As April approaches, and National Get Yourself Tested Month comes along with it, it’s the perfect time to talk about sexually transmitted infections — also known as STIs. Right now, Americans are experiencing the highest STI rates ever recorded, so it’s a good time to learn why and how to protect yourself.
In 2016, the CDC reported 1.59 million cases of chlamydia, 468,514 cases of gonorrhea, and 27,814 cases of syphilis—an increase of 5 percent, 19 percent, and 18 percent, respectively, from 2015, and the highest number of STI cases ever reported in the United States. Almost two-thirds of all chlamydia and gonorrhea cases occur in people 15-24 years old.
And yet, research in recent years has shown that adolescents today are engaging in sexual intercourse less often — and more safely — than in previous generations. So, what is causing this recent STI epidemic? Research suggests that the answer is the stigma and shame that surround STIs and STI testing.
A 2015 study showed that both men and women 15-24 years old were less likely to seek STI testing due to STI-related stigma, defined as “personal fears about negative societal attitudes toward STIs.” The researchers concluded that STI-related stigma is an “important barrier to STI screening for adolescents and young adults.”
A similar study from 2014 surveyed low income African-American men and found that STI-related stigma was significantly associated with a lower chance of receiving STI testing. Furthermore, the study found that STI stigma is a significant barrier to an STI-positive person notifying their partner of an STI — preventing them from getting tested and treated.
These infections are easily treated, but if treatment is delayed, they can cause both short- and long-term health problems, including infertility, chronic pain, and more. When someone with an STI doesn’t get tested and treated promptly, they are more likely to pass it on to their partner or even multiple partners over long periods of time.
When health care is stigmatized, we often see bad outcomes — stigmatizing abortion leads to barriers to accessing care, stigmatizing sexual orientation leads to harassment and poor health care for LGBTQ+ individuals, and stigmatizing STIs prevents people from getting testing and treatment, therefore increasing the risk of long-term problems and spreading infections to others.
As if stigma from the community isn’t bad enough, the current administration has cut essential funds to organizations that treat and research HIV and other STIs and implemented abstinence-only sex education programs that have been proven to have no effect on quelling the spread of STIs. When we don’t talk about sex, how can we possibly learn how to prevent STIs?
STIs are severely misunderstood, and learning accurate information is the first step toward ending the stigma. STIs are just like any other infection but are passed from one person to another not by sneezing or coughing, but by sexual contact, including oral, vaginal, or anal sex. An important difference is that many STIs do not cause symptoms, so you may not know you have one. That’s why doctors recommend preventing infection in the first place with the use of condoms and regular testing at Planned Parenthood or other STI testing centers. Once you are diagnosed, STIs are easily treated, especially if caught early. Also, just like other infections, early treatment can prevent the spread to others.
Talking about STIs openly and honestly can eliminate the shame, fear, and stigma. The first step is talking about the risks of unsafe sex, how to protect yourself and your partner by using protection correctly every single time, and where to get tested and treated.
We must continue to advocate for programs that provide honest education about sex and sexuality and support everyone in the community receiving non-judgmental healthcare, including STI testing and treatment. Luckily, we have places like Planned Parenthood that continue to provide this care, no matter what.
It’s important to get tested regularly for STIs to protect yourself and your partner. STI testing isn’t scary — it’s quick, painless, and the results will be ready in just a few short days. Your STI results are confidential, and treatment is simple.
This month is National Get Yourself Tested Month, and you can receive free STI testing at Planned Parenthood health centers across Indiana and Kentucky from April 23-28. You can walk-in to your nearest health center for your STI testing, or you can schedule an appointment online to reserve your spot.
There’s no better time to take control of your health care and end the stigma than right now!