STIs: Breaking the Stigma & Staying Safe During Sexual Intimacy

Surely the majority of us can recall those awkward school days in which uncomfortable talks were had. Seminars and classes on sex education and the way in which our bodies go through puberty made us feel rather squeamish, perhaps prompting us to let out a giggle or two. 

But did sex education in school actually make any impact on important matters such as unwanted pregnancies, STIs and HIV/AIDS? Well, it may be somewhat surprising to learn that a comprehensive and seemingly successful sex education in school has a near-zero (and sometimes an adverse) impact on sexual behaviour.

In fact, a study found that schools that pushed an abstinence-only agenda found a higher rate of teenage pregnancies as opposed to those who did not.

Now while we’re not here to talk about sex education in schools, nor (teenage) unwanted pregnancies, we are going to discuss something that’s closely linked… STIs. 

Oftentimes, STIs are overlooked when it comes to talking about, and taking part in, sexual activity. For some, it’s simply a taboo that shouldn’t be discussed, and for others, they may feel as though they’re invincible and unable to catch an STI. But the rate at which people are getting STIs is alarming, and it’s a conversation that should be had on a global scale.

But first… What is an STI? STI stands for “Sexually Transmitted Infection” and it is spread through sexual contact (skin-to-skin contact). 

In general STIs are preventable, and the only way to ensure 100 percent prevention is to abstain from all sexual contact. But there is no shame in engaging in any kind of sexual activity, it’s merely about keeping safe during the act (more on that later).

Why Are We Not Talking About STIs?

Talking about topics that are difficult is, well, difficult. And while there are tons of organisations committed to all kinds of initiatives, illnesses, and conditions, we don’t see much representation for STIs. 

There is no such thing as a “Gala for Chlamydia” or a Fundraiser for Herpes”. And so, the stigma and taboo is further fuelled, sweeping these life-changing conditions under the rug, leaving people uninformed and thus more susceptible to getting an STI.

Not just that though. Even when STIs are spoken about, the language that is used is unfavourable. We say things like “I am clean” when someone is STI-free, which implies the opposite when they’re living with, or have had, an STI—dirty! And then of course there’s the age old belief that if someone contracts an STI, it’s like a punishment because they’re promiscuous.

So how do we break the stigma and start having candid conversations about STIs? Well, for one, it’s important to use language that’s non-shaming. 

STIs are rife worldwide, and they’re spreading at a rapid rate. But instead of seeing yourself or others in a negative light about it, perhaps knowing that STIs are widespread could empower you to leave the shame behind and take charge of your health. 

One way to take charge of your health would be to be sexually intimate with people you know and trust. This is not to say that you need to be in a relationship with or even love the person, as embracing one’s sexuality is a healthy and normal thing. 

But when you choose to be with someone you like, there will be one less thing to worry about should you contract an STI… regret. It means that you can actively talk to the person about contracting an STI, which means both partners getting tested and taking the necessary steps, such as getting medication if need be, and staying safe. This alone will not just help you, but also the community.  

To further prove why people need to take charge of their health, and to communicate their status to partners, is because there is a considerable rise in the rate of STIs of late. And if one is ashamed about their status, or they’re still seeing STIs as a taboo, then the rate will continue to soar. 

Don’t believe us? The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that, in 2019, the total number of cases of syphilis, gonorrhoea, and chlamydia in the U.S. were at a record high. This included an alarming jump in the rate of newborn deaths caused by congenital syphilis. 

In 2018 alone, there was an increase of 100,000 cases of STI contractions than the previous year, and more than 2.4 million people were diagnosed with either syphilis, gonorrhoea, and chlamydia, according the CDC’s annual Sexually Transmitted Disease Surveillance Report. The most common STI? Gonorrhoea, which was at the highest ever recorded number in one year by the CDC.

The good news is, these three STIS: syphilis (in its early stages), gonorrhoea, and chlamydia, can be successfully treated with antibiotics. Without treatment, other medical issues can occur such as infertility, ectopic pregnancies, and an increased risk of getting HIV. This only further proves that taking care of one’s health, and disclosing their STI status with partners, is of paramount importance.

Going back to the stigma attached to STIs, did you know that many state health agencies have either cancelled or reduced programmes that teach youths about safe sex? What can we do about it? Fight for better sex education in schools (which includes information on STIs, and methods of protection such as condoms), and make people aware of acts such as “stealthing”, which is when one removes a condom before or during sexual intercourse without their partner’s knowledge or consent. 

Stealthing may not seem like an issue, but in actuality, a study proved that 10 to 20 percent of adults between the ages of 21 and 30 have done it. And 20 to 43 percent of adults stealthed at least twice since the age of 14. 

In other words, shaming and stigmatising sex and sexual intimacy, and pushing an agenda for abstinence, simply isn’t effective. It is in knowledge that we can reduce the spread of STIs, become empowered in our sexuality and our sexual health, and enjoy intimacy without shame.

STIs: How to Stay Safe During Intimacy

Abstinence is not always the answer. Of course, being sexually intimate is a personal choice, and waiting until you’re ready is always advised. But whether you’re engaging in intimacy or not, being educated and having the agency over your body to stay safe is important. 

Different ways you can stay safe from contracting an STI:

  • Know that STIs are not a taboo—they’re a reality and they’re spreading at a rapid rate
  • Talk to your partner(s) about your sexual history before sexual contact
  • Get tested regularly so that you can treat any STIs
  • Get tested with your partner
  • Avoid sexual contact when under the influence of alcohol or drugs
  • Get vaccinated against HPV, hepatitis A, and hepatitis B
  • Use condoms during penetrative sex
  • Use finger condoms during sexual acts such as fingering
  • Use a dental dam (a latex sheet used as barrier between the mouth and the genitals) during oral sex
  • Place condoms over sex toys
  • Check the expiration date of your condoms
  • Make sure your condoms don’t have any air bubbles, which means it has been punctured 
  • Put the condom on correctly 
  • Use condom-safe lubricant (oil-based lubricants can break down the material of latex, for example)
  • Hold onto the condom when removing it after sex so that it doesn’t slip
  • Dispose of the condoms properly after sex
  • Never remove the condom and put it back on
  • Never reuse condoms

Where Can You Get Tested for STIs?

In many countries worldwide, it is easy to get tested for STIs at your local health clinic. Most government-funded healthcare clinics offer free or low cost STI testing. You could also consider visiting a doctor’s office, some pharmacies, or even purchasing an at-home rapid STI test. 

The most important thing is to remain calm, and to try to remove any shame you may have surrounding visiting a health facility to get tested. The professionals will be thankful that you’re taking charge of your health, and you’ll be healthier for it.


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