A matter of pride

Steven here…

A childhood friend of mine posted this on Facebook after her visit to the doctor:

“Syphilis-NEGATIVE, HIV-1&2-NEGATIVE, Chlamydia-NEGATIVE, HPV- Negative, Herpes-NEGATIVE, GC (Gonorrhea)-NEGATIVE, Trichomonias- NEGATIVE, ALL DRUG TEST NEGATIVE… At 32 I have Never had a STD and IM proud of it. These type of papers are like a TREASURE, DO YOU HAVE YOURS?’”

I’m very glad that she gets tested. And I’m thrilled that she doesn’t see that as something to hide. The part that bugs me is this bit:

“I have Never had a STD and IM proud of it.”

I haven’t had an STD either, but it’s not a matter of shame or pride. Anymore than having had the flu would be. It’s good to get tested and stay healthy, but I worry that by attaching pride to being free of STIs/STDs, we attach a stigma to the people who have the diseases. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad when people are disease-free. I just don’t see a stigma as useful or good as the stigma hinders people from openly discussing it and seeking treatment.

I suppose in the sense that responsible action can mitigate your chances of becoming infected, taking action to protect yourself and others is something to have pride in. But I don’t think we do society any favors when we create a paradigm where they feel shame in seeking treatment for something. And if you have an STI, you have to tell anyone that you would have sex with. When someone is made to feel like they’ve done something horribly wrong, and are not just host to a pathogen, they are more likely to hide their infection from those who need to know about it the most.

While I can’t say that this is the motivation for my friend’s post, usually when I see this sentiment expressed it is heavily tied to slut-shaming. People use STIs as an insult to hurl at someone they feel is sleeping around more than is seemly in polite society. But even if being a slut was an inherently bad thing, it isn’t just slutty people who get infections. Often times it can be monogamous people who have been cheated on, or have a partner infected from a previous relationship without realizing it.

I’m married and monogamous now, but before that I was always careful and got tested regularly. A big part of the reason I hadn’t contracted anything though is luck. And I don’t see the point of having an air of superiority because I’ve been luckier than someone else.

Do you think a person’s ability to evade contact with microscopic organisms is a reflection of their character?

I write a lot of jokes. Some of them are in this book.
I also host the podcast of the Skepchick events team, Some Assembly Required, and cohost the WWJTD Podcast.
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  • Droopy

    I’ve had an STD and I’m okay with that.

    • julian

      Ditto. Not much different from catching an infection.

  • Baal

    “and got tested regularly”
    What would you consider the right set of STIs to get tested for?
    I thought I was pretty up on STIs but I’m not recognizing trichomonias. I thought it a bit strange to get drug tested as well. The windows there are different for different drugs and drug use doesn’t necessarily imply risk the other person.

    To your question, never having an STI takes some luck (you can get chlamydia from toilet sets for example or herpes from a relative who licks a knife clean an then cuts a pie with it, both unlikely but possible) but it also implies care in condom use or partner selection (hermit like abstinence?).

    • invivoMark

      I worked on trichomonas research for a short while. It’s not very well-known because it’s usually asymptomatic, and even when it presents, the symptoms are usually mild. There’s been recent concern about it because trichomonas infection might increase your chances of contracting HIV. I didn’t know it was part of any “standard” STI panel. It’s treatable, but I don’t know if they would recommend treatment for asymptomatic infection.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for this post. 1 out 4 women of childbearing age have herpes. It’s extremely common. More common than asthma. Most people I know contracted the virus while in a monogamous relationship. Not that I think that even matters. The potential emotional turmoil resulting from sexual exchange (let’s say, if someone is using the other; heartbreak etc.) is far more damaging than an annoying skin condition.

    • invivoMark

      Different people respond differently to herpes. It can be totally asymptomatic for life in one person, but cause constant pain or even blindness in another.

      Sort of like HPV. Most strains of HPV are harmless and you carry them for life. A few of them cause cancer.

      Saying you’re “STI-free” is always somewhat of a misnomer.

    • Artor

      I picked that up from a girlfriend in a 3 year relationship. It kicked my ass at the onset, but these days, I only show symptoms for a week or 2 every 3-5 years apart, and I can usually feel them coming on several days before. I’ve had another long-term relationship since, with lots of enthusiastic unprotected sex, (yay vasectomies!!!) and didn’t pass it on to her.

  • Zugswang

    I’ll just echo what others have said and add some to it. First, you can take a lot of reasonable precautions and still get an STD, and in some rarer cases, without even having to engage in sexual activity. (anyone remember Ryan White?) And agreeing with what others have said, even if you contract an STD via sexual contact, are we to automatically assume that it was because of something ethically or morally bad that you did? It seems like, if you have an STD, and remain sexually active with people who don’t know you do, then that may very well make you a bad person, but having an STD, in and of itself, is not a reflection of a person’s virtue.

