This post also appeared on the Good Vibrations Magazine.
This morning, I fielded an inquiry from a reporter who’s writing a piece about sexually transmitted infections. Among her questions, she asked “What’s the big deal about having an STD?” After I explained that the current term is STI, since you can have an infection without having a disease (like if you don’t have any symptoms), I explained that there are a few different reasons why many people consider an STI a big deal.
There’s a long history of seeing STIs as divine retribution for “sexual immorality,” especially in Europe, the US, and the countries that Europe colonized. I can understand the logic- if you see that someone can have sex and then get sores on your genitals, slowly go crazy, and die painfully, it’d be tempting to look for an explanation. Given that germ theory wasn’t validated until the mid-19th century, while plenty of people were making the divine punishment claims for centuries, I think it’s safe to say that this attitude is pretty firmly entrenched and it’s going to take a while to shake it off. After all, antibiotics have only been widely available for about 65 years and we still don’t have a cure for viruses.
Then, there’s the way in which sex has been and continues to be seen as something that makes you dirty/shameful/sinful. This notion has shaped many facets of sexual culture, including the fetishization of (female) virginity, the idea that marriage & reproduction redeem sex, and the demonization of people who don’t fit within a narrow portion of the sexual spectrum.
When you put these things together, it’s no wonder that so many people think of STIs as some sort of stain on someone’s character.
So it was quite fortuitous that about 10 minutes after email that reporter, I saw this tweet from Scarleteen:
If you say “clean” abt STI status pls consider a switch to “negative” or “clear.” Ppl w/illness, be it an STI, cold or cancer, aren’t dirty.
— Scarleteen (@Scarleteen) April 8, 2011
It raises a good point- if you have measles or the flu, people don’t usually think of you as dirty. At least, not these days. Some diseases, such as leprosy, were once considered a sign of being unclean, but that’s changing with modern medicine.
So it seems like a disconnection to me- if you can have the flu and not be “dirty”, then what is it that makes someone with an STI “dirty” in so many people’s minds? Is it that it’s (usually) proof that they’ve had sex? Is it that we often think of sex as something dirty? As Scarleteen pointed out, if you test negative for an STI and you say that you’re “clean”, you’re implying something about folks who test positive and that sends a message that we’re well rid of.