Vulnerable Hearts, Vulnerable Bodies: Sexual Health and STI Stigma

for the web

Stain on a White T-Shirt

In November, I had my first STI scare. The weekend after Halloween, after my at-the-time boyfriend had driven back up to his hometown Sunday night, I felt something on my inner-thigh. When I went to check, I found an abrasion; the upper-layer of skin had hiked up, giving way to the raw, pinkish layer beneath it. My heart began to race. I hadn’t talked to him about his status before we’d been intimate, and we hadn’t used protection. I trusted that he was clean, and my naivete had landed me in an ordeal I was entirely unprepared for.

Over the course of the next few days, I agonized over my pending status. I booked an appointment to get tested, and as the hours began to wind down leading up to my time slot, I couldn’t help but throw myself into frantic googling. I was terrified. Was my sex life over before it had ever truly taken off? Was I doomed to a life of celibacy, my damsel’s figure destined to be gazed upon from afar, but never truly known? Was I… dirty? Stained with a rot that, try as I may, might never get out?

As melodramatic as these anxious thoughts might seem to me now, at the time the anxiety felt all too valid. I had found myself in a situation I was entirely unprepared for, and felt betrayed by a partner that I thought I could trust. I was scared. The boy of my dreams, the one I thought I was starting to fall in love with, became suddenly unavailable when I needed him, leaving me to spiral further. 

The worst of it was the feeling of being alone in my panic. I desperately needed someone else to interrupt the downward curve that my psyche was taking, but I didn’t feel like I could talk to anyone about it. I didn’t want to tell my friends, lest they confirm my suspicions that the possibility of a positive STI status would make me a monster, and only give further fuel to the fire of my inner-saboteur and self-doubt. I didn’t want to be criticized or looked at as less than, I couldn’t take that at the moment, so I wallowed, digging myself deeper into the hole that I’d found myself in.

Ultimately, things ended up okay. I reached out to a friend and they walked with me to the clinic. I got tested, and upon describing my symptoms in-depth to the nurses, they said I most likely had some skin rupture due to friction, and that it didn’t seem like I had a sore. My test results a week later confirmed that I was clean. I could move on. Everything was going to be okay. However, the longer I sit with it, the more I think about my reaction to the scare. The burden that I felt I undertook during it. It shouldn’t have been that hard. Why was I so afraid?

Macaroni in a Pot

We live in the age of sex positivity and hookup culture. No longer are we getting killed by slasher-movie villains for making out in the woods with minimal tongue. No, now we spit on the very idea of slut-shaming, and stare down the barrel of the gun that is sexual double standards, and get far too comfortable sharing detailed hookup stories on the internet. The sexual revolution has passed: sex won! It permeates our music, our film and television, and our cultural discourse. Personally, I think it’s fantastic.

I think it’s remarkable that I get to live in an era where WAP was a #1 hit, and where one of the most popular shows on television had a 5 minute scene of a bunch of dicks in the second episode. Sex is normal, it’s a natural part of life, it’s a common occurrence, and most importantly, it’s a lot of fun. Sex sheds its cultural stigma more and more with each passing year. It’s become generally accepted that people hook-up, have one night stands, and enjoy sex.

As sex becomes normalized further, it also becomes more equitable. Concepts of female pleasure, the orgasm gap, and kink are moving out of the taboo and into the mainstream, and I think it’s fantastic. Conversations like these are important, and information about these things is necessary. Stigmatizing sex does nothing but bring shame and increase harm, and yet I find that there’s one vital thing missing from this ever-growing cultural discourse. We need to talk about STIs.

Sex Miseducation

I still remember my middle school sex-education curriculum, or FLE, as my school called it, short for Family Life Education. The sex education curriculum in the state of Virginia stressed abstinence, and that’s exactly what my teacher did. My sweaty, misshapen gym coach standing in front of a room of awkward, horny, thirteen year-old boys, and talking about how having sex can and will give you AIDS. And AIDS will kill you.

You know, if you’re not carefully wrapping it up, you’ll end up being a father, trading football practice for changing diapers and your college tuition for a down payment on a starter home as you desperately try to find a job with a 401k to support your new family, and also the treatment for that AIDS that you also have in this situation. The only real way to avoid this nightmare, obviously, is abstinence. Just don’t have sex until your wedding night, or after your wedding night (just to be safe). That way, you’ll be able to narrowly avoid this hellish fate.

In this class, STIs were framed as a terrifying eventuality if you so much as even thought about sex. They were the hand of god punishing you for sinning, and a deterrent to exploring your sexuality and taking joy from sexual pleasure. I know I’m not alone in this. A lot of kids were raised with this framing impressed onto them, a framing that naturally comes with all sorts of stigmas and negative connotations about sex. A stigma that we’ve all had to leave behind, or at least begin to, as we grow up and become sexually active, autonomous persons. We have to remove that connotation in our minds to fully explore our bodies, our sexualities, and enjoy the pleasure that sex has to offer.

While that stigma has started to be peeled away from the act of sex, it still remains tightly affixed to conversations about STIs. As people trade hook-up stories and talk about their size of their partners’ dicks, discussion of sexual health and safety still remains somewhat of a taboo. While our media and pop culture brazenly and openly depicts and alludes to sex, discussion of STIs, outside of the context of disgust, remains rare. I’m of the mind that this stigma, like most, does far more harm than good. Stigmatizing STIs makes people uncomfortable talking about them and averse to learning about them. Lack of proper communication, solid safety measures, and available resources only make the situation worse, and the stigma only exacerbates these issues. When people are afraid to talk openly with their partners, are uninformed about STIs, and don’t understand proper prevention measures, the spread of STIs only grows further.

Perfect Pussy Complex

The standard for the ideal woman has shifted. No longer is she a virginal soul, pure of heart and mind. Now, she is free-spirited, sexually confident, and experienced. This shift, while it signals a step forward for sex positivity, is not in of itself the liberation that we often seem to think it is. Referred to by youtuber Tee Noir as the “perfect pussy complex,”, even in an era of sex positivity, perfection is still expected of women. Women must still remain pure, if not of mind then of body. The idea of contracting an STI, a very real and very normal byproduct of being sexually active, doesn’t fit with these ideas of purity; ideas that women often enforce onto themselves.

Thinking back to my reaction to the STI scare and my melodramatic temperament, as enjoyable as it is now to look back on and poke fun at, was symptomatic of larger issues. Gender politics in this day and age are complicated, confusing, and frustrating, but I keep coming back to the idea of the male gaze. Coined in Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, the term was originally intended to refer to the ways that camera work in film objectifies female bodies. Since then, the use of the term has expanded, talking more about the way that men, and the society around us do the same. The world has internalized the male viewpoint, and women have too.

It’s a trap far too many women fall into. Internalizing the male gaze, viewing themselves through it, hoping to fit it, and subconsciously wondering what a man might think of them, even when no men are present. This standard of mythical, pure, ideal womanhood is unattainable. It’s an image that changes with the micro-trend cycle, a mountaintop that only seems to get higher and more unrealistic with each day that passes. There comes no success in attempting to align oneself with it, only in rejecting it. If you are sexually active, you may contract an STI, it’s normal. If you do, notify your sexual partners. If you are sexually active with multiple partners, get tested every 3 to 6 months. Talk to your partners about their status before sleeping with them, and for the love of god, please use protection.

Knowledge is power. The more we talk about it, the more we learn, the better equipped we are to handle the situations that inevitably arise from it. Like all arenas of life, pleasures of the heart and pleasures of the body do not come without speed bumps and potholes. They are inevitable, they don’t need to be bigger than that. You are capable of navigating these situations, many before you have, and many after you will, too. Listen to your intuition, she will guide you well, and if a man ever makes you feel unreasonable for asking him to get tested, drop him.

Graphic: Caleb Goss