Expounding upon our theme of Tough Stuff is a post centered around a topic that is steeped in stigma and fear: sex and sexually transmitted diseases. Often, the toughest part is starting the conversation – and this is exactly what this post offers. Thanks to the folks at getSTDtested.com – especially Elissa White – for reaching out with the idea and for writing this post. We’re happy to help raise awareness about this and appreciate your tips for starting the conversation. –Amanda
Crafting the Conversation: Using Positive Language to Reduce STD Stigma
by Elissa White, getSTDtested.com
With 19 million new infections each year, STDs have an overwhelming, yet silent, presence in the United States. STDs are widespread, but despite their prevalence, the topic remains hushed. So when it comes to sexually transmitted diseases, where’s the appropriate place to start the conversation? Prevention, education, statistics? Frankly, it doesn’t really matter. From the perspective of a sexual health advocate, it’s not about the conversation or the topic itself, but rather how STDs are talked about.
Framing STDs in positive manner that destigmatizes these infections—without belittling the potential health risks—is a challenge for sexual health leaders, advocates and medical professionals. The discourse surrounding STDs should also encourage prevention, routine STD testing and education. When discussing HIV and STD/STIs, here a few things to consider:
Promote normalcy, but refrain from a too-casual perspective. It’s important to emphasize how STDs are common and an everyday risk of having sex. However, an overly nonchalant attitude could be detrimental. Just because several STDs—like chlamydia—are curable doesn’t mean health risks or prevention should be ignored. It’s a delicate balance, but recognizing the prevalence of these infections places less stigma on living with an STD, STD testing and using prevention. When normalizing STD testing, it’s important to remember that it’s is another facet of preventative healthcare, like mammograms and dental check-ups.
Use sex-positive language. Negative language and attitudes perpetuate the stigma around STDs. Avoid shaming those who have contracted an STD or biased terms when talking about STDs. In high school sex education, for example, STDs are used as fear tactics to deter young adults from sex. Refocusing the conversation on STD prevention and management is a more constructive approach and paints a more positive image. Having an STD doesn’t make one a leper, whorish or dirty, despite associations. STDs are just another part of life (they’re normal!) and do not define a person.
Maintain open, honest communication. When talking about STDs and sex in general, don’t skirt issues that are sensitive. Talking about these matters openly and unabashedly makes others more comfortable when talking too. In part with positive language, using appropriate terminology helps to keep the conversation open. Talking about STD symptoms? Use the term discharge rather than “a weird funk” to avoid marginalizing STDs further. Encouraging conversation encourages questions which promotes knowledge and reduces ignorance.
Uphold medically accurate, age-appropriate information. These are fairly basic consideration when discussing STDs and sex education, but nonetheless, must be addressed. As leaders in the medical community, it’s important to dismantle popular myths and fallacies. Tailor conversations to the age of the specific audience without overprotecting or going over their head. Whether first graders are learning about good touch versus bad touch or 20-something adults are being reminded of STD risks, sex education is a lifelong conversation.
STDs are a major health concern in this country, but positive and open discourse can help mitigate that burden. For the average person who is passionate about sexual health issues, an important way to combat these issues in the way we can and speaking in positive terms is a feasible way that everyone can work to promote STD prevention and education. Such action may seem trivial, but don’t underestimate the power of language. It’s the 21st century—letters to the editor might be passé, but blogging and social media give everyone a voice.
This guest post was written by Elissa White, an STD counselor and content contributor at getSTDtested.com. With a background in journalism and gender studies, Elissa is a sexual health advocate who enjoys writing about anything pertaining to the topic and also loves drinking a hot cup of tea while perusing celebrity gossip online. To contact Elissa, follow getSTDtested.com on Twitter.