When Jenelle Marie Davis, founder of the STD Project, learned she had herpes at 16 years old, she faced a "massive amount of peer-related shame and slut-shaming," she told Mic. Women with sexually transmitted diseases are frequently made to believe they're "'a slut, a whore, dirty' and that's really it," Davis said. "I can't even sugarcoat that or put it any lighter, because it's really that direct and it's that overt."
Writer Ella Dawson similarly felt "flabbergasted, hurt and confused," after her herpes diagnosis, especially because she always practiced safe sex and considered herself "a sexual advocate" in her community, she told Mic. She began to internalize this stigma, feeling that it was deserved "punishment for violating some sort of moral code of the women who step out of whatever role we're expected to have."
It's a widespread experience, OB-GYN Dr. Sarah Traxler told Mic. This highly gendered stigma has played out in conversations with many patients, who believe that "if they don't have an STD, they're considered 'clean,' and if they do, then they're considered 'dirty' or 'promiscuous.'"
Studies confirm that this shame and stigma is felt by those diagnosed with these infections across the board — even despite that fact that STDs are common. In fact, 1 in 2 sexually active persons will contract an STD by age 25, according to the American Sexual Health Organization. But having an STD is different for women, who already face an overarching societal sexual double standard that regards them as either "virgins" or "whores." It's a reality that seems to obscure just how common STDs are, in turn compounding the shame of the experience in a few distinct ways.
STDs are pretty common. In fact, you might have one. That pregnancy prevention is frequently emphasized over STD prevention (when comprehensive education is provided at all) hardly helps raise awareness, Traxler said.
"For most American youth, sexuality education is not great," she said.
In fact, since 1982, more than $1.7 billion of federal funds have been devoted to abstinence-only sex education, according to RH Reality Check, and just last April, a provision in a Medicare bill provided $50 million of funding for such programs, according to All Gov. Yet studies show comprehensive sex education is associated with decreased rates of STDs among youth.
The ignorance these programs perpetuate leads many people to "walk around every day thinking they know their status and they really don't," Dawson said. Many people with herpes, for example, are asymptomatic, she said, and therefore don't realize they should still be attentive to their health. Even when they are tested, many patients are unaware that they may have to specifically request an additional test for herpes. Access to testing at all is increasingly challenging for many women, as clinics providing these services are the target of defunding or are forced to shut down.
STDs aren't related to promiscuity. No matter that the actual number of partners or frequency with which an individual has sex has no direct bearing on whether or not that person will contract an STD, the misconception that STDs are related to promiscuity abounds. There's an "immediate assumption made about someone's perceived sexual behavior," that "they must be a slut or they must have slept with a lot of people," Davis said — a false association that Dawson said she encounters.
"I am somebody who talks about hook-up culture, and owns up to the fact that she's had casual sex and has had open relationships, and I don't fit the ideal femininity trope because I am very vocal about my sexuality," Dawson said. She said this opens her up to others making comments like "No wonder she got herpes.'"
While men with STDs may face a similarly promiscuous reputation, Dawson said, it's hardly intertwined with the perception of their actual character in the same way it is for women.
"For women, it's taken as a sign that you're damaged goods, that you're dirty, that you'll never get married, that nobody will ever want to have sex with you again and that you must have done something to deserve the STI," Dawson said. "It's really a blemish on your character. It's the punishment of the women who step out of whatever role we're expected to have."
Women with STDs are deserving of love. Disclosing an STD undoubtedly challenges anyone in a sexual relationship. The conversation "can be very stigmatizing and can actually cause quite a big problem between partners, if there's suspicion about infidelity," Traxler said. But it can lead to a uniquely damaging situation for women based on this highly gendered shame.
As soon as women disclose they have an STD, "it's immediately assumed that they're easy or that you don't have to try as hard because they're desperate," Davis said. Many potential partners "think these women will just be thankful that someone is there for them and somebody is just accepting their infection."
This is true in casual encounters as well as long-term relationships, Davis said. Women active in the STD Project community have stayed in unhealthy relationships because they feel they'll never find anybody else willing to accept their STI status, she said.
But there may be hope. After the "shock and shame" of her diagnosis wore off, Dawson said she realized the shame she felt was rooted in something bigger than a personal failing. The problem was that the conversation around STDs generally centers on offensive jokes or, in the best case, preventing them rather than how to cope with a diagnosis, the identity of testing positive and the shame that surrounds it. But women may especially be poised to start this conversation because of its misogynistic roots.
"Women are already so aware of how their sexuality is policed and their bodies policed by society, by medical professionals, by the government," Dawson said. "There's a language for us to talk about STIs, and it might feel more natural for us just because we already have an awareness of how that feels."
While misconceptions about STDs may feel personal, Davis said she was able to regain control of her life once she recognized "herpes in general isn't a reflection of my integrity, character or anything I'm doing or whether I can be loved." Storytelling and tackling the "gray area" of living with an STD — like negotiating sex, relationships and one's own personal and emotional responses to living with a long-term infection — are crucial to simply feeling sane and worthy.
"At the end of the day," Dawson said, "I just want people to feel informed and reach empowered decisions about their sexual health and know no matter what virus they might have, whether its HPV or herpes or HIV, you still have a right to a sex life that is safe and consensual and respectful and to feel like a worthy person, because you are."