We need to talk about our shame of STIs

Shame. It’s uncomfortable. It’s distressful. It makes us feel unworthy.

Sex is often steeped in shame. And this can affect how we see ourselves.

It can even impact on our health when sexually transmissible infections (STIs) are involved. But it doesn’t have to be like that.

The enemy of shame is openness. So let’s start talking about our shame of STIs.

STIs are infections but they not typically put in the same category of infections like the flu or a stomach bug. Instead they are often singled out as ones you get through the simple act of sex.

And while the mention of a cold is usually met with sympathy, the mention of an STI usually results in an embarrassed silence. When it comes to all things sex, shame seems to be rampant.

STIs can happen, even when we do our best to prevent them. The thing is having one doesn’t mean you can never have sex again. In fact, most STIs are curable and all are treatable.  Yet when it comes to having an STI, many sufferers are still wracked with shame.

The shame expert

Shame and vulnerability expert Dr. Brené Brown has made a career studying what she describes as “the most human, primitive emotion that we experience.” Her popular TED Talks on vulnerability and shame have been going viral online since 2010. According to her, shame is “the intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging”.

Shame is not the same as guilt. Guilt is more about our behaviour, whereas shame relates to how we define ourselves. So it’s no surprise that talking about it can leave us feeling vulnerable. As Dr. Brown says:

“…here’s the bottom line with shame: The less you talk about it, the more you got it.”

Feeding shame

Secrecy, silence and judgment are three things shame needs to grow in our lives, which makes sense when you’re talking about STIs and sexual health.

Very often, people’s first instinct is to keep an STI diagnosis a secret because of how they feel they will be judged by others. We want to keep silent rather than talk about it with partners past, present and future or even our closest friends.

Condoms  and other prevention methods like dams do a great job of reducing the risk for STIs during sex; but they’re not perfect. They don’t always fully cover infected areas, they aren’t often used for oral sex, they can sometimes slip off or break and they don’t offer any protection when they’re left in your pocket instead of being used.

Thankfully testing regularly, knowing if you’re infected, and getting treatment is convenient and easy. But notifying sexual partners when the test is positive can be terrifying and filled with shame.

If secrecy, silence and judgment fuel shame, what is the antidote?

Well the first step is to recognise our STI shame as common. After all, all of us experience it in some way. This connects us and provides us with an opportunity to work out a solution.

The antidote to shame

Dr. Brown suggests that shame depends on someone buying into the belief they’re alone. But STIs don’t discriminate; anyone having sex can get one.

Shame is reduced by all of us speaking out; and shame cannot survive empathy and understanding. In fact empathy is the most powerful medicine we have.

When faced with the difficult task of telling partners about an STI diagnosis, it is often hard to imagine someone reacting with empathy and understanding. But often that is just what happens.

Take Chris’ experience for example.

“The first time I braved notifying my sexual partners about an STI diagnosis, my expectations of the responses I would receive were severely off the mark. Instead of being met with judgment, hostility or blame, each of them thanked me for informing them. And it occurred to me that my partners were treating me the same way that I was already choosing to treat others – with gratitude, compassion and empathy.”

Like Chris, our shame comes from a belief that we will be rejected and judged and that we are not worthy of understanding. But your partners may surprise you.

The more open and honest we all are about our sexual health, the closer we get to removing the shame associated with it and the more connected we are to the people we are intimate with.

Break the secrecy, silence and judgment

While it’s important to break the secrecy and silence around STIs, we understand the barriers that shame can create when it comes to telling someone you’ve been diagnosed with an STI. For advice on how to make it easier to tell your partners visit the let them know website.

And remember most people would prefer to know. Knowing allows people to take care of their health and the health of those they are intimate with.

When someone demonstrates the care and courage to inform you about an STI diagnosis, responding with compassion, gratitude and understanding is the best way to get rid of any shame and build trust with people that care enough about you to let you know.


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