In Our Hook-Up Culture, Why Can’t We Talk About STDs?

There's practically no sexual subject that's off-limits these days—except for sexually transmitted diseases. And that secrecy is making it nearly impossible to lower their crazy-high rates.

The consequences of sex—even healthy sexual behaviors—are almost never addressed. But if we can get past the fear and have open, honest conversations about sexually transmitted diseases, we have a chance to end this epidemic. (Photo: Fox.com)

One of my favorite things to do is nestle on the couch with a gigantic bowl of freshly popped popcorn while donning fuzzy socks and catching up on DVR’d episodes of one of my favorite shows, Glee.

As a former musical theater major and a lover of Glee’s unabashed approach to tackling social issues, I’m usually left feeling uplifted and thoughtful about the creative and honest ways they address even the most delicate of subjects. (That they do it all while singing familiar tunes from my past certainly doesn’t hurt.)  However, during one of my most recent couch-potato DVR days, I found myself disappointed with the show’s take on STDs, particularly the way they dealt with herpes.

In season 4’s episode 16, the character of Santana, a snarky, brash Latina lesbian, calls out to Rachel Berry, “He’s got the herp.” Santana’s referring to Rachel’s boyfriend Brody and is making this claim because she’s discovered that Brody is working as a male prostitute. No further mention is made in the episode about his sexual health, including whether he actually had herpes or any other STD.

As a show that’s received critical acclaim for taking on the most uncomfortable social issues, Glee falls dramatically short here by perpetuating what are often very harmful misconceptions about STDs. How come a show known for its ability to address sensitive and relevant issues like teen pregnancy, high-school shootings, bullying, and bulimia, to name a few, still can’t talk about STDs mindfully, and worse, uses stigma in such a careless way?

In the way herpes was addressed on this episode, Glee was unfortunately consistent with many other media portrayals of the disease—that it is contracted as the result of promiscuous behavior. And the show entirely ignored a chance to set the record straight.

I was especially disappointed because a huge portion of Glee’s audience consists of exactly the people who could use better information: One in two people will contract an STD by the age of 25. That the media continually represents STDs in a negative and derogatory way (I can also think of lines from recent blockbusters like The Hangover or Pitch Perfect that did this too) further perpetuates the stigma and—this is really the big point here—stops people from talking about STDs. STDs are an epidemic affecting at least 20 million new people annually, but they’re rarely discussed outside of comedy because of fear.

What is that fear about?  I believe that people are sincerely afraid of the outcome of STDs, because these infections are routinely depicted horribly in the media. But while sexually transmitted infections—all infections, for that matter—will always be something people would prefer to avoid, they’re not the end of the world. Most STDs, if not curable, are manageable and don’t result in someone not being able to have a healthy sex life or a loving relationship ever again.

Couple that fear with STD information that's not consistent or thorough and it's easy to see why people refrain from discussing them. STDs are also seldomly part of a comprehensive sexual education program (many states still have "abstinence-only" sex education), leaving people unaware of the vast number of people living with an STD and without the knowledge that these infections occur as a result of any and all sexual activities. In other words, pretty much everyone is at risk of contracting an STD if they’re sexually active (one of the fastest-growing groups of people getting diagnosed with STDs are senior citizens). That said, certain populations continue to carry the largest burden, and these people often don't know how to reduce their risk when they become sexually active.

The trouble with shaming people about STDs and perpetuating the stigma of these infections is that it makes prevention nearly impossible because it makes talking about STDs in a real, honest way nearly impossible. When someone doesn’t understand the risk of all their sexual activities, and their knowledge of STDs is limited to what they hear in the media, it’s easy to operate under the “It won’t happen to me, because I’m not a ‘slut,’ ‘dirty’, or ‘promiscuous’ ” mentality. If we don’t begin to bridge that gap by advocating for better STD education and a change in the way we talk about STDs and sexual health, and start real, open conversations about STD risk, responsibility, and what really happens, the stigma surrounding STDs will perpetuate and we’ll lose the opportunity to promote prevention and better sexual health overall.

Why do you think talking about STDs, when we talk about everything else to do with sex, is still so hard?


Jenelle Marie is the founder of The STD Project, an award-winning website and progressive movement aimed at eradicating the stigma associated with contracting an STD and living with an STD by facilitating and encouraging awareness, education, and acceptance through storytelling and resource recommendations. You can also find The STD Project on Facebook and Twitter. Look for her e-Book, “The Relationship Survival Guide to Living with an STD” available in 2013. TakePart.com

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