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Why It's Still So Hard to Talk About STIs

Sexually transmitted infections are common, but talking openly about them is not. A new book explores why.

Bigmouse108/iStock
Bigmouse108/iStock

Many people can recall a lesson (or two) on sexually transmitted infections (STIs) from high school sex ed. But state-mandated STI seminars tend to be fleeting—and too often aim to terrify, rather than inform. It’s little surprise, then, that beyond routine tests, few give much thought to the bugs that have dogged our sex lives for millennia. In her book Strange Bedfellows , physician Ina Park of the University of California, San Francisco, traces the long history of STIs—aiming both to replace their “ick factor” with a dose of fascination and to shatter the shame that still surrounds them.

Even amid calls for more open communication around sex, we’re still reluctant to talk about STIs. Why?

We’d much rather be having sex than talking about it, for starters. Having a conversation about sex brings to the fore deep vulnerability in a way that talking about what you ate last night—or even a touchy topic like politics—just doesn’t. But because it’s hard to talk about it, we don’t practice; you’ll never get better if you don’t practice.

There’s no community of support around STIs; there are no galas for herpes. Without a public spotlight, they’ve remained something that we can shove under the rug. Even some people who have had an STI think, That happened to my “former self”—I don’t have to acknowledge it now . And despite all of the science to the contrary, people still see STIs as a punishment for being promiscuous—a kind of “mark of sin.” The language we use to talk about STIs reflects that—saying someone is “clean” implies the opposite is “dirty.”

What’s a more appropriate attitude toward STIs?

There’s a fine line between “This happens to everyone, so we shouldn’t feel ashamed” vs. “This happens to everyone, so we shouldn’t care.” The middle ground is yes, this happens, but the consequences of not treating it can be serious. Get tested and take charge of your health, but don’t shame each other.

What can people do to take charge of their sexual health without shame?

My manifesto is: Have sex with people you like. It doesn’t have to be love. Finding something redeeming in the people you sleep with won’t necessarily protect you from STIs, but it can protect you from regret. And it may make you more likely to communicate if there’s an STI in the relationship. That’s good for you, your partners, and the community.