“I have chlamydia.”
My friend at UC Berkeley told me this through tears over the phone in early November, her voice cracking over the words. It was the first time I had ever heard her cry.
She explained that after a period of having unprotected sex, she got tested for sexually transmitted infections, or STIs, because she sensed something off in her body.
“I’m so stupid. How could I let this happen? I’m going to die,” she wept. I tried to comfort her, telling her that this experience did not reflect her character and that her condition was temporary and easily cured. All STIs can be treated and many of them can be cured as well, according to Planned Parenthood. Chlamydia, for example, is easily curable with antibiotics.
In the process of becoming privy to her experience, I realized that my friend was one of many facing a greater societal issue: The substantial lack of knowledge regarding STIs and sexually transmitted diseases, or STDs, and the enduring stigma surrounding both.
According to the World Health Organization, more than one million STIs are acquired every day globally. The majority of STIs, however, possess no symptoms or only mild ones that can go unnoticed.
Why doesn’t everyone who is sexually active get tested, then? And even when detected, why do many people keep their status a secret? Perhaps this is because of the societal stigma surrounding sex in general, particularly given the stereotypical association between STIs and promiscuity in our culture.
We live in a world in which pejoratives like “slut” and “dirty” are used to degrade people, especially women. According to a study released by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, there is a resulting sexual double standard using measures of peer acceptance, which showed that men are praised for heterosexual sexual contacts, whereas girls and women are degraded for similar behaviors.
Because of such a stigma, many people with STIs or STDs remain silent for fear of judgment or rejection from those around them.
Gynecologist and obstetrician Jen Gunter wrote in the New York Times that “no diagnosis, apart from cancer, can as reliably bring a woman to tears as an S.T.I.”
In reality, STIs are just infections — simply, medical conditions with no morality attached to them. They can occur in anyone regardless of religion, sexual orientation, race or gender identity. It only takes one sexual encounter with an infected person to contract an STI. Sometimes, it doesn’t take any sexual encounter at all.
One of the first steps we can take toward de-stigmatization is to work at chipping away the taboo behind testing — and instead, working to normalize it. Just as one should go in for a regular trip to the dentist or the doctor for a physical checkup, getting tested regularly can and should become a fixture of every sexually active person’s standard health care routine. While having an STI is certainly not the end of the world, diagnosis and treatment are still crucial to prevent long-term health issues for the infected person and anyone else it could be passed to. Regular testing is also vital, for although some symptoms may come and go over time, this doesn’t mean the STI or STD is gone.
The spread of STIs can also be prevented with the use of protection. When used correctly, male and female condoms work to prevent both pregnancy and the spread of STIs. Especially in the case of having multiple sexual partners, the use of protection is absolutely essential.
The University Health Services Tang Center offers free STI screenings for students with the Student Health Insurance Plan, and these screenings can even be scheduled on the same day. The Tang Center also offers the Sexual Health Education Program, or SHEP, which offers advice to students on any matter pertaining to sexual health. Through its outreach initiative, SHEP also provides protection, including samples of condoms, dental dams and lube at no cost.
Additionally, on a first-come, first-served basis, once a month the Sexpert Education Clinic at the Tang Center offers free rapid HIV antibody tests from noon to 3 p.m. Planned Parenthood also offers testing, and many centers offer low-cost or free testing depending on a patient’s income.
After only a week of taking the right antibiotics, my friend has been STI-free for three months. Now, she makes sure to use protection in any sexual encounters.
“I hope that by sharing my experience, people can empathize and become more aware of this relevant issue: dispelling the stigma behind STIs,” she said.