Last Updated on June 4, 2020 by Nancy Carteron, MD, FACR
The STI Project’s been up and running for a little over 7 months now.
In that time, I’ve told more people I have an STD than probably anyone with an STD does in their entire lifetime.
People don’t share that information for a number of reasons, including the immense stigma attached to anyone who has an STD, fear of rejection, and fear of a listener’s disdain or reprisal – both of those fears, of course, are closely related to the usurping aforementioned stigma.
So, The STI Project is combating those beliefs and knee-jerk reactions by encouraging awareness, education, and open dialogue. And, in order to ‘walk the walk,’ I’m telling anyone and everyone who will listen and as the opportunities present themselves.
Watch out – crazy STD girl on the loose!
Naturally, I’ve received a plethora of responses. However, the most common response is a variation on the same theme and has been troubling me lately. Disconcerting is their response not because I had not expected it, rather, I’ve been unsure of how to reply and often feel that I’m missing an incredible opportunity by responding shallowly.
Telling People I Have an STD
Most recently, while working for the neighborhood pizza shop (I work part-time flipping ‘pies’ to sustain The STI Project’s expenses), I told the guys I work alongside in the kitchen that I have genital herpes. Their reaction was priceless, really, and volleyed between, ‘Oooh! Damn! You have an STD? I never would have thought you had an STD,’ and ‘Wow, well, that’s interesting… I’ve never had any STDs.’
Their responses weren’t unique in that I hadn’t heard them before, but it lead me to think about my minimal replies of, ‘Haha, yes, all kinds of people contract STDs,’ and ‘Well, that’s good. You’re lucky.’
In the past, I’ve written about people saying they wouldn’t touch me with a ten foot pole now that they know I have genital herpes. Another friend recently reported back about her male friend who said, ‘Well, she’s definitely out of the running now,’ – this was after telling him she was coming to visit me and explaining what I do professionally.
None of those reactions offend me, as you might initially expect. Actually, quite the opposite is true. Their response is typical and I’ve heard it time and time again. They just further enforce the incredible need for my work, and those responses mean what I do is valid and necessary; they also mean I have a lot more work to do to reach the ideal world I envision for those who contract an STD or are living with one.
The issue for me lies in the message I could be subsequently sending about their perceptions of people with STDs and the misconception that they have never had an STD at all.
My Response or Lack Thereof
What makes these conversations cumbersome, to me, is the times and places in which they often occur.
They rarely happen while I’m sipping a cup of coffee in my living room. More often, they’re while we’re making pizzas in the kitchen, while we’re in the middle of a crowded bar, or I hear them from friends of friends.
So far, I’ve chosen to stay rather simple in my reply in hopes of not coming across as pushy or a fanatic – you know, one of those people who starts talking about a subject and never stops and leaves you wishing you would have kept your mouth shut. While that approach might allow me to say everything I’d like to say, I don’t think it keeps the avenue open for continued dialogue.
Whereas, my rather bland response to the cook I work with about never having contracted an STD opened a conversation up the following night about whether he should get tested – he never had – and how he’s afraid to know and afraid of needles.
So, overall, what I’d like to say is this: don’t be so quick to judge; no one knows for sure whether they’ve ever contracted an STD. Testing helps narrow down uncertainty, but not all STDs are tested for or have tests available to determine transmission. Some STDs are contracted and cured by our immune systems before we ever know we have or have had them, and others are asymptomatic and get left unnoticed.
After one makes a judgmental statement like, ‘I wouldn’t touch you with a ten foot pole now,’ or ‘Well, she’s out of the running then,’ I’d like to share some facts.
They can’t help their lack of knowledge – heck, I was there once too – but they certainly could use a few educational tidbits which might help curb their impulsive reactions next time.
Why It’s Likely They’ve Had an STD and Don’t Know
For instance, anyone toting they’ve never had an STD doesn’t actually know whether they’ve ever had one.
No one does.
Over 6 million people acquire HPV each year, and by age 50, at least 80 percent of women will have acquired a genital HPV infection at some point in their life. Most people with HPV do not develop symptoms, and there is no test for HPV in men.
Moreover, the most common symptom of all STDs is no symptom at all.
It is estimated that as many as 1 in 5 Americans has genital herpes, yet up to 90% of those with herpes are unaware they have it.
Most people come into contact with CMV (cytomegalovirus) in their lifetime, but typically, only those with weakened immune systems become ill from a CMV infection. Many people are exposed to CMV early in life and do not realize it, because they have no symptoms.
Those are just a few of the laundry list of educational nuggets I could be sharing with the people I talk to.
Although I’m not intending to imply that everyone whose responded to me has or has had an STD, the one thing that’s certain is it’s likely they have or have had one and don’t know it.
Of course, if someone’s never engaged in any kind of sexual activity or only engaged in sexual activities (of any kind) with one partner who has also only engaged in sexual activities (of any kind) with them, the likelihood of their having contracted an STD is slim to none. Not many adults fit that description.
This does not, however, prevent them from having oral herpes (which is often contracted during adolescence through family members kisses) and transferring it to their partner via oral sex, nor does it mean they were never exposed to CMV.
The resounding take-away being that STDs can happen to anyone, many people are unaware they’ve contracted an STD, and many people have had an STD at some point or still do.
Maybe I’m doing the right thing by sharing my story and not reacting immediately with an overwhelming amount of information; I don’t know.
Until now, I’ve let some of the more colorful comments roll in, and I’ve told people those were ok too.
My approach has been that talking about STDs and someone having one, positively or negatively, is better than not talking about STDs at all. I’ve erred on the side of ‘share my story, let people respond candidly, and let it go’.
I can’t help but wonder, though, am I doing those people a disservice by not educating them on the spot?
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What do you think? When telling someone we have an STD, should we let their replies lie – give them time to chew on the information – or should we respond to their sometimes offensive or uneducated responses with a wealth of knowledge? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!