Talking about: STIs, COVID, and #HotVaxSummer
A bit ago, I wrote an article on STIs (sexually transmitted infections, otherwise known as STDs). In it, I discussed how to help ensure you do not have an infection through testing, barrier method protection, and also by talking with your partner(s).
Of all these, talking is often one of the hardest for people. Now, I want to give you some more detailed ways to tackle this.
There are many reasons why talking may feel difficult, but both in-office experience and scientific research show the underlying problem is the stigma attached to sexuality, particularly to STIs. Stigma is defined as a mark of disgrace that can set a person apart and result in shame.
Both the potential for disgrace and the feeling of shame can make you reluctant to address the issue. And yet, perversely, not addressing the topic increases your risk of having the outcome you fear – being affected by an infection. So, what to do?
Here, we can look to recent events to understand some of the ways you can handle this, the COVID experience. Perhaps you remember, or maybe you don’t, but let me remind you, how terrified we were of COVID back in spring 2020. Admittedly, some of this fear was related to the real threat of death, but it went beyond that: it was a fear of being known to have COVID.
Some people were honestly worried they would be seen as dirty for having COVID or that they would be viewed with disdain or suspicion for having engaged in activities that led to them catching it. That is: there was a stigma attached to COVID as an infection.
Fortunately, even before we had the vaccine, we figured out that COVID was not something to be ashamed of. We recognized it was just another virus, albeit a highly contagious one. We realized certain precautions could help, such as enough ventilation and, highly relevant to our discussion, using barrier protection/face masks.
We also realized that despite the risks, human interaction and connection were necessary to help make life worth living. So, we learned to start talking about whom we saw and how we protected ourselves. Then if we did get infected, we made sure to let others we had contact with know so they would get tested, take precautions not to infect others, and be ready to treat the possible infection.
These discussions decreased the stigma around COVID in a spiraling manner; the more we had to have them, the less negative emotion they evoked, which decreased the stigma, which made the discussion easier, which increased the ease of engaging in them. And all of this helped us engage in fundamental human behaviors while keeping us safer. Hmmm, sound like anything else we can think of?
If you thought – “Sex! It sounds like sexual behavior and dealing with STI’s!” you would be correct. The larger percentage of humans need and want to engage in sexual interaction and doing so carries risks for exposure to germs. So let’s consider how we could use the lessons from COVID.
Just like with COVID, to talk about STI’s we need to decrease the stigma or fear surrounding the conversation. This starts with you. If you come to a conversation calmer, or at least with intent to get through it and conviction that the discussion is a necessary part of sexual engagement to protect yourself and those you engage with, you de-charge the discussion.
If this still sounds scary or difficult, you can try 2 things. First, try practicing this with a close friend before you have the discussion with a sexual partner. And second, keep reading…
While STIs may still seem scary because they are related to sex, we must remember STIs actually are any infection you can transmit through sexual interaction; and sexual interaction is simply an elaborate version of other human interactions which all begin with physically getting together. For all practical purposes, STI are not just infections transmitted by genital contact, but those conveyed by human to human contact, with the attendant breathing, coughing, sneezing, or skin to skin contact: these include the common cold and COVID!
If STIs still seem scary because of the possibility of the consequences of the infections, please understand many infections may be treated and eliminated, but the earlier these are diagnosed the easier they are to treat and the less damage they may cause. And even with those infections that cannot be eliminated, such as HIV, there are treatments to diminish the impact and prevent many of the most serious outcomes.
But again, the sooner you know, the easier it is to ensure a better outcome. And still, the best way to not have to face the consequences of an infection is to protect yourself through barrier method protection and, even more importantly, through having conversations with your partners to determine your risk levels prior to interaction, just like with COVID!
When you think about it this way, if you have ever had conversations about the possibility of transmitting any illness, up to and including more recent conversations about COVID, you can now recognize you are already practiced at having conversations about STIs!
So, get out there with your new found – but really already familiar and well-practiced- skills and use them to ensure your health now for the post-vaccination, long-awaited, #HotVaxSummer of fun and later, forevermore.
Elisabeth Gordon, M.D. is a NYC based Psychiatrist specializing in sexual health and medicine. She runs a sex positive, straight/vanilla/kink/poly/LGBTQ affirming private practice focused on improving sexual and overall health with integrative treatment. In addition, Dr. Gordon is a passionate human sexuality educator and author. She is on faculty at NYU School of Medicine and works extensively as a guest lecturer and consult at hospitals, universities, and schools. Her writing and talks focus on the importance of sex ed, as well as providing tips and resources for achieving a happy, pleasurable, and satisfying sex life to improve health at every level.