Health Matters: STDs and Sex Stigma

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October 17, 2013

A Campanil illustration. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

A Campanil illustration. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

STDs and STIs are often subjects that are kept on the hush, but with the reality of how easily people obtain them, they need to be showcased. According to Planned Parenthood, “half of all Americans get a sexually transmitted disease or infection at some point in their lives.”

What are these acronyms, really? STD stands for sexually transmitted diseases, and STI stands for sexually transmitted infections. The two are often confused with each other; STIs are infections that eventually develop into diseases and often do not have obvious symptoms, if any at all. Some infections come with no symptoms which makes it even more important to get tested regularly and get treated before the consequences become permanent. Some STDs are incurable and, if carried for an extended period of time without treatment, can lead to strained relationships, infertility, birth defects, and even death.

The rate of acquiring a STI or STD varies on how many sexual partners one has, the types of sexual interaction one has, whether or not bodily fluids are shared (semen, vaginal fluid, blood, etc), and if open wounds are exposed. Females are especially at risk for acquiring STDs because of the thin lining of the vagina, which is easier for bacteria and viruses to penetrate than the skin of the penis. The inside of a vagina also offers the optimum environment for bacteria and viruses to grow: moist and warm. This makes it even more important for people to be informed about their STD status, regardless of whether symptoms are present — and men and women will experience different symptoms because of differences in their anatomy. While sometimes symptoms are invisible, often they’re completely obvious and definitely reason enough to see a healthcare professional for a diagnosis.

Females:

Symptoms

Possible STD

soft growths around the vagina

Genital Warts

small red bumps, rashes, or itching anywhere on the body

Scabies, Genital Lice (Crabs)

sores or swollen glands in or around vagina

Syphilis

unusual discharge of a strange color,  smell or texture

Trichomoniasis, Gonorrhea, Chlamydia

blisters that redden the skin and itch

Genital Herpes (HSV)

strange urinating behavior (frequent urination and/or pain when urinating)

Trichomoniasis, Gonorrhea, Chlamydia

pain during intercourse

Trichomoniasis, Gonorrhea, Chlamydia

flu-like symptoms

HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis B


Males:

Symptoms

Possible STD

blisters that redden the skin and itch

Genital Herpes (HSV)

soft growths on or around the penis

Genital Warts

discharge

Chlamydia, Gonorrhea

pain, itchiness, or burning feeling inside the penis

Trichomoniasis, Chlamydia, Gonorrhea

strange urinating behavior (pain when urinating)

Trichomoniasis, Chlamydia, Gonorrhea

mall red bumps, rashes, or itching anywhere on the body

Scabies, Genital Lice (Crabs)

flu-like symptoms

HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis B

As yet, cures do not exist for all STDs. Dr. Donald Crampton, director of the Mills College Nursing Program and professor of nutrition and organic chemistry for nurses, explained that two issues prevent our advancement in this area: “the societal and cultural ideas that people enforce that these diseases are preventable, so if you catch them, it’s your own fault because you shouldn’t be having sex,” and the “prioritizing of sexual transmitted diseases as ‘low-priority’ compared to other dominant diseases that affect people around the world.” Dr. Crampton also explained that bacterial diseases (such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis) are harder to cure because not only have some of them developed strains of antibiotic resistant forms, but investors will hardly invest in a cure because the demand isn’t strong enough.

A Mills student who preferred to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of this issue said, “I’ve always thought that it was incredibly unfair to people who have been infected because it’s like people are villainizing them and saying ‘you’re last on our priorities list because it’s your own fault you have that disease/infection because you were having sex, and sex is bad.’ You’d think that people would be more comfortable with it since sex is all over media. Society is very backwards in that aspect.”

Another Mills student who also preferred to remain anonymous said, “It’s not fair that people are being blamed for having sex. I’ve always thought that they haven’t developed cures for STD’s because they were just hard to make. I didn’t know that it was also because people said no.”

Although the scientific community is a long way from creating cures and vaccines, people can embrace the fact that STDs are preventable and actually only spread in a few ways.

Condoms are an effective way to protect oneself against STDs because they put a physical barrier between potential danger zones. It’s important to change condoms after each use to avoid cross-contamination and possible spreading of bacteria and viruses.

Committing to a mutually monogamous relationship also ensures the prevention of new STDs because it limits the pool of access and therefore the potential diseases and infections one is exposed to. Along the same lines, people who are sexually active can protect themselves by not engaging in sexual activities when under the influence of drugs or alcohol; substances can impair your senses and disable you from making lucid decisions.

It is also prudent to avoid sharing personal products such as razors, towels, undergarments, and needles which could potentially carry bacteria or viruses.

Finally, there is also the option of abstinence — after all, STDs are primarily spread through sex. If engaging in sexual activity, make sure to take precautions to ensure your safety and be tested regularly.

While it is frustrating that money and cultural beliefs are central in the development of medicine, it’s important to acknowledge that progress does occur. Some people still see sex as a private subject, but when a large population of people are  affected by the infections and diseases that spread via sex, the private becomes a matter of public concern.

To acquire more information about testing, prevention, and other aspects about STDs, visit the Community Health Resource Center (CHRC) on campus or visit the Student Health Center.


Health Matters: STDs and Sex Stigma was published on October 17, 2013 in Health Matters, Sports & Health

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