STDs and The Stigma of Sexual Health

Being on the 9-5 allows me both the pleasure and bane to work with youth. One of the big topics for young people has always been sexual health. Without getting too much on the 9-5 soap box, I will say that positive youth development is an absolute necessity. If we are able to help young people make affirming choices and take on the responsibility of their actions, we get better adults and ideally a better society. No where is taking up this responsibility more important than the topic of sexual health.

One thing I’ve taken away from doing my type of 9-5 is the reminder of the amount of stigma that still exist around STDs and talking about sex period. Now, I’m not going to a workshop here, but I’ve noted that while we live in era of greater access to information on sexual health, the level of awareness is not near where it needs to be. Stats from the CDC show that a significant percentage of newly diagnosed STDs and unintended pregnancies are found in the teens and young adults bracket – from ages 15 to 35. Some may ask: shouldn’t this be the group that is the most highly aware because of the large pools of information available?

Like anything else, “practical awareness” or “true knowledge” is derived from how effectively one applies information. What stands out the most in my 9-5 is people’s comfort level with talking about sexual issues is surprising lower than it should be. Now, young people don’t necessarily feel comfortable talking about these issues because not everyone is willing to give them a space to express themselves and acquire the knowledge they need without judgement. But if you look across the board,

STDs have become an issue in the geriatric population as well. Seniors are now living longer and as a result have the right to enjoy as healthy a sex life as any age group. Since pregnancy for them is more minimized biologically, there is more evidence of higher STD rates in this age bracket than previously seen.

So what does this all mean? A senior taking an STD test probably faces with same stigma as a teen who’s accessing the same service. So how do we fight the stigma and get people to better take care of themselves in this area?

The most memorable conversation I had about this topic was with a close friend many moons ago. Being two guys who had known each other for eons, sex was a topic narrowly discussed within the context of “girls” – never from a sexual health point of view. So we were talking about some girl problem he was having and being on my 9-5, I mentioned the importance of testing. It ended up being a real deep discussion about practicing good sexual health. I shared some anecdotes from the 9-5, he shared some things he had heard and experienced, and we together busted a few myths and reinforced some best practice ideas. We will probably never have that depth of conversation on sexual health again, but a “safe space” was created where if the need for a resource or a perspective on a scenario is required, it can be broached without judgment.

Now, culturally, there is still some what I call unnecessary stigma about sexual health. Seeking treatment, getting tested, asking about contraception, discussing pregnancy options are so heavyweight issues by themselves that thinking about the social aspect of these decisions should be the LAST thing on a person’s mind. Yet they end up being the first thing people (un)consciously think about, because of the fear of both judgment and RIDICULE if this aspect of their life becomes public knowledge.

To me much of that ridicule and judgment is out of fear, or rather an unwillingness to examine one’s own sexual health practices. Taking control of one’s sexual health isn’t a knock on someone’s sexual preferences and that might be the biggest and most damaging myth of all.

At the end of the day we all have to do our best to find and stick with our own sexual health best practice. While the fear of judgment talking about sexual health is strong, the thirst for knowledge and being safe is that much stronger.

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