STDs are Incredibly Common - So Why The Stigma?

STDs are Incredibly Common - So Why The Stigma?
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By Natalia Gurevich, SWHR Communications Intern

Chlamydia, herpes, HIV - I could go on. I'm sure most of these terms sound familiar to the majority of people, especially those who are sexually active. By age 14, it's a requirement in many schools that students take a comprehensive Sex Education course, so most of us received some form of the "birds and the bees" talk in a classroom - usually accompanied by the trials and tribulations of putting a condom on a banana. Around that age, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are discussed in Sex Education and methods of preventing them are emphasized. However, it's not often that the stigma and social implications, in conjunction with the overall psychological implications of STDs, are discussed.

Prior to enrolling in a human sexuality course in college, I wasn't aware of the social and psychological stigma attached to STDs. Around that time, it became apparent that there was a high prevalence of STDs within my age group and even within my social circle. These foreign terms I first learned about at the age of 14 weren't so foreign after all. I realized that STDs affect a staggering of number of individuals in my age group, and that far too many people are afraid to open up about them, fearing social repercussion.

In 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that cases of three nationally prevalent STDs (gonorrhea, syphilis, and chlamydia) were rising rapidly [1]. Fifty percent of new infections occur in young people, ages 15-24, even though this demographic only represents a quarter of people who have had sex [2]. According to the American Sexual Health Association (ASHA), one in two people will contract an STD before the age of 25 [3]. This does not include the vast majority of individual cases which go unreported. Even though CDC reports reveal 110 million cases in the U.S. - about 50.5 million reported cases in men and 59.5 million cases in women [2] - it is likely that there are many more. Not only is there a high discrepancy in reported cases between men and women, STDs disproportionally affect women at a considerable rate. Ten to 20 percent of women infected with gonorrhea and chlamydia develop one of the most serious complications; pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). PID can lead to even more serious consequences, like infertility and potentially fatal ectopic pregnancy [4].

Despite recommendations from the CDC and the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) for annual chlamydia and gonorrhea screening for sexually active women younger than 25, experts are concerned that not enough women get tested and therefore don't know they are infected [1].

A great number of people who contract STDs remain undiagnosed, but those who have face a heavy burden afterward. Even though STDs are proven to be more common than many believe, particularly in young people, the stigma surrounding STDs still prevails. A lot of that stigma is associated with judgment and preconceived notions about sex. It can only take one partner to become infected. Sometimes, it doesn't take any partner - infection can occur in all sorts of circumstances and contact. And because many STDs are asymptomatic, it's important to get tested regularly. Without testing, diseases can be spread without individuals realizing it [5].

If you are under the age of 25 and infected, you are not alone. Learn more about what you can do to protect yourself and others at the Society for Women's Health Research (SWHR®) website. Even if you aren't infected now, there's a possibility you might be later. SWHR believes that education and information about our bodies, especially for women, empowers us. If you aren't sure about your STD status, contact your health care provider and find out what tests are available to you.