Take the STI out of stigma

Anna Lyons sheds light on an under-discussed topic through looking at two student’s personal experiences with sexually transmitted infections

The cases of sexually transmitted illnesses (STIs) in Ireland have been steadily rising recently. They are more common than ever, and it is likely that someone you know has had one right now. Having an STI isn’t a bad thing, but the lack of education and all-around negative mind set people tend to have about them is what creates the common misunderstandings and misconceptions. It’s about time we address the stigma around STIs, and how this has an effect on the negative dialogue surrounding STIs and sex.

“The message was clear. It was one of shame; don’t have sex, and certainly don’t get an STI from it.”

I think that a huge issue with regards to the negative relationship so many of us have with STIs is related to the poor sex education we all received in school. Sex Ed about STIs consisted of members of the class having to do presentations on different infections. We discussed how you got one and what horrible consequences you would face as a result. Often explicit photographs were included and at the end the entire class would laugh and cringe. After that, the teacher would stand up and reinforce the idea that STIs were disgusting, dirty and should be avoided at all costs. The message was clear. It was one of shame; don’t have sex, and certainly don’t get an STI from it. We were never told that they were actually really common, that most STIs are asymptomatic and that they are mostly really easy to treat. These infections are just like getting a cold or a flu, yet why do we attach so much stigma to them?

It is estimated that nearly 50% of adults will have chlamydia at some point in their lifetime. In Ireland in 2022 there have been over 14 000 reported cases of STIs, with the 20-24 year-old age group being the highest contributor to that, and chlamydia being by far the most common. So if you’ve had an STI recently, you’re certainly not alone. However, it seems that STIs are something that really aren’t spoken about. I’m sure your friends have had no problem telling you when they had Covid-19, but when was the last time a friend casually mentioned that they had chlamydia? Of course, I’m not putting the blame on people for not publically announcing the details of their sex life. But I do want to shed light on why we attach so much shame to getting STIs, and why we feel like it is something we have to hide.

“How can we change the dialogue around STIs and finally create a space where people don’t experience the feelings of disgrace and embarrassment that many unfortunately have to face?”

Sex stigma is something that is embedded in our psychology. But this is taught and learned; we don’t come out of the womb judging people for the amount of people they’ve slept with. It comes from a lot of places; our abstinence-based sex education in schools, conversations amongst peers, or perhaps from the misrepresentation of STIs in the media. How can we change the dialogue around STIs and finally create a space where people don’t experience the feelings of disgrace and embarrassment that many unfortunately have to face? Negative sex talk is simply unconstructive, and can lead to wider mental and physical health issues. So why do we continue to do it?

I spoke to a few students about their experiences with STIs. One person told me about their experience with getting tested when they started having sex with a new partner. Unfortunately, in this case, they felt a lot of shame and embarrassment surrounding the testing process, and chose to tell very few people about it. This was due to feeling “irresponsible” or “dirty.” They didn’t feel comfortable using Trinity services because they had heard they were slow and were afraid of “being seen by people they knew,” so chose to go down the online test route. There are definitely some things to learn from this case; first of all, that the Trinity services are in fact quick, effective and cheap. Secondly, this student encouraged their partner to get tested because they were with new sexual partners, and as a result found out about their STI. They wouldn’t have found out if not making a point of getting tested, and I think that people should make a habit of getting checked when having sex with different people for the first time.

“A lot of this is to do with the language we tend to use when discussing STIs: being negative is regarded as “clean”, and testing positive is labelled ‘dirty’.”

Another student I spoke to took a different approach when they found out that they had an STI, and the reactions were varied. They admitted that feelings of shame were the first ones that crept up after their positive test. A lot of this is to do with the language we tend to use when discussing STIs: being negative is regarded as “clean”, and testing positive is labelled “dirty”.Upon hearing the result, this student said, “I wanted to have an eternal shower until I felt clean again.” But once feelings of acceptance replaced the feelings of shame, they told people openly about the test results, saying, “Sometimes we have to laugh in the face of our adversities.” However, not all reactions were equal, and unfortunately the news was sometimes received negatively. That being said, the test results were definitely beneficial to some who admitted that this student’s openness was what encouraged them to get a test. Open conversations help to break down the stigma and negative associations with STIs, and perhaps through this transparency others are able to find out that they aren’t the only ones who were going through the same thing. This student told me that by not speaking about it, it only would’ve made the stigma worse, which I couldn’t agree with more.

The experiences of these students make it even clearer that the sex education in Ireland is simply inadequate. We are told not to have casual sex, to be wary of every sexual partner and that STIs are disgusting. Everyone who I’ve spoken with has gained so little from our sex education systems. Our sex education comes from a variety of sources. Most of what a lot of us have learnt about sex has been from our friends, but why can’t we be taught how to navigate such a big part of our lives? We take more information from the media; social media, movies, porn – all of which can be beneficial whilst simultaneously destructive. But why is it so hard to get information from a credible and reliable source? Why do we have to go digging to put together puzzles of mismatched information? I consider it ambitious that Irish secondary schools call their sex education, education at all.

While we may not have access to adequate sex education, we do have access to resources that can help us if we do contract an STI. First of all, a free online scheme called SH:24 — Sexual Health 24/7 — offers free at-home testing kits, getting results back within 7 days. College also offers services. One student interviewed went down this route and praised the experience, saying, “The nurses at Trinity were brilliant — there was absolutely no shame attached, and I got medication instantly that cleared up the infection within a week.”

Even in 2022 there’s too much stigma surrounding STIs, and the sex education system has failed us. But there’s nothing constructive about just repeating this message. Breaking down the stigma will only come from open conversation and visibility; this includes being accepting towards yourself and others and realising that it only takes one sexual partner to get an STI. It also includes questioning the language we use, like “clean” or “dirty”. These initiatives will increase STI visibility. It should be a normal thing to get tested regularly, and the process of testing itself shouldn’t be so taboo. As a university, this could mean handing out free STI kits, or having free pop-up clinics. By making testing normal, accessible and regular, and by remaining open and non-judgemental, we would be taking some valuable steps in the right direction towards de-stigmatising STIs, and creating a safe, sex-positive space.

Anna Lyons

Anna Lyons is the Sex and Relationships Editor at Trinity News and is currently in her Senior Sophister Year studying Law and Business.