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STIs and Stigma

In society, there can be stigma attached to being diagnosed with an STI, however this is harmful and unhelpful for people with STIs. Find out myths and facts about STIs.

In society, there can be stigma attached to being diagnosed with an STI. People often feel anxious that it will affect their sex lives or that it will change how others think about them. The fear of the social consequences of being diagnosed with an STI can even be a barrier to people getting tested at all. 

Stigmatising people with STIs is unfair, as it can make them feel like there is something wrong with them, when actually it is very normal.  

An STI diagnosis won’t mean the end of your sex life and is nothing to be ashamed of. 

STIs are very common; over 300,000 people were diagnosed in the UK with a new STI in 2020.

Just like any other infection, most STIs can be cured, and those which can’t (such as HIV and genital herpes) can be very effectively treated. 

What is stigma? 

Stigma is the disapproval of, or prejudice against, an individual or group based on characteristics that make them seem different from other members of a society.  

Stigma against STIs is when people are judged or condemned for having an STI. There can be stigma attached to other types of infections and illnesses, too. However, it can be worse for STIs because of societal ideas about sex being something ‘naughty’ or even shameful. 

Myths about STIs 

Stigma often comes from misinformation and myths, which can fuel a lack of knowledge and understanding about STIs.  

Here are some common myths about STIs.  

“Having an STI will ruin my sex life” 

Plenty of people who have, or have had, STIs continue to have safe and fulfilling sex lives. There are some STIs for which you must avoid sex whilst you receive treatment (it’s important that you do this if you are told to). With others, you can have sex as long as you are using protection such as a condom or, in the case of HIV, preventative drugs like PrEP or PEP.  

Find out more about PrEP and PEP.

“If someone has an STI it means they are unclean” 

STIs have nothing to do with hygiene. 

An STI is no different than any other infection, except in how it’s transmitted. Most of them have minimal symptoms, and have nothing to do with your hygiene. They are nothing to be ashamed of, and lots of people have them regardless of how clean they are! 

“Having an STI will take over your life” 

STIs that are curable will only affect your life for a brief period, as long as you get tested and treated. For instance, treating chlamydia takes about two weeks from the point you start antibiotics.  

STIs that aren’t curable, like HIV and genital herpes, are possible to live with in a way that doesn’t intrude on other parts of your life. HIV treatment can make the virus untransmissable, and can boost your immune system enough to live a long, healthy life, while people with genital herpes will occasionally have outbreaks but otherwise the virus will be undetectable and largely untransmissable.

“Gay women can’t get STIs” 

There is a myth that you can only get STIs from penetrative vaginal or anal sex, which might lead people to think that women who have sex with women can’t get STIs. However, STIs can be passed on through all kinds of sex, including oral sex, sharing sex toys and fingering/hand jobs (for example if you touch someone else’s genitals and then your own). This means that anyone having sexual contact of any kind could potentially contract an STI. 

How you test for STIs depends on what kind of sex you have been having and what genitals you have. For instance, if you have had oral sex, you will need an oral swab, rather than a vaginal swab, anal swab or urine test. If you are unsure what kind of test you need, you can speak to your local sexual health service.

“Only gay men get HIV” 

This common misconception is based on the prevalence of HIV in the gay community in the 1980s. While men who have sex with men make up a large proportion of new diagnoses of HIV according to this 2019 data from NAT, they are not more likely to get HIV because of their sexuality; rather, it is because anal sex is the most likely to transmit HIV due to tearing of the delicate skin of the anus. Nonetheless, vaginal and oral sex can also transmit HIV. Anyone can potentially transmit and contract HIV, so it is important to use condoms and lube, and to get regularly tested. 

“HIV is always fatal” 

When the HIV/AIDS epidemic began in the 1980s, there was a high rate of fatality because medical professionals didn’t know what was happening or how to prevent or treat the virus.  

Today, thanks to advances in treatment, it is not only possible but likely to live a long and healthy life while living with HIV. It is also possible to reduce the ‘viral load’ to the point where it is undetectable and, therefore, untransmissable; in other words, HIV treatment can make it impossible to pass the virus on to other people.  

Find out more about HIV.

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