Shame as a Public Health Issue

This post also appeared on the Good Vibrations Magazine.

For years, safer sex advocates have been saying that self-esteem has a huge effect on how much people engage in risk-reduction and harm-reduction behaviors. That’s why many of the most effective intervention programs & organizations, whether online like or in-person like the StopAIDS Project, offer counseling and support, in addition to information.

So I was really interested to read this post on about research showing that among the 1,000 HIV-positive and negative gay and bisexual men surveyed:

Almost 10 percent of the participants reported that they had been victims of childhood sexual abuse and nearly 30 percent had experienced gay-related victimization between the ages of 12 and 14, including verbal insults, bullying, threats of physical violence and physical assaults. Men who experienced childhood sexual abuse and a sense of masculinity failure were more likely to use illicit drugs and to engage in risky sexual behavior in adulthood.

Queer & trans youth are more likely to face ostracism from families, peers, and their communities than straight & cisgender kids. And that, in turn, increases the likelihood of their doing things that put them at more risk later on. Not to mention that queer & trans kids are more likely to be kicked out of their families than straight kids. Without legal options for work, many end up engaging in survival sex work simply to get something to eat and a place to sleep.

The thing is, shaming people for being queer or transgender doesn’t make them straight or cisgender. It doesn’t “fix” them, any more than shaming someone for being left-handed “fixes” them. But what it does is add to the challenges we already face in dealing with HIV. It makes it harder for people to take care of themselves. And ironically, one of the reasons that queer and trans people are shamed is because of HIV-phobia. So it ends up reinforcing the very situation that people are freaked out about in the first place.

This makes sexual shame and sexual assault a public health issue, just as much as washing hands or covering your cough. This makes pride as much of a public health issue as education and vaccination. Pride parades are more than a big party. They are an affirmation that everyone is worth care, that everyone deserves dignity, and that everyone is important. We need to stop demonizing sexual diversity, and we need to learn to honor, value and respect people across the many sexual spectrums that exist. Until we do, we’re only adding to the problem, not just on an individual level, but also on a social and public health level.

Henry Louis Mencken said, “If you want peace, work for justice.” As a sexuality educator, I would add “if you want health & well-being, work for pride.”

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