    I think you can be GLAD you don’t have any STDs, but it’s not a mark of pride. I’m glad to have never been in a car accident, but I would never say that I was proud of that, because, even though a car wreck is an undesirable outcome, it’s also something that I do not have a reasonable amount of control over.

    Full disclosure, I’ve never been tested other than whatever they check when you give blood, but I’ve also only been sexually active with one person my entire life, and I don’t expect that to change. (this is not something I place any value in beyond the importance of fidelity and loyalty to my wife. It was largely a consequence of of undeserved and crippling guilt, fear of affection, and self-esteem issues that kept me from even so much as asking someone on a date until I was 23.)

  • RuQu

    It is perfectly reasonable to be proud of being STD free. Yes, some of it is luck, but luck factors into a lot of things we take pride in. You also have some modicum of control in influencing this outcome.

    I was proud to be the fastest runner on my high school cross country team. Some of that was luck. A fair amount of it was training. Can I not take pride in that because genetics and the luck of population distribution (I was consistently 5th-6th fastest in our local meets)?

    I am proud to be at a healthy weight at my age. Some of that is genes, but my family is not naturally skinny. A large part of that is that I have continued to run and exercise since graduating high school and while I have put on some weight in the intervening years, I am still in better shape than any of my peers I’ve stayed in contact with. Can I not take pride in that?

    Pride is independent of any social stigma as well. That I am proud to still be healthy doesn’t create a social stigma against obesity. That comes from numerous other sources in our culture. The pride I feel comes from knowing what can happen to members of my family who stop exercising: my mother was a marathon runner, got injured, can now hardly walk, and is obese. Pride also serves a useful purpose, it is an internal motivation of behavior. Being proud of the role of my diet and exercise choices in maintaining my health motivates me to continue to do so.

    There is also this tendency to think that social stigmas are inherently bad. They aren’t. They serve to apply pressure to behave in socially accepted ways. We have a strong social stigma against child molesters, because the damage they do is severe. We have a social stigma against obesity, and while that surely is unpleasant for the large percentage of obese people in America, obesity causes personal harm through decreased mobility, decreased life expectancy, and decreased quality of life and social harm in the form of decreased productivity, increased consumption, and increased healthcare costs. (I shouldn’t need to add this disclaimer, but I will: I am not saying obesity and child molestation are even within the same order of magnitude in terms of harm.)

    Back to STD stigma: If society stigmatizes STDs, it encourages people to avoid them. If society destigmatizes them, then the only discouragement is the personal inconvenience of the cost of treatment. There isn’t even embarrassment of telling a partner, since they are carry no stigma. A social stigma doesn’t only affect the person with an STD, it affects the person without one and encourages them to use protection, ask questions, and even ask a new partner to get tested together and exchange results. This stigma is good for those who are disease free, and good for keeping down infection rates and healthcare costs. Yes, some luck is involved, but there are things you can control to push the odds well in your favor, and you are more likely to do those things if society expresses disapproval at infection.

    • Baal

      While I agree that social stigmas can have good outcomes; I’m not generally in agreement about affirmative use of negative emotions to reach social goals. I rather the emphasis be placed on having folks think critically. Stigmas a like a built in punishment of wrong doing and usually without consideration of the context. The risk of overgeneralization by some and undergeneralization by others leads to a sloppy fit of the stigma to the issue at hand.
      Capture by narrow interests of the goal is another issue. Xian dominance of the US culture is something some of us fight. It’s so much harder an uphill battle since they are setting the stigmas more often than not. This heightens our burden since we need to say why the current system needs changing rather that just argue for what we want rationally. I rather we move away from not only certain stigmas but all stigmas generally. It’ll reduce our argumentative burdens for a number of other issues.

      • Baal

        Hrm, note to self, stop replying when there are more than 1 error per post in a blog that doesn’t allow edits. I think I’m generally unable to read my own errors (brain level auto-correct) until several minutes have passed. I’m done for the day. (and there was much rejoicing from the peanut gallery)

      • RuQu

        I think the idea of eliminating stigmas entirely is a pipe dream.

        As evidenced by my expansion beyond STDs, I think there is a tendency by those who claim the title of “social justice” to oppose any kind of social norms, that any choice is a valid choice. This, of course, leads to absurd conclusions by conservatives comparing homosexuality to bestiality. While this is absurd, the general point is not: there are some choices that are society is correct to oppose. Not all choices should be considered acceptable.

        The problem is that Christians tend to define “acceptable” by their biblical tradition, regardless of what it actually says or if what it says has any merit. This leads to incorrect judgments, like oppression of homosexuals.

