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It’s Time to Re-Think Every Shame-y, Unhelpful Thing You Were Taught About STIs


Welcome to Better Sex With Dr. Lexx, a monthly column where sex therapist, educator and consultant Dr. Lexx Brown-James shares expertise, advice and wisdom about sex, relationships and more. Approaching education about sex as a life-long endeavor — “from womb to tomb” — Dr. Lexx (AKA The #CouplesClinician) is your guide to the shame-free, medically accurate, inclusive and comprehensive conversations for you, your partner and your whole family. 

It’s April lovers, and that means that it is Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI) Awareness month. As a sexologist and the #CouplesClinician, there is a lot of educational time spent on STI prevention — and, frankly, it isn’t always that helpful. 

Sexually transmitted infections — previously called everything from venereal disease to sexually transmitted disease — are grossly misunderstood and often carry a lot of stigmas. The most widely spread negative stigma stems from how STIs were used to deter teens from engaging in sexuality education. So many of us had the “this is a penis” and “this is a penis with warts (except it had a bazillion and one warts on it)” conversation as the main part of our sexuality education. It was often coupled with the equally unhelpful and inaccurate “if you get pregnant, your life’s over” messaging. 

Sex positive sex education addresses misinformation from a comprehensive and shame-free perspective, allowing room for questions, exploration and suspending value judgments. Unfortunately, this sexuality education hasn’t been available to most and instead fear-based, medically inaccurate and stigmatizing education is often used to equip youth with information regarding sexuality. Ultimately, this education continues to perpetuate untrue myths about sexually transmitted infections.

While working in middle and high schools, I have heard a few rumors regarding STIs that are interesting stories of absolute fictions. For example, it has been popular belief that if a person takes earwax and inserts it into a vagina it will sizzle. This sizzling indicates that there is an STI present.

Another story so famous there are actually internet pictures about it concerns “Blue Waffles,” The so-called Blue waffle is a euphemism that indicates a vulva is blue when it has an STI and you have to check to make sure there is no blue present before sexual intercourse.

Last and certainly not least, are ‘snowballs’ which appear as small white balls that build up around the head of a penis to indicate the presence of a STI. None of these conditions exist or have any bearing in fact but are still believed by youth and adults alike. These rumors are not only inaccurate, but also sex negative and don’t give people skills or knowledge about how to start and navigate a conversation about sexually transmitted infections.

Here are three ways to navigate sexuality transmitted infections using a sex positive sex education mindset:

There is no ‘clean’ or ‘dirty’ when it comes to sexually transmitted infections.

You may have been taught to ask something like ‘are you clean?” before a sexual encounter with a person, when you actually mean “what is your STI status?”

The idea that a person is not clean or dirty because they have or have had an STI is not only stigmatizing, but also can be traumatizing. Most people don’t seek out STIs or get infected on purpose. Furthermore, some people acquire STIs at birth — like some people with HIV —and have to live a life with that disease. It is understandable that a person may not want to acquire an STI and I encourage each person to be in charge of their own health, even when they are in relationships. Regular STI screenings are beneficial for all people involved in a sexual relationship. Nix the clean and dirty talk and instead ask: “When was the last time you were tested?” or “How do you practice safer sex?” or “What conditions, if any, do you have that could affect our sexual health?” and my personal favorite, “Would you be willing to get tested with me and exchange our results?”

Each one of those questions gives you information about what you want to do with your body and informs how you may want to share your body with another.

Be honest with your medical professionals.

Screening for STIs requires swabs of various body parts. This includes the cervix, vagina, anus, penis, uretha and throat depending on your sexual activities. Although it can be uncomfortable to disclose, your medical professional needs to know what body parts you are using in sexual interactions to know what body parts to screen. Also, it helps to be honest with what tests you are looking for regarding screening. Routine tests might not include all the tests you are looking for or it could be too early for an STI to be detected based on the last sexual encounter. So let your provider know what tests you are specifically looking for regarding this round of testing.

Routine screening typically includes testing for HIV, Syphilis, Gonorrhea, and Chlamydia. Infections like Herpes are typically diagnosed upon observation of skin lesions and there is not test for HPV for people with penises. So, make sure you ask what you are being tested for specifically and ensure that all body parts that are involved in your sexual activity are being tested.

“…at any given time 20 percent of the United States population is living with an STI — and absolutely none of those humans are worth any less as a person than a person who does not or has never had an STI.  “

If, or when, you find out you have an STI, remind yourself that you do not lose value.

This one is hard. The current messaging that is dominant in our society is that a person who acquires an STI is now “less than” as a human — meaning that they are less worthy of love, relationship and sexually attractive. It’s hard not to believe this when a person comes up positive for an STI. Often, upon first diagnosis, people feel a variety of emotions that include shock, guilt, shame, anger, betrayal and shame. These feelings take time and care to work through. It may even take some support from a therapist, doctor, or group of people going through the same experiences. Contracting an STI can be very hard and learning to live with that STI, especially if it is permanent, will take some education, healing and care. There is never a time however, when having an STI diminishes a person’s worth.

Over 25 million new STI diagnoses happen every year meaning that at any given time 20 percent of the United States population is living with an STI — and absolutely none of those humans are worth any less as a person than a person who does not or has never had an STI.  

When it comes to being sex positive and navigating sexually transmitted infections it is most helpful to remember that an STI does not define a person, that each person is in charge of their own sexual health and that there is no clean or dirty when it comes to infection. Because, after all, it’s an infection and often accidental. This month take charge of your health and get tested, even if you are in a relationship, so that you are informed about your health. And no matter the outcome, remember you are a person of worth, worthy of love and deserving of pleasure. 

To find out more about where you can access testing in your area, check out Planned Parenthood or head over to gettested.cdc.gov.

Before you go, check out our favorite masturbation positions to level-up your solo play:
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