Sex, Stigma and STDs

By Carlee Mallard

This article is part of the TNGG Sex Week series on Gen Y and sex. Read more from the series here.

Once upon a time there were two young college students who didn’t want to conduct meaningless research about how music affects mood or colors on screen and tapping keys or boring stuff like that. We thought we were far too unique for that. We were on a quest to see if watching the girls on Sex and City getting a sexually transmitted disease (STD) affected our young college students’ perceptions of their own vulnerability to negative sexual outcomes.

Our hypothesis was a total bust.

What we did find is that college students think their friends and strangers are bigger sluts and more likely to get an STD or have an unplanned pregnancy than themselves. There’s even major research to back this up.

But Why?

Do we think we’re too smart to let anything bad happen to ourselves? Do we actually think we’re being more responsible than everyone else or do we just feel invincible? We know that Gen Y has super high expectations for ourselves, but also for others. So when we find out that our friends or strangers got an STD we’re going to judge them pretty harshly & quickly. We let our own behavior off the hook more than we do others’.

So what happens when we find out that we got an STD ourselves? We’re judging ourselves even more harshly than our friends. Yea, we’re smart but sometimes we take that to mean that we can do anything and do anything we want without any negative consequences. We’re used to taking risks and being praised for it. We’re used to accomplishment, not sacrifice and suffering. As a generation we really haven’t suffered much in our lives or seen a whole lot of suffering, so why would we think anything bad would happen to us now?

All those statistics… those don’t apply to us. We are independent and we are unique individuals for which national statistics don’t apply to. I mean after all, we did grow up feeling like there was nobody else on Earth like ourselves because we were all beautiful and unique snowflakes.

Yes, our generation is moving towards having more freedom, knowledge and openness sexually than previous generations, but we’re still stuck under the stigma of STDs. Society has come a long way, but Gen Y still grew up in a society where the federal government promotes abstinence-only sex education (aka no education at all) and only half of schools report teaching some sort of comprehensive sex education—and the meaning of that varies considerably. So yes we think we’re smart, but part of the problem is that we don’t even know what we don’t know. We’re acting under various stereotypes and myths; some of which are true, many of which are completely misunderstood.

Myth: Sluts And Virgins

I have a friend who’s had sex with 60 partners in 6 years; 45 with a condom, 15 without. Total slut in most people’s eyes, but always and still completely STD free. There is this stereotype that sluts are dirty and virgins are clean. Sometimes that’s true but sometimes it’s not and yet we still make this judgment over and over.

We usually assume that virgins are clean, but there are plenty of examples of virgins with herpes, for example, who may not even think to be tested because they’ve never had sex. Point being, don’t assume anything about anyone. It’s not fair to anyone to assume people with many sexual partners are irresponsible, to assume that virgins are automatically a safe bet, or to judge anyone with an STD as a bad person.

Because It Could Happen To You

In fact it happened to my research partner for this study, who contracted HPV just two years after conducting our research:

“I so pissed at myself because even though I do see myself as ‘safe’ I had probably made a few choices that put me at risk at points. Even though I knew the risk was there I thought ‘meh I’m okay, I’m smart’. I still thought ‘that’s not me, that’s other girls’. I was shocked I guess. It was scary at first definitely. I think if I ever have a new partner I will be more aggressive about always using protection and getting tested immediately upon starting a sexual relationship.”

Even though we all should be as safe as we can, we shouldn’t be so hard on others or ourselves when something happens. Most of the time it’s not as big of a deal as we make it out to be. Most of the time there’s a cure but if not, is it fair to assume that someone made a horrendous mistake because they had the unfortunate luck of getting a mild virus with huge social consequences?

It could happen to anyone, really and when it does, we shouldn’t feel shamed into silence. Silence will only exacerbate the problem. It’s our duty to talk to our sexual partners about STDs without being judged either way. It’s just as much your duty to talk to your friends and family about STDs to bring it all closer to home for everyone. It’s all about reducing the stigma. It happens. So let’s stop judging people and start dealing with it.

What types of myths have you heard about STDs? How do you bust the myths and stigma about STDs in your daily life?

Author: Carlee Mallard -blog- I’m a 2007 graduate of UNC – Chapel Hill where I studied Psychology, Geography and Urban Planning. I currently spend my weekdays conducting education survey research for the government, but you’ll find me dabbling in photography, entrepreneurship, traveling domestically & internationally, savings our cities from historic destruction/cars/sprawl/simplicity, relationships, lifestyle design and writing.