        However, when approaching it critically, there is valid reason to apply social stigma to behaviors that create harm, or risk of harm, to society. To not vaccinate your child because Jenny McCarthy suddenly decided it causes autism should rightly be ridiculed. You are exposing your child, and any at risk individuals in your community, to disease for no rational reason. To have high risk sex without protection should be stigmatized, it is (by definition) high risk and exposes yourself and anyone who you or your partners have sex with to risk. The more infected people in the population, the greater the chances of people engaging in low-risk activities to get exposed. For example, someone is in what they think is a monogamous relationship. Their partner has a long-term affair going on. This third party engages in a high risk sexual encounter and passes that STD on to the first couple. The first person was not taking risks, and their partner thought they were okay because it was a long-term side relationship, but one of the other partners of the third person got infected. It is not unreasonable for society to place pressure on the partner engaging in the affair to be more faithful, and to apply pressure on the third person to take more precautions in their sexual encounters.

        • Azkyroth

          It’s pretty fucking clear by now that social stigma doesn’t stop people from DOING things that are stigmatized…just being open and honest about them.

          What rock have you been living under? Or is this another one of those petulant “Well, damn it, it SHOULD be that way!” things?

          • RuQu

            Incest and bestiality both have very, very strong stigmas against them.

            They both still happen.

            What do you think the incidence would be if we said “Those are both fine. To each their own!” ?

            Child abuse used to be perfectly acceptable. Now there is a social stigma against it. Same with smoking. In fact, smoking remained popular despite widespread knowledge of the risks. Social stigma against it gets a fair share of the credit. And I doubt that there are millions of “secret smokers” out there in hiding.

            Stigmas work. They can also cause harm. I’m not saying that they are all good, but they are a natural part of society and there is nothing inherently evil about them.

        • baal

          I’m extremely leery of the use of ridicule but am ok with Jenny McCarthy being on the wrong side of it. There is little doubt that the anti-vaxxers cupability in pockets of disease and death is clear. I’d not be ok with it were there not excellent anti-anti-vax arguments as well that stand on their own that are also made as part of that ridicule (like the death / disease rate from the vaccines is lower than that of the diseases themselves).

          It might come off as weird or non-compelling to not get relevant emotional information along with rational arguments in specific cases.

    • Katie Hartman

      RuQu, I can’t help but notice your shifting goal posts. It’s one thing to be proud of one’s own behavior, and it’s another to be proud of an outcome that is largely determined by luck. I’m saying this as someone who contracted a (thank goodness, curable) STI from a cheating partner. His cheating wasn’t my choice, and it certainly wasn’t my choice to get an infection as the result.

      And you know what? I AM proud of my behavior. I got tested, as I do every 6-8 months. I found out that I had an infection, and I sought treatment before it could cause any long-term damage. I told my (cheating) boyfriend, who also received treatment. You know how I was rewarded for taking responsibility for our health? He continuously blamed me for the infection and lied about his infidelity. I was left feeling dirty, broken, and unlovable.

      When you encourage social punishment for having an STD, you’re also punishing the act of getting tested. What you don’t know can’t hurt you, right? Except that it can. The most common infections are CURABLE and only cause permanent damage if they go untreated in the long term. Attitudes like yours are actively harmful.

      • RuQu

        Are you saying that this was largely luck? It looks, from the little info you gave, that your partner was an asshole. He cheated, infected you, continued to lie about it, and then emotionally abused you.

        That isn’t “luck.” That’s a bad partner. I know nothing of your life or situation, so I won’t say any more except this.

        Whatever that situation, luck was not the dominant force in it.

        I do see your point about how stigmas can cause some people to avoid getting tested, and that can cause harm. I don’t think that offsets that eliminating the stigma would decrease use of protective measures to avoid getting them in the first place. This is not a black/white issue. There is social harm both ways. I’m not sure the comment sections here are the appropriate place for hammering out the optimal behaviors to stigmatize and the measures to reduce the harmful side effects. I also seriously doubt we have the cultural clout to implement any such social change.

      • RuQu

        I also think it is worth pointing out that pride and stigmas do not necessarily have to go together.

        You can take pride in being the fastest or best at something. By definition, that means some people are slower/worse than you at it. There is no innate shame in this.

        Likewise, what we are proud of, we can lose, and that’s okay. I was proud of being undefeated at Halo in my college apartment complex for 1.5 years. Then my roommate beat me. Sad day for me, but a proud one for him. I’m proud to have never have had an STD. If I ever do, hopefully I will be as lucky as you and it will be curable. I will no longer have that to be proud of, but I won’t be ashamed, either.

        • TicklishMeerkