Are we close to ending the STD stigma in the UK?
According to a 2018 report from Public Health England, the rates of STDs in the UK are on the rise, especially among young people. The report reveals that most cases of STD occur in young people aged 15 to 24 and, on average, one young person gets infected with chlamydia or gonorrhoea every four minutes. What’s interesting to note is that, in spite of unlimited access to protective measures, the incidence of certain STDs is growing by the year.
Most sexually transmitted diseases, however, are treatable as they are common. Chlamydia, for example, one of the most stigmatised STDs, is considerably less dangerous than the flu, which can become fatal. In a newly diagnosed patient, chlamydia can clear up in one week of medication, whereas the flu can severely compromise immune systems and lead to serious complications. But studies show that treatable STDs are scarier than fatal diseases and people still tend to pass harsh judgement if someone has an STD. According to the scientific community, this stigma is a major impediment – not only because it can have devastating effects on the lives of those who have an STD, but also because it prevents people from testing themselves and seeking treatment.
How STD stigma affects physical and mental health
Although modern-day Brits have more access to information than ever before, STDs remain a taboo and they’re surrounded by a culture of shame.
With any other disease, patients check themselves regularly, go to the doctor when they experience symptoms, take the treatment, and life goes on. With STDs, this is the exception, not the rule. Both genders are struggling with STD-specific stigma and associate a sexually transmitted disease with the end of their sexual life. The idea of having “the talk” with a new partner is sometimes so dreadful that people would rather stop dating altogether and shut themselves in for fear of being judged. Although having an STD is in no way a personality trait, nor does it indicate a person’s worth, many people still assume the worst about sexual morals.
And that can be extremely dangerous. One Canadian study found that women in particular are affected by this stigma, and being judged because of their STDs can seriously affect mental health. What’s more, young people are less likely to get themselves tested for STDs, fearing that the diagnosis will affect their social life and they will be shamed by their peers. In reality, this mindset only increases the rates of STDs among young people.
Fighting prejudice with facts
Stigma has been part of human culture for millennia, but now we have more means to change it. In the UK, many advocates are trying to speak up about STDs and dispel the many myths surrounding it, because lack of awareness is the primary cause of stigma. Marian Nicholson, director of Herpes Viruses Association in the UK, caught the infection in 1981 and struggled with loneliness of depression because of how she was perceived. Now, she wants to help others from going through the same thing by spreading awareness and fighting prejudice with facts.
In the case of herpes, she explains, stigma started in the 1970s, when an advertising campaign for pharmaceuticals painted it as a terrible condition. Before then, herpes wasn’t considered a major health problem and didn’t carry the connotation it has today. The dangers of herpes are also blow out of proportion by online health magazines, who repeatedly say it’s incurable, but other diseases, such as thrush and chickenpox, which are also incurable, don’t get the same mentions. Then there are all the movies and sit-coms that poke fun at herpes and use it for comic relief. Even when stigma isn’t specifically directed at one person, it only perpetuates the myth.
Marian Nicholson has been using her platform to challenge misconception and gives talks at clinics around the country. These efforts have had positive results since now people are more aware that herpes is common. But for STDs like gonorrhoea and chlamydia, more measures will be needed.
Do specialist STD dating sites help?
The prospect of being rejected by potential partners is one of the hardest things about STD stigma. People have shared numerous times, on social networks such as Reddit, that personality traits like funny, kind, and clever, no longer seem to matter when you have an STD, that people become hyper-sensitive around them and that talking about their condition with the wrong people has led to shaming. In some cases, partners with STDs feel insecure in relationships, imagining that they will be dumped for someone better.
This fear of stigma often makes people seek partners who have STDs as well. For example, many use a discrete code in descriptions on dating sites to signal that they have herpes. More recently, STD dating sites have emerged as a much-awaited service for people who aren’t ready to disclose their condition yet and prefer dating partners who know what they’re going through.
These websites can help people with STDs avoid the stigma because they offer a non-toxic environment where users don’t have to talk about their condition, but sexual health experts argue that they only offer a way around the problem and they’re not enough to change public perception.
Opening up the conversation
Advocating for better sex education is the only way STD-related stigma can go away. Although dating sites for people with STDs are a great alternative, the long-term solution isn’t to create a bubble and separate people into two camps. To fight stigma, society needs to tackle the problem directly and ultimately, people shouldn’t feel the need to use an exclusive dating app. Opening an honest conversion about STDs, increasing awareness from childhood on how easy STDs can be to treat, and lifting the taboo on sexual topics in general, these are the ultimate goals that we should strive towards.
The editorial unit
The material contained in this article is of the nature of general comment only and does not give advice on any particular matter. Recipients should not act on the basis of the information in this e-update without taking appropriate professional advice upon their own particular circumstances.