The Stigma of STI Testing: What’s Causing It and How to Fight It

The key to stopping the spread? Removing the shame.

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Sexually transmitted infections, better known as STIs, are incredibly common. STIs affect one in five people in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But the stigma also spreads through myths, cultural taboos, and beliefs that STIs only happen to “certain kinds of people.”

U.S. society has strong Puritanical roots that impact the government, entertainment media, and gossip culture. This has made it uncomfortable to open up about STI status, let alone feel empowered to get tested. But knowledge is always power. When you stay on top of getting regularly tested between sexual partners, you can be proactive and save yourself the stress of the unknown. If you can’t talk about the consequences of sex in a mature, empathetic way—you might want to reconsider your readiness to have sex.

How Stigma Against STIs Prevents People To Seek Testing

STI testing is crucial. It lets you know your status, receive treatment if necessary, and take the necessary steps to prevent the spread of infection.

Some STIs are not a big deal or are just a temporary annoyance. The most common one that comes to mind? Herpes has long ruined reputations, even though reportedly 18.6 million Americans had it in 2020, according to the CDC. It doesn’t have to be a scarlet letter. Managing outbreaks, getting treatment, and being upfront with your partner can actually allow you to have a fun—and perfectly healthy—sex life, without passing it on to more people.

However, other STIs can be painful, or they could lead to complications. For example, without treatment, gonorrhea can affect fertility. Don’t listen to fictional Coach Carr in the blockbuster hit Mean Girls, who proclaimed, “If you have sex, you will get chlamydia... and die." It was a classically funny and satirical bit, and the content of his statement (taken at face value) was woefully ignorant and melodramatic. A doctor will prescribe you a round of antibiotics, and you’ll likely get better, just like any other bacterial infection.

Do You Know Which Tests You Should Get, And When?

The CDC reports that the most common STI in the U.S. at 42.5 million infections is human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is mostly harmless, undetectable, and even self-healing, but certain strains left untreated can cause cervical cancer in women. Unfortunately, there is not an accurate HPV test for men to prevent the spread, so it is very important for women to stay on top of monitoring their status, and for young boys and men to seek out the HPV vaccine.

Stigma and societal norms even prevent some parents from getting their children HPV vaccines. That’s a shame since vaccination against HPV can help prevent cancer. However, it may not be too late for you to get it if you’re 45 or younger.

  1. HIV: Everyone should get tested at least once for HIV, or the human immunodeficiency virus. Gay and bisexual men, and people who share injection drug equipment, should get tested at least once a year. If you are negative, men can begin taking PrEP to actively prevent contracting the virus.
  2. Gonorrhea and Chlamydia: Women younger than 25 should get tested every year, and women between ages 25 and 65 should get tested for HPV every five years.
  3. Syphilis and hepatitis B (and HIV): Women should get tested for these early on in the pregnancy to get treatment and hopefully prevent transmission to their unborn child.

You don’t have to wait until you’re having symptoms before you seek STI testing. In fact, many STIs don’t exhibit visual symptoms all the time, especially in the beginning.

Talking to Your Doctor About STI Testing

Remember, your doctors have heard and seen it all before (and probably a lot worse). Once you open up to them and build that trust, you’ll have more thorough medical care going forward. And if your health care provider seems to judge your sexual activity or orientation, you can bring your *business* elsewhere. Clinics like Planned Parenthood, and even your local Urgent Care, will help you get tested, judgment-free.

Take control of your sexual health. Your doctor can give you more information on what tests are right for you depending on your own unique health factors. There’s nothing like the sense of relief when you either get negative test results or the life- and love-saving treatment you need.