Sexually Transmitted Diseases FAQ (CDC)

Sexually Transmitted Diseases Information (Planned Parenthood)

Photo Credit: toestubber

Next Great Posts labeled as Next Great are generally submissions by various contributors, whose information can be found within the text of the article. Next Great posts without author information are the collective effort of the editorial staff: Christine Peterson, Alex Pearlman and Edward Boches.

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23 Responses to “Sex, Stigma and STDs”

  1. alex

    I totally agree with this: STDs can (and do) happen to everyone. Silence and abstinence-only education in schools only allows misinformation to spread as quickly as gonorrhea.

  2. Valeria Villarroel

    I would say that a similar stigma occurs around Gen Y'ers concerning people our age that we know that are pregnant or engaged/married before the age of 25.

  3. Cyn

    As a mom of 2 Gen Y'ers I can easily say I tried to keep the lines of communication open regarding sex and the possible negative outcomes. Although always super focused on “NO babies, pleeease!” STD's played a close second. As teens they would find condoms in their bathroom, in their holiday stockings, etc, of course shocked every time that I would even think they might be considering sex. And yes they were weirded out about it all. What was I thinking? :) Whenever possible I would discuss with, whoever would listen, the schools decision on their “abstinence-only sex education” and how ridiculous I thought that was. Serious healthcare risks in our community, happening to OUR children and the number one education force doesn't want to deal with this realistically? Seriously? Fine. For me, being capable with difficult communication with my children, I wasn't too worried. But there are scores of parents who simply can NOT go there. It is sad.
    I think communication between 2 new sexual partners is super important. I think knowing your own sexual health and if sexually active with multiple partners keeping yourself updated on testing so if asked, you have a ready answer. Think about how much easier that conversation will go if you are prepared. Here is my question though. I think women are the caretakers of health. So women (and gay men) take this sexual health conversation seriously. A one way conversation doesn't go too far. So guys, why aren't you taking this seriously? Are you that invincible? Or maybe you are and my perception is incorrect, so please, correct me if I am wrong here.

  4. Marguerite

    I love your article, Carlee! It's very informative and really makes people think – total reality check!

  5. Andreana Drencheva

    Great post Carlee.

    We all think we are smart and there is no way on Earth we can get an STD. But it is not always up to us to stay safe and healthy. One of my best friends has had only one sex partner her entire life. They never have had sex without a condom. Not even once, yet somehow she got an STD. Apparently the guy had cheated on her. My point is that it is not only a matter of what we do, but also of who we do. We trust our partners, but sometimes they do not deserve such trust. Sometimes it is not even their fault because you never know where your sex partner has been and with who he/she has been before you showed up (and even while you were together).

    Yes, we are smart, but we need to be smarter.

  6. Carlee Mallard

    Thanks Marguerite for stopping by! I hope you checked out some of the links to the stats as well… talk about a reality check. I hope I've at least made a few people think twice :)

  7. Carlee Mallard

    Haha, well said Alex! “misinformation to spread as quickly as gonorrhea”. And I would add to that that gonorrhea spreads BECAUSE OF misinformation.

  8. Carlee Mallard

    Valeria thanks for your comment! I definitely agree that Gen Y'ers judge young mothers and married couples, but I feel there's a big difference between the two. Gen Y feels no shame outwardly condemning young mothers for being irresponsible or telling their friends that they're crazy for getting married so early. And I think we feel free to openly discuss it because these young people can also openly defend themselves. Nine times out of 10 these people will defend their choice to have a child or get married. The difference to me is that people are already out there talking about these issues… whereas young people still really aren't talking about STDs. We can usually keep our sexual health a secret, but you can't hide a big belly or a shiny ring.

  9. Eric

    At the risk of sounding like a total jackass, I would like to point out that the STD risk profile of someone with one or two partners is vastly different from someone with a higher number of partners.

    It's certainly true that almost everyone incurs some risk of a sexually transmitted disease, and I wholeheartedly agree that reducing the stigma around STD's is smart in terms of public health policy. It's also just plain mean to spend your life judging people, especially when you don't know all of the facts.

    That being said, it's ridiculous to imply — based on flimsy anecdote — that someone with 60 partners in six years and a woman with one partner whom she (mistakenly) thought was monogamous are at the same risk of an STD. They're not, and the person with sixty partners is taking an enormous gamble with his or her health.

    Cheating partners aside, the easiest way to reduce your overall risk of STD's is to practice safe sex and limit your partners to those you know and trust.

  10. Ashley Campbell

    I wonder the same thing, Cyn. It has been my experience that the men I'm involved with have a serious lack of understanding of the risk they take with unprotected sex. They are more interested in what they want and less interested in the risks involved. I would love to hear from a man on this one!

