When people contract a sexually transmitted disease, society tends to look at them differently. I do not believe this is fair. Let’s talk about the stigma that leads people to treat someone with an STD differently. There are many ways people with STDs get mistreated, including being talked about by their peers or excluded from groups.
First, I want to tell you what inspired me to write about this topic in the first place. A couple of months ago, I came across an article regarding Beauty and the Beast, the 1991 animated movie. You may be thinking, “What in the world does this have to do with anything?”
The article, “The original Beauty and the Beast cartoon was a metaphor for AIDS,” talked about Howard Ashman, a lyricist for the movie who found out he had AIDS. The article argues that the Beast signifies a “curse” -- similar to Ashman finding out he had AIDS -- and so he locks himself away in shame. Belle signifies a cure, a chance that maybe, just maybe, the “curse” will be lifted.
I hope I didn’t completely ruin your childhood, but this perspective is vital because it shows how being misjudged and mistreated can really hurt someone. In this case, the Beast closes himself off from society because he feels ashamed of who he has become. The people in his town are no better. They make it seem like he’s not someone worthy of their understanding, and so they set out to make his life miserable.
Despite being a cartoon, this is a remarkably accurate portrayal of what happens to people when they disclose their STD status to those around them. Being treated poorly can make many people afraid to seek help. To get more insight, I interviewed Suzanne Spressert, a Health Education Instructional Coach for Boston Public Schools.
Q. Why do people get misjudged for having an STD?
- Spressert: I think this happens because of the way society talks about STDs. People say you "catch" one and use terms like "dirty" when that is not the case at all, and not how we should be talking about it. Since most STDs have no symptoms, it is difficult to know who has one unless they disclose that information. More than 50 percent of all sexually active people will contract Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) at some point during their lives – most won’t know it. One in two Americans will have contracted a sexually transmitted infection by the time they reach the age of 25. Given these statistics, I believe there's a lot of misunderstanding about how common STDs are and how they are passed on from an infected partner. I also see this talked about in classrooms as typically being assigned to females, when males can be the ones passing on the infection. That needs to be acknowledged as shared responsibility and not one sided.
Q. What is the most common STD among young adults?
- Spressert: Chlamydia is still the number one most common STD impacting Boston Public School students. I would call your attention to this fact: In 2014, there were 3,628 chlamydia cases in Boston and 60% of these cases were in 15-24 year olds. With more awareness and more testing, we can help to drive down those numbers in Boston, ultimately making a healthier, safer community for all.
Q. What can be done to help people feel comfortable when speaking to others about their personal experiences?
- Spressert: This sometimes takes role play or practicing what to say with a trusted adult. I recommend that each student has at least one to two trusted adults in his or her community that they can confide in. These adults can also help students get connected to testing and care.
Q. What are the medical options for people who have contracted an STD?
- Spressert: Treatment can include antibiotics given either orally or by injection or antiviral drugs, depending on which STD they are being treated for. Post-exposure prophylaxis (or PEP) is a way to prevent HIV infection after a possible recent exposure. PrEP stands for Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis and is a way for people who don't have HIV, but who are at very high risk of getting it, to prevent HIV infection by taking a pill every day. The pill contains two medicines that are also used to treat HIV.
Q. Are any STDs curable? If so, which ones and why?
- Spressert: My first response to this question is please, please, please advocate for comprehensive sexual health education in your and every BPS school. This is a simple question that gets covered in depth in both the middle school and high school sexual health education curriculum. There are two types of STDs - bacterial and viral. Bacterial STDs can be cured with antibiotics. Viral ones can be managed but not cured. From a behavior change perspective, students should know the risks associated with unprotected sexual activity (vaginal, oral and anal) and be able to access testing if they have engaged in any unprotected sexual act and believe they might have an STI/STD. Students should feel empowered to be able to get tested and also communicate their status with a partner. Accessing community resources and having solid interpersonal skills are key to becoming an adult!
I think that people who have a negative view on people with an STD are just uninformed and there are many ways you can educate yourself. Most schools offer health classes that teach students about these topics. It can also be as easy as using trusted online sources like Scarleteen.com or the Planned Parenthood website. Whatever you decide, I hope it helps keep you educated on STDs. This is not something to be ashamed of because it can happen to anyone and there are many ways and options to seek help and to prevent it from happening again, or even at all.