How to Reduce Shame and Stigma When You Have an STD
Despite being common, STDs still feel shameful, and that’s one reason they’re increasingly common.
If you have recently learned that you have a sexually transmitted disease (STD) — also referred to as sexually transmitted infections — you may be feeling a welter of emotions. You may feel angry, ashamed, or even dirty. You may want to blame yourself or someone else. You may be confused about what the STD really means for your own health and your partner’s health, as well as your future well-being and happiness.
Or maybe you haven’t even been definitively diagnosed with an STD yet, but you have noticed a sore or some symptoms that make you think you may have an STD. Maybe you dread consulting a healthcare professional for fear of hearing you do have an STD.
For many people, the worst part of having an STD is the fear and shame that tend to accompany them.
Overcome STD-Related Stigma by Learning the Facts
“There is a stigma around any STD, and it trickles down to anyone diagnosed with [an STD],” says Lindsay Henderson, PsyD, a psychologist in Pittsford, New York. “People feel ashamed, that they are somehow damaged and that no one will want them in the future.”
By learning about STDs and how manageable they usually are, you can help those feelings fade, says Dr. Henderson.
First, remember that few STDs are life-threatening. “With proper treatment, [most STDs have] very few health impacts. People can get to view having an STD as an inconvenience that they can deal with appropriately and responsibly,” Henderson says.
You can have a good life despite having an STD. Most STDs are treatable, and some are curable, although not all are. Those STDs for which there is not yet a cure, such as HIV, can still be manageable with proper care.
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Seek Medical Attention to Take Control of Your Health
If you’ve been diagnosed with a sexually transmitted infection, speak face-to-face about it with a healthcare provider. Do not over-rely on information from the internet.
“The internet can provide general resources, but a doctor will be able to discuss what is going on with you specifically and also be empathetic,” says Henderson. “A medical professional can help you see that you’re not a bad person. It’s not a life sentence.”
A healthcare provider can also tell you:
- What treatment options are available to you
- How not to transmit the infection to other people
- How best to avoid getting additional STDs or getting reinfected with a curable STD you’ve already had
If you’re not comfortable speaking to your primary care healthcare provider or don’t currently have one, look for an STD or sexual health clinic in your area for diagnosis, treatment, and advice about protecting your sexual health in the future.
If You Have an STD, You Have a Lot of Company
STDs are incredibly common.
“The United States continues to have the highest STD rates in the industrialized world,” says David Harvey, executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors. In 2013, the United States had 1,752,285 reported cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). By 2017, it had 2,294,821 cases.
Massive budget cuts in recent years to state and local health departments have contributed heavily to these high numbers, says Harvey. Another big factor involves ordinary people and healthcare providers turning a blind eye to STDs, or simply not discussing them, largely because of stigma. Both healthcare providers and their patients need to learn the facts and deal in a level-headed way with their emotional reactions to discussing STDs.
According to Planned Parenthood, half of all Americans will get an STD in their lifetime, and most will never know. But even an STD with no symptoms can cause harm — for example, some infections can cause infertility — and can be passed along to others, who may in turn transmit them to still other people.
Having a STD says nothing about you as a person. Anyone who has sex can get a STD, no matter what their sexual identity or orientation may be.
You can get one at any age and whether you have one partner your whole life or 101 partners. Rich and poor, educated or not, athletes and bookworms, everybody can potentially get STDs.
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Your Partners Need to Know About STDs, Quickly
You’ve gotten over shaming yourself, right? That’s important, because people with STDs who experienced greater stigma were less likely to notify their partners in some studies. Those people were also less likely to deliver medication to their partners, when they could safely and easily do so.
“STI-related shame …. [can] undermine STI testing, treatment, and partner notification,” wrote the authors of one such study.
You can handle this communication process. Follow these tips for notifying your partner(s):
Be matter-of-fact. Once you have your facts about your STD diagnosis and feel in control yourself, it’s time to tell your partner or partners. “You want to appear calm and confident, not ashamed or traumatized,” says Henderson. Your composure can help the other person or people handle the news more calmly.
Consider scheduling a healthcare appointment with your partner. If you have a committed partner, you want to convey the idea that the STD is something you can deal with together, Henderson says. In such situations, going to see a healthcare provider together to get all your questions answered may make sense.
If your partner refuses to seek medical attention, though, you may be able to bring them the correct medication. This is called expedited partner therapy.
Try to speak face-to-face. If you’re close to this person, talk in person, not by using digital means. “No text messages, emails, or singing telegrams,” advises Jenelle Marie Pierce, executive director of the STD Project, an initiative to reduce the stigma associated with STDs.
Even if you are not close with your partners, try to talk in person. You can help them process the difficult information, rather than leaving them alone with it.
But the main thing is to tell your sexual partners. You can opt to use anonymous services that will let your partners know they need to be tested and possibly treated. Companies that perform STD testing may also provide this service.
Advice for Talking With a Longtime or New Partner
If you’re in a relationship, hearing you have an STD may make you doubt your partner’s faithfulness, but before assuming the worst, remember that STDs don't always show up quickly. You or your partner may have become infected before you got together, without realizing it.
The following guidance from the Nemours Foundation can help you talk with either a longtime partner or a new one:
Put yourself in the other person’s place. What would you want somebody else to do and say if they were sharing their STD diagnosis with you?
Take the direct, honest, open approach. Say which STD you have and how you caught it, if you know. Being willing to talk and answer questions can help put your partner at ease.
Give the conversation time and space to flow naturally. Listen carefully instead of talking constantly. Your partner may be shocked or panicky or have lots of questions. Or they may just want to think over the news.
Don't pressure a longtime partner to make instant decisions about sex or your relationship. You may well want acceptance and reassurance after broaching such a difficult topic, but your partner may need breathing room. Be prepared to say something like, “I realize you probably want to think all this over,” then give them space to do so.
Be open to questions. As best as possible, provide your partner with facts about the illness. But if you are not able to answer all of their questions, suggest that they see a healthcare provider — not just search online — to learn more.
Even when you follow all of these steps, conversations about STDs may not always go the way you hope. You can’t control how others think or feel.
Regardless of the outcome with any one person, take pride in being honest about STDs. According to Henderson, “By having [these conversations] you are one of the strong people. You are truly making a difference in the conversation [about combating] stigma.”