Part of being sex positive is acknowledging and mitigating the risks surrounding sex, including STIs (sexually transmitted infections). Culturally, the conversation about STIs is a minefield of stigma and shame. So, here are some tips on avoiding misconceptions about STIs while keeping yourself safe and making informed sexual health decisions.
#1: The Name Itself Is Stigmatized
For a long time, STIs were referred to as STDs. Slowly, there has been a shift toward using STIs because the word “disease” is full of stigma and seriousness that doesn’t necessarily reflect how treatable and even curable some STIs are.
#2: Other Parts Are Stigmatized, Too
When people ask their partners if they’ve been tested, the response is often something along the lines of “yes, I’m clean.” This language groups anyone who has an STI as someone who is “dirty.” Though this is culturally accepted, imagine calling someone with another diagnosis, like cancer or depression, dirty. It’s very harsh.
#3: An STI Doesn’t Signify the End of Your Sex Life
When AIDS was first identified, it was considered a death sentence, but things have changed so much since then. Good news: managing, treating, and curing many STIs are possible with modern medicine. So, let’s talk about which are treatable versus which have known cures.
STIs that have known cures are gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis, but they may have long-term repercussions if you don’t manage them quickly. Viral STIs are HIV, HPV, Hep-C, Hep-B, and HSV (herpes). HIV and herpes have great treatments available. Remember: PrEP can help prevent HIV in tandem with condoms, and herpes can recur, so both take ongoing management. What’s important when you get diagnosed is learning how to manage your condition and brushing up on your communication tips so that you feel comfortable disclosing this information to new partners.
#4: Risky Behavior Isn’t Always Why People Get a Diagnosis
Risky sexual behavior is hard to quantify, and the word “risky” frequently has a slut-shaming quality to it. Though STIs sometimes come from casual sex, often, a transmission happens from a partner willingly entering a relationship with someone who has an STI. Other times, the diagnosis may have come after a sexual assault, and the person contracted it through trauma.
#5: Minimizing Your Exposure to STIs Is Important
Sexual contact of almost any kind can result in an STI transmission unless you remain aware of barriers throughout your encounter. Some transmissions happen via a fluid exchange; others, merely from skin contact. Having “safe sex” isn’t as cut and dried as it may seem, so the more you know about specific STIs and how to prevent exposure, the safer the sex you can have.
The idea that you can simply wear a condom to be safe is outdated and even a little hetero-normative. Women who have sex with women use dental dams or gloves and may go through their entire sex lives safely without using condoms. And, people who have herpes can transmit it through skin contact even while wearing a condom. Keeping up on advances in testing, treatment, and prevention of STIs is imperative to your continued sexual health.
#6: Don’t Forget About Emotional Safety
Concern for your physical health during sex is important, but so is emotional safety, though it’s often overlooked. Finding ways to take care of your mental health is essential. If you’d like help processing an STI diagnosis or boosting your overall well-being, consider reaching out to a therapist who can give you science-backed, individualized tips for your situation.
Bio: Dr. Nazanin Moali is a clinical psychologist and sex therapist in the Los Angeles area. She works with various individuals to understand and improve their sexuality. Dr. Moali conducts personal consultation sessions in her Torrance and Hermosa Beach offices, or via a secure, online video-counseling platform. Click here to download the 101 Ways to Keep Your Relationship Hot checklist.