I didn’t think that I was the 'type' of person to contract a sexually transmitted infection (STI). By age 25, one out of two people will contract a STI. Like many young adults, I was naïve. You never think it will happen to you. You believe that you’re invincible; that you’re in that 50% that’s ‘safe.’ I was wrong.
Once I was diagnosed with genital herpes, I never thought that it would become something that I publicly disclosed—I had enough trouble facing it myself. As an aspiring sexologist, I didn’t foresee that it would shape my graduate research. I didn’t know that this work was needed, or that it mattered to any population. But here I am, nearly three years later, to tell you that it does matter--to more people than you think.
To put this in perspective, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 1 million STIs are acquired each day. Each year, more than 357 million infections reveal themselves as (1) chlamydia, (2) gonorrhea, (3) syphilis, or (4) trichomoniasis. An overwhelming estimated 500 million people are living with genital herpes. April is STD Awareness Month, and this year’s theme is “Treat Me Right.” While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advocates this message in hopes of improving the patient/practitioner relationship, I want to delve into the relationships of everyday life—our families.
“How do I disclose to people I date?” “Should I put my status on my online dating profile?” “Will I ever enjoy sex like I used to?” Perceived fear and concerns of acceptance are the basis for most of these submissions, but disclosures to friends and family members uniquely reveal themselves as statements, rather than questions. “I am afraid that my friends and family will disown me.” “I haven’t told anyone yet, not even my friends or family.” “My parents will be so disappointed in me.”
These statements reflect innate feelings of disappointment, shame, and embarrassment that exist within our society, and notably, within the normalized family construct. Despite increasing numbers of magazines and television shows that ooze sex, it remains a taboo topic for conversation, especially between parent and child—even as we enter adulthood. Sex and sexuality are not what I consider to be ‘easy’ topics to bring into discussion. Whether if it is with your partner, your parents, or even yourself, sexual realities and exploration of our sexual selves are challenging to navigate, verbalize, and accept.
This is partially due to how it is introduced and taught. When asked to reflect upon our sex education backgrounds, most may refer back to 'the birds and the bees' or conversations about condoms, birth control, menstruation, and graphic images of STIs. Less often are topics of consent and pleasure brought into the classroom. Research supports that formal sex education taught in middle and high school should actually be happening much earlier. The Sexuality Resource Center for Parents offers helpful guidelines and tools for age-appropriate sexuality lessons from 0-18 years (and no, that isn't a typo).
"Sexuality is an integral part of who we are, what we believe, what we feel, and how we respond to others" (SRCP). Sex isn't just our body parts. Sex isn't just nudity. Sex isn't just a reproductive function. Sex isn't just a risk. We know more about what sexuality is not, rather than what sexuality is.
We are taught to be experts of myth and shame. Sexually transmitted infections are not exclusive to a 'type' of person, or a person who engages in socially taboo behaviors. STIs happen in loyal relationships. STIs happen to people who have both a high and low number of sexual partners. STIs happen during missionary, and unlisted positions outside of the kamasutra.
Someone that you know and love probably has a sexually transmitted infection. Someone you might not expect. Someone who might be afraid of what others would think of them if they knew. A friend. A daughter, a mother, a son, a father, even a grandparent. STIs have no preferred identity that they cling to. Instead, we cling to the ones we ascribe to them. We perpetuate stigma through our language and teachings. We shame people for having too much sex, and poke fun at them if they aren't having enough. We use STIs and their hosts as a source of humor in Hollywood scripts and among friends. We teach adolescents to fear sexual experience because of what could happen, when what could happen is really inevitable.
Treat Me Right. I am a daughter. A lover. A friend. A student. A human. It begins and ends with the way we structure, present, and respond to sexuality across our lives.