  11. Brianne

    Great post Carlee. Sometimes our fearlessness can work to our detriment and this may be one of those cases. That mindset of “it won't happen to me, it happens to others” can be dangerous in many categories in life, but this one even more so because it's your health. You can't get rid of a virus, only suppress it. So, in the case of a virus, we could be dealing with very dangerous consequences.

    On the other hand, is it laziness that prevents us from taking proper precautions? Several of my guy friends have actually said that they'd rather just “get it in there” than to take the time to go find a condom for fear of “ruining the moment.” I'd say the moment would be ruined worse if the girl wound up with an STD, wouldn't you?

    Either way, great article. Thought provoking!

  12. Carlee Mallard

    Great point. Of course my main point is that more open discussion between partners would help EVERYONE (those with many or only 1 partner) practice safer sex. And knowing and trusting the person is not always a good thing. When you trust someone more than you should, you assume that they'll tell you if they have an STD. Assuming in this case is never a good thing. I would even say that I think those with higher numbers of sexual partners approach sex more cautiously: getting tested more, talking to partners about their risk, and using protection.

    Yes it is true though, that with each and every sexual partner you are taking a risk. Sometimes we forget that sex even comes with risk. And sometimes we weigh the risks against the benefits and risk it.

    Even though someone with 60 partners has taken more risks, that does not mean that they have an STD either. Anyone who has been tested and found to be STD-free is essentially starting from scratch. They are just as “clean” as the STD-free virgin.

  13. Carlee Mallard

    As much as we don't want to think it… sometimes our partners really don't deserve our trust. And it's a hard balancing act, because relationships only work if both parties trust each other, but you also want to make sure you're being smart with your sexual health. You don't want to feel “untrusting” of your partner just because you ask them about their sexual history or ask them to get tested.

    If open communication were the norm, we would never feel like asking your partner about their sexual history as a trust issue at all.

  14. Carlee Mallard

    Laziness could definitely play a part in it. Rather than laziness though, I think that “in the moment” people's minds just are not thinking rationally at all. Even when people know what the right thing to do is, they do the wrong thing, for whatever reason – laziness, embarrassment, or no reason at all.

    I definitely think that the biggest reason though is that we just don't think anything bad could happen to us, so it's “no big deal”. And to a degree I would agree that it's not a big deal most of the time. We put ourselves at risk EVERY DAY. Driving a car, fighting fires/crime, eating unhealthy fatty foods, etc. We know the risks and evaluate the benefits to outweigh them.

  15. sure_hank

    At least with my friends, the women are the risk takers!

    My close women friends rarely use condoms with the guys they have sex with and have ridiculous excuses: “I don't sleep with skanks, so I don't need to use condoms”, “I was just going to sleep with him once!”, “I was in a bar, where was I supposed to get a condom.” “Don't worry, I”ll get tested.”

    These aren't stupid 20 year olds… they are women between 30 and 45 who are engineers and MBAs from good schools.

  16. Carlee Mallard

    That's an interesting perspective, the women as the “caretakers of health”. It didn't really occur to me before, but I'll have to look out for it in the future. I have noticed however that men seem primarily concerned with preventing pregnancy over preventing infection. Guys aren't shy about asking if a girl is on birth control and will gladly put on a condom if the girl isn't already taking baby-prevention actions of her own. Maybe that's where it starts. Guys expect the women to take control of birth-control from their end. Do they also expect women take control of infection prevention?

    And in response to Hank, I wouldn't jump to conclusions about women being the risk-takers. I mean there was a man in those situations who just as easily could have insisted on using a condom, but probably said the same thing as the women. But I WOULD say that those are some pretty common excuses ANYONE our generation or older could be heard using. The point of your comment is that both really SMART men AND women take risks and then defend themselves with “ridiculous excuses”.

  17. sure_hank

    Hey Carlee,

    I was just responding to the notion that women are “caretakers of health.” – I don't buy that notion. I think both genders can be equally irresponsible and totally agree with you that the guys who slept with my female friends without condoms were just as much at fault.

    Anyway, while I applaud your zeal for honesty about talking about STDs, I don't see that happening anytime soon. I recently told a woman who was interested in me that I have HSV2. She responded with “OMG, I'm so sorry for you – your sex life must be over.” and then never heard from her again. And sure, I can relegate myself to std positive dating sites, but that's kind of limiting.

    (and yes, I use condoms 100% of the time – unfortunately, one can get infected with HSV2 with skin-on-skin contact).

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