided.

Thomas, 17, from Little Rock, AR says, “The more our society and media talk about it, the less stigmatized it becomes and the more we’ll be able to help people that deal with STDs.”

It might be easier to talk about STDs if there wasn’t this notion that having an STD is the end of the world, especially for teens. This sense of dread may be caused in part by some sex education classes that shock students with graphic images of severe cases of STDs and warnings of painful symptoms, instead of providing facts, preventative measures and information on how to get tested and treated.

The Importance of Support

It would also be so much easier if we could openly talk with a friend or partner about symptoms or where to get treated without having to feel shame.

Camille, 16, from Orlando, FL says, “My sister found out she had gonorrhea last year and talked to her friends about it. Surprisingly, they didn’t say anything rude, which made her feel better. They also helped my sister talk to the guy who had given her gonorrhea, and they both went to the clinic to get treated and both got better. If her friends had acted differently she would’ve had a much harder time getting treated.” Camille’s sister had friends that were supportive and discussed her STD in a way that ended up being productive and helpful.

What if we could talk about STDs the same way we talk about the flu or pneumonia? If we treated STDs the same way we treat other common infections—like something millions of people all over the world experience—then I think we could also overcome these communication barriers and rid ourselves of stigma. Many STDs can be treated easily, and the quicker a person gets tested and receives proper medication, the better. Putting off treatment can lead to complications later on.

Not Talking Enough

Ana, 18, from Oahu, HI wonders if talking about STDs would really make any difference.

“Talking about STDs won’t necessarily make things better,” explains Ana. “It’ll bring awareness to an issue that is there but won’t fix the underlying problem of how people react to it. I’m not saying to ignore STDs and people who have (them), but if we all make less of a fuss about it and go on with our daily routines instead of focusing on other people then there wouldn’t be an issue.”

I understand Ana’s point of view. If people stopped talking about STDs in a degrading and negative way, that would be beneficial. Judging people who have STDs and talking about it definitely doesn’t help. Ignoring, making light of or dismissing STDs because you have not been affected by them does nothing but hinder the situation instead of helping it. I don’t think STDs are talked about enough. Communicating with each other about safer sex and being more open to talking about something that’s pretty common will definitely make things better. Being aware, having empathy and taking STDs seriously would mean we could talk to a partner about safer sex, testing and treatment, if we do get an STD—all without embarrassment or the fear of social rejection. When that happens, we are all better off.

I hope that in the future it does get easier to talk about STDs, since so many people either had or have an STD. It’s understandable that a person might be nervous to have these conversations, but maybe one day it will be totally normal to have someone as, “Hey, want to get tested together?” And both partners will have a mutual understanding that getting tested isn’t a bad thing and wanting to get tested doesn’t mean your partner doubts you. Talking about STDs could just be something people to do to take of care their health.

Before writing this article, I felt a little less inclined to start a conversation with my friends and peers about STDs because I felt like that would make things awkward or uncomfortable between us since not many people are fine with talking about it. But now I feel like it’s OK for me to open up and have these discussions. It’s not “weird” or “gross” at all. By talking about STDs and safer sex, I can, in my own way, bring some awareness to the issue of STDs and get people talking, at least a little within my group of friends, and encourage them to do the same.

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