As a sexually active young person, it is as important to take care of your mental and physical health as taking care of your sexual health. A big part of maintaining the balance between having (spontaneous) sex and staying safe, is the use of condoms and regular testing for sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
Often, when discussing STIs, you are met with disgust and shame even though it is a fairly likely consequence of having unprotected sex (or even protected sex sometimes). Over the past three years, reported cases of several sexually transmitted infections have sharply risen. Most adults are sexually active so why are we not placing enough emphasis on providing information regarding STIs and destigmatising them? And what role does gender play in this discussion?
Although we often conflate the two, STI’s and STD’s (sexually transmitted diseases) are not really the same thing: an STI refers specifically to an infection that doesn’t have symptoms. Infections are the first step on the road to contracting an STD, but not all STIs develop into STDs. While seemingly trivial, stating this difference when talking about sexual health is essential to improve accuracy and decrease stigma.
People with STIs are often associated with being diseased, unhygienic, and especially, being sexually promiscuous. Due to the stigma associated with having an STI, even having the “talk” with your sexual partner(s) may cause anxiety, guilt, embarrassment, and fear of isolation. Throughout history, STIs have been associated with sex work, sexual promiscuity, and “immoral behaviour,” designating sex workers, perceived “debauched” women, and queer people as the ideal culprits for spreading such infections. Although people can contract STIs from having sex only once, the misconception that contracting an STI only happens if you have sex with a lot of people still looms over us. Of course, by logic, the more partners, the higher the risks but this is not always the case and should not be taken as a straightforward law of causation.
Unfortunately, in the current landscape, cis-heterosexual women are held up to a different standard than cis-heterosexual men. When women engage in the same type of sexual activity as men, they are often labelled as “whores”. STIs thus add another layer of stigma that implies carelessness on the woman’s part. As if her carefree attitude towards her number of sexual partners means a careless attitude towards her sexual health. This assumption often does not reflect reality: many women feel pressured to engage in condomless sex, removing the only layer of protection against STIs. In such cases, it is often mostly the woman who is shamed for her STI (and sexuality) whilst the man is mostly given a slap on the wrist.
Research has also shown that STIs are more easily transmitted from men to women. Whether because there is less stigma with having more sex, or physiological reasons, the point is that men are more likely to spread STIs. In general, the lining of the vagina is thinner than that of the penis so it is easier for viruses to penetrate and bacteria to grow. It is a lot easier to notice physical symptoms like sores or swelling on a penis than in a vagina – even for doctors. This is why routine testing and more research is necessary to tackle the gender gap when it comes to sexual health. For women, the symptoms of STIs are often vague, including things like pain while peeing or a change in vaginal discharge. All of these can point to a number of other conditions. Men are also less likely to have harmful consequences from contracting STIs. For example, the Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common STI and if left untreated in men, they are unlikely to experience major consequences. The same cannot be said for women where HPV is the main cause of cervical cancer. This is why pap smears, vaccines, condoms, and STI screenings are vital for the sexual health of people with vaginas, and people in general.
Because access to healthcare and preventive solutions is not equally spread amongst the population, the population rates of STI diagnoses remain, for instance, the highest among people of Black or Hispanic ethnicity in the United States and the United Kingdom. There is an extensive history of reproductive health campaigning from these marginalised groups but their issues do not receive the same funding. There is still a great need to tackle the institutionalised racism rooted in the healthcare sector.
Moreover, men who like to have sex with men often find themselves at an increased risk of contracting STI due to the increased manageability of HIV, the use of online tools to find sexual partners, the practice of barebacking, and the increased use of recreational drugs during sex. This new reality makes it even more important to do routine checks. Better to prevent than to treat, right? However, some people may find it more difficult to take care of their sexual health. For instance, transgender and genderqueer people experience discrimination in their access to employment, housing, and adequate healthcare, which can be compounded by stigma from health practitioners, which leads many not to seek treatment or testing. Additionally, economic precariousness, at times coupled with illegal status (for migrants), may lead many of them to survive through sex work, which in countries where it is illegal (especially when the law criminalises clients) actually increases the risks of having unsafe sex.
TV shows, movies, and the education system should be doing a better job of discussing STIs. We often see sex on screen but rarely do we see the use of condoms or conversations about chlamydia for instance. But the situation is not bleak! Educate yourself, educate your partner(s), and educate your friends. Have open and honest conversations and de-stigmatise this part of sex. This is a discussion worth having and one that I believe we should be having more often. Evidently, the current ostrich system is not working and needs a makeover. It is important to practise safe and consensual sex, and get yourself checked out once in a while, there’s no shame in taking care of your sexual health.
Use lubricant and remember that condoms are your best friend.