Thursday, November 5, 2015

STIs: an unnecessary and unfair stigma

by Kerri Harris, Writing Intern

Recently, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a shocking report. Apparently, a whopping 67% of people under 50 have HSV-1, a type of herpes. It’s a stigmatized infection; it “only happens to those people”-- the gross and immoral. Yet, according to this study, two-thirds of the world’s population have it.

HSV-1 is sometimes called the “good” herpes. Unlike HSV-2, it’s often not sexually transmitted. A lot of people contract it orally during childhood, and experience only occasional mouth sores. Often, they’re completely asymptomatic. But cases of sexually transmitted HSV-1 is growing. And as for HSV-2, it’s not exactly rare. An estimated 417 million people in the world have it. Likely, some people who reject potential sex partners for having the virus have a form of it themselves.

Ella Dawson, a feminist blogger, has gotten a lot of attention on the internet this year for being openly herpes positive. She’s given multiple interviews about how this has affected her life since getting diagnosed as a college junior. A BuzzFeed article about her went viral. This of course led to a lot of hateful comments.  Some people thought herpes was Dawson’s rightful punishment for being some kind of irresponsible slut . . . .  Maybe slut means college student or fellow human in awful interneter land.  A blog post she wrote showcasing some of these comments demonstrates just how strong the stigma tied STIs really is.

In this day and age, humor about almost anything can cause controversy. And yet, people make fun of those with STIs without giving it a second thought. As Dawson said in one of the interviews she’s done regarding going public with her diagnosis, “Herpes is a safe punchline in an era of comedy where making fun of someone’s race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and class is considered increasingly politically incorrect.” Political correctness has probably gotten out of hand. But people with STIs deserve respect, similar to other marginalized groups.

Hopefully, the WHO’s report will make some people look at herpes a little differently. They may realize that they probably know several people with it. And that the circumstances under which these people got it may vary. Pop culture should do more to de-stigmatize STIs. When people see fictional characters get diagnosed, then see them go on to have normal lives, they might not feel so bad.

All this said, STIs, when symptomatic, are unpleasant, disruptive, and dangerous when untreated; no one wants that. The WHO report should encourage more people to get tested and do what they can to prevent transmission. But the portrayal of them in pop culture and many sex education classes is problematic. It often makes people feel ashamed. And this shame sometimes keeps people from telling their partners, which causes STIs to spread even more. A cure for diseases such as herpes and HPV would be nice. But for now, STI awareness must increase, while discrimination against people who have them should decrease. It’s time to break the stigma.

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