When thinking about Sexually Transmitted Infections, particularly HIV, one of the first things that often comes to mind for people without them is, “I’m clean.” But what, and who for that matter, is “clean,” and what does that really imply?
According to the CDC, “More than two million cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis were reported in the United States in 2016.” This was reported to be the highest number ever recorded, according to the CDC’s annual Sexually Transmitted Disease Surveillance Report. According to a 2013 report by Avert, more than 1.2 million people in the United States are living with HIV.
Although STIs are common in the United States today, there is still a clear stigma, especially with regard to HIV, attached to having them. There are many different reasons for this stigma. For HIV, this relates to already heavy stigmatization around those who are most associated with the affliction such as the LGBT+ community, certain racial groups, IV drug users and sex workers.
When examining the stigma of HIV, it is important to look at the demographics that HIV affects. According to Avert, the HIV epidemic has always been connected to negative judgement towards the LGBT+ community, especially towards gay men. When the HIV epidemic first began, the media had headlines such as the Daily Mirror’s, “Alert over ‘gay plague’,” and the Daily Telegraph’s, “‘Gay plague’ may lead to blood ban on homosexuals.” Headlines such as these intended to demonize the LGBT+ community and encourage the public to associate gay and transgender people with disease and degeneracy.
This stigmatization of HIV and the LGBT+ community also overlaps into sex work. In the workplace, members of the LGBT+ community frequently experience discrimination or are unable to find any employment due to their gender or sexuality.
This economic disadvantage can sometimes lead people to have to take up sex work in order to survive. In another Avert article, it says, “Transgender people are more likely to have dropped out of education, had to move away from family and friends and faced workplace discrimination.” Sex work also increases one’s risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, With the stigma already surrounding sex workers and LGBT+ community, this adds to the stigma of HIV.
Avert also importantly noted that many transgender people use hormones. A common way to take hormones is through needle injection, which many people carry out themselves. “Without counselling on safe injecting practices,” Avert says, “people going through this process may be very vulnerable to HIV transmission because of the risk of sharing needles with others.”
Another way HIV is stigmatized is through racism. According to NCBI, “In the USA, young black gay men are disproportionately impacted by HIV.” Due to the stigma of HIV, especially when placed into context with homophobia and racism, there is a reluctance amongst black men to get tested for HIV, receive care for it or to disclose a positive HIV status.
HIV stigma, in the context of racism, also affects black women. According to the CDC, “Black/African American women are disproportionately affected by HIV, compared with women of other races/ethnicities.” At the end of 2015, the CDC cites that of the total number of women diagnosed with HIV, black women comprised 59 percent of these diagnoses, compared to 19 percent of Latina women and 17 percent of white women.
As well as HIV, STIs are also heavily stigmatized; common sentiments about those who have them are that the person is irresponsible and has had multiple sex partners. Ideas like these contribute to the perception that people with STIs and HIV are “dirty,” and people who don’t are “clean.” In reality, anyone can contract an STI or HIV, whether they have had sex one time or have one sexual partner.
Although some may perceive stigmas around STIs and HIV as having the power to potentially curtai people from partaking in risky activities that can lead them to contracting them, it actually fosters unhealthy conversations surrounding STIs and HIV, miseducates people and leads people to live in shame with their conditions.
In an Avert article discussing how the social stigma surrounding HIV affects people, one woman shared, “My daughter refused to go to a hospital to receive medicines. My daughter died because of the fear of stigmatization and discrimination.”
This highlights how the stigma can lead people to not seek treatment for their STI or HIV positive status, which can lead to further illnesses and death.
According to Avert. “UNAIDS and the World Health Organization (WHO) cites fear of stigma and discrimination as the main reason why people are reluctant to get tested, disclose their HIV status and take antiretroviral drugs (ARVs).”
When thinking about STIs or HIV, it is important to remember not only that there is a stigma behind them, but why this stigma exits and how this affects different marginalized communities.
Fostering better conversations surrounding this can educate people and reduce the stigma surrounding STIs and HIV, helping lessen the rate of them. STIs and HIV can affect anyone, so it is important to always stay on top of one’s sexual health and get regularly tested, while also keeping an open mind and having healthier conversations.