Many people find sexually transmitted infections (STIs) difficult or embarrassing to talk about but they are more common than most people think.
75% of adults will have had at least 1 type of human papillomavirus (HPV) in their lifetime, more than 100,000 cases of chlamydia are reported each year in Canada, and as many as one in seven Canadians aged 14 to 59 may be infected with HSV2, the virus that causes genital herpes. If you have an STI, know that you are not alone and that it is not something to be embarrassed or ashamed of.
The stigma, shame, and fear associated with STIs is real and affects many people. This makes talking about STIs—and about preventing them and getting tested—challenging. And this is amplified by the silence around STIs; if we are not talking to each other about STIs, they may seem less common than they are and a much bigger deal.
The most common STIs among youth in Canada are chlamydia and HPV. Not only are both common, but the majority of cases are also asymptomatic (there are no symptoms) or what we call “silent infections.”
Asymptomatic STIs can be passed onto partners without anyone’s knowledge and cause eventual complications if not identified through testing and treated right away. Learning how to talk with our partner(s) about how to practise safer sex, as well as when and where to get tested, is part of what normalizes taking care of our sexual health and reducing the stigma around STIs.
Stigma refers to negative attitudes, language, and behaviours towards people who, in this case, have an STI. Stigma can come from a lack of information about STIs and fear unknown impacts on our body, health, and relationships. It can also be fueled by the stereotypes around who gets an STI and what that says about “that person” or “those people.” Many of us make assumptions about what “type” of person gets an STI and this has a huge impact on our willingness to talk openly about STIs. It also makes STIs seem less common than they are and the thought of contracting one or receive a positive STI test result really scary.
Stigma around STIs can be worsened if we already face prejudice because of our race, gender identity and expression, and/or sexual orientation, among other things. Mixed with shame and stigma around sex, systemic oppression and the negative assumptions made can impact our health and our ability to get support and access health care.
Anyone who is sexually active can get an STI and can pass it on. Many of us will have one or more in our lifetime. Practising safer sex, getting tested regularly, and getting treated when we need to significantly minimizes the risk of getting an STI or passing one on. Stigma is bad for our health so let’s start talking more openly about taking care of ourselves and our health.