South Carolina laws have kept comprehensive sex-ed out of school. But the law isn’t the only reason South Carolina has an STD problem. To name our larger societal ill: Stigma.
So that we all have an understanding of what I mean when I say stigma, here is the definition I am working with: a shared understanding that having an STD is morally wrong and/or socially unacceptable.
Here’s an example of what I mean when I say, “shared understanding” and “socially unacceptable”:
Imagine you are at a dinner party with friends. This is a group of friends you’ve known for a while and with whom you feel close. One of your friends mentions that she’s been on antibiotics for a sinus infection. She complains about the pain around her nose and eyes. Maybe she even grumbles about the side effects of her antibiotic.
Now imagine one of your other friends piping in with, “Ugh, I feel you! I had chlamydia last week and I’m also on antibiotics!”
Take a moment to honestly ask yourself: how would you react in this situation? Do you consider a sinus infection and a chlamydia infection on the “same level?” If no, why not? Would you be able to announce to a group of friends a recent STD diagnosis?
There is an unspoken understanding that STDs are somehow… different from other infections. And if you were to present your friends with this hypothetical scenario, there is a good chance they would share your same instincts.
We’re not talking about STDs with each other and that’s a problem. More importantly, having an STD is so stigmatizing that it keeps people from talking to their partners about it. And while South Carolina has exceptionally high rates of STDs, STD stigma is a problem for folks across the entire country.
The silence forced on those diagnosed with an STD is rooted in the fear of feeling dirty, undesirable, and of being seen as damaged goods. And yet, STDs are common. So common that one in two people will contract an STD in their lifetime. The CDC estimates that there are 20 million new STD diagnoses every year in the U.S. And 80% of people will contract HPV at some point in their lives. These numbers aren’t meant to be scary. If anything, they are a referendum on our poor sex-education laws, lack of access to affordable healthcare and the stigmatization of STDs in America.
And as discussed in a previous blog post, South Carolina is ranked 7th highest in the nation for rates of STDs. Restrictive sex-ed and “don’t say gay” laws are obstacles to better health in South Carolina. But so is stigma. And when STD stigma forces South Carolinians to live in fear, they also end up living in silence.
So, what can be done?
First, talk about STDs. Talk to your friends and family. But most importantly, talk to your sexual partners. Planned Parenthood offers excellent tools and talking points for starting what can feel like an impossible conversation. The first step to defeating stigma is to name it.
Next, encourage lawmakers in South Carolina to pass an “Expedited Partner Therapy” (EPT) law. EPT enables a medical provider to give prescriptions or medications that treat STDs to patients to take to their partners without first examining these partners. South Carolina is one of only two states that doesn’t permit the use of EPT. The use of EPT lends itself to increased partner communication after an STD diagnosis. And with communication and the proper tools to treat an STD, EPT has been shown to reduce reinfection and the spread of STDs.
The good news is that there is a lot we can do about STDs. From challenging stigma to passing common sense public health legislation, “STD” doesn’t have to be a dirty word in South Carolina.