Repeat after me: Sextually transmitted infections (STIs) are a part of sex. They are normal and, since 2001, notifiable STIs have been on the rise in Canada. The numbers don’t lie: 1 in 20 sexually active individuals between 15 and 29 years of age will get chlamydia (the most commonly diagnosed STI in the country), which means that, at some point in our lives, there’s a chance we might experience an STI. Unfortunately, the stigma around STIs has also been quite normalized in society today. This is problematic because it can lead to us not wanting to disclose our status, which could endanger our partner(s), or encourage shaming of others for having an STI (not cool!)
Let’s back things up for a minute. What is stigma? A recent study defined stigma as socially undesirable attributes of individuals or groups, associated with isolation, rejection and discrimination. It’s important to note that, when talking about STIs, stigma is a huge factor in not only how STIs are perceived, but also how and why STIs are spread, especially when considering how different social classes, races, genders, religions and sexual orientations are perceived in a heteronormative, patriarchal society. One example is if you’re someone who is extremely religious and has an STI, you might feel as though you’ve somehow betrayed your faith. It’s not uncommon for those with STIs to feel embarrassed, ashamed, disappointed or upset due to the stigma. And because those feelings feed into that stigma, it can feel like a never ending cycle that causes you and others to avoid seeking STI-related services and treatment, because you worry about experiencing discrimination, indifference, or even hostility.
In the seventh episode of our Sex Sessions series, sexual health and consent educator Samantha Bitty breaks down what you need to know about STIs and how to focus on sex positivity.
The dos and don’ts of talking STIs
A huge part of ending stigma around anything is changing the language we use. When it comes to STIs, it’s important to remember that, regardless of your age, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation, you can get an STI. Not all STIs have noticeable symptoms, so trying to find the right way to talk about them can feel intimidating. However, Samantha Bitty has got you covered with some helpful tips around communication and other things to keep in mind:
- Don’t use oppressive language. Instead, try using inclusive, sex positive language that reduces the fear around STIs. For example, it’s better to say STIs can be passed through unprotected sex, rather than STIs can infect you.
- Don’t treat STIs like a moral issue. There are many determinants of our sexual health including things beyond our control such as cultural norms or gender identity. You can be as safe as possible, get tested regularly and still contract an STI. That does not make you a bad person, it just means you need to take control of your health by seeking treatment.
- Acknowledge that not everyone has the same education around STIs. You may have grown up in a household where sexual health was discussed openly, or you had thorough sex-ed while in school. This is not the case for everyone, which is why taking the time to learn the facts about STIs can help to de-stigmatize them.
- Not everyone has the same access to contraception. It’s easier to practice safe sex when you have the tools to do so, but not everyone does, whether it’s due to where they live, economic reasons, etc. Be mindful of this when you’re heading to the bedroom.
Helpful non-verbal cues
Before smashing, Samantha recommends having safe sex tools on you or nearby. Whether you carry condoms or dental dams, being prepared is great for you and whoever you’re sleeping with, and can build trust. That’s pretty sexy!
STI-related stigma is associated with decreased odds of testing for STIs, so it’s good to share if you have one to protect whoever you’re sleeping with. Not sharing your status can also be a legal issue — back in 2012, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that people living with HIV have an obligation to disclose positive status before sexual activity that poses a “realistic possibility of transmission.” Samantha recommends a good way to disclose and have a discussion is by going to get tested together, which can be an experience that also brings you closer.
More homework: a resource for learning
To learn more about STIs, Samantha Bitty recommends checking out the Planned Parenthood Toronto website.