A lot of people are really scared of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). They’re the bogeyman of the bedroom; the sneaky bugs that are just waiting to get you every time you have sex. And that fear makes total sense! If people do get sex ed in school in the United States (and that’s not guaranteed), it tends to focus on all the potential risks associated with sex and to frame these risks as life-ruining. You may even have been shown photos of STI breakouts that were selected to scare you. But the reality of most STIs is very different from what most sex ed and late-night Googling would have you believe.
The thing is, those photos? Most of them are real, but they don’t show the average experience of a person with an STI. Some people—especially those with compromised immune systems—have very intense STI breakouts that cause their genitals to be covered in sores or warts. But that’s not the norm for most people with STIs.
In fact, many people with STIs don’t have any symptoms at all. They get an STI, maybe pass it on (or maybe not), and their body clears it on its own. (The downside of not having symptoms, of course, is that some STIs—including chlamydia, syphilis, and gonorrhea, which are super common—can cause infertility if they’re left untreated, particularly in people with uteruses. And if you don’t have symptoms, you could pass on an STI without even realizing you have one.)
Herpes, for example, is one STI that often doesn’t show symptoms. Some people with herpes have one breakout that’s too small to notice or that they mistake for something else. And then they live with the herpes virus for their entire life but have no idea they’re carrying it. Other people have recurring outbreaks that are uncomfortable, irritating, and frustrating—but aren’t going to cause long-term damage, with the caveat that an active herpes outbreak during pregnancy can be very dangerous. Is it annoying? Absolutely. Would most people prefer not to have a herpes infection? Probably. But is it the worst thing ever? Nope.
If you’re pausing on that last paragraph, you’re not alone. Most of us have been taught both by common sex ed and by pop culture that herpes is the absolute worst thing that could happen to a sexually active person. (I mean, how many jokes about herpes have you heard? I think I’ve heard about a million.) As a result, so many people with herpes have strong emotional reactions when they’re diagnosed. They might think they’re “dirty” or that they’ll never be able to have sex again or that people will be disgusted by them. I know, because as a certified sex educator, I’ve counseled a lot of people who have thought these things.
The shame spiral is a common reaction to any STI diagnosis. And it’s not because STIs are the worst thing that can ever happen to you. We’ve established that in many cases, they don’t affect your life much at all. The shame spiral happens because of STI stigma, which is the prejudice against people who have had or currently have an STI. STI stigma centers the false belief that an infection in your genitals is somehow morally worse than an infection anywhere else in your body. It’s based on the idea that sex, and especially sex outside of heterosexual, monogamous marriage, is immoral, wrong, and “dirty.”
If you believe that any sex outside of those parameters is wrong, then STI stigma makes sense. (I disagree, but it’s your right to feel that way.) But if you believe that other types of sex are not only not wrong, but actually can be really fun and enriching, then why hang on to this idea that people with STIs are shameful?
Think about it: Human beings give each other germs. Sometimes we give each other germs with the saliva in our mouths, and sometimes we give each other germs with the skin or excretions of our genitals. If we don’t shame people (or ourselves) for catching the flu virus, then why do we heap shame upon people who catch the human papillomavirus (HPV)? Logically, it just doesn’t make sense.
But there’s a difference between logic and emotions, I know. Our emotional brains often overwhelm our logical brains and we’ve been conditioned hard to freak out about STIs. So if you’ve just gotten an STI diagnosis or someone you care about just told you they carry one, it’s okay to let those freaked out feelings surface—for a minute. Feel your feelings so they can get out of your system, and then tap back into your logical brain. Remind yourself that most STIs are curable and all are treatable. Review these CDC statistics about how common STIs are. Find out how to practice safer sex to help prevent passing STIs to your partners. Make an appointment with your health care provider to get treated and reach out to your partner(s) to suggest they visit their own health care provider. And then? Know that you’re moving through the world better educated, better protected, and ready to take on whatever life throws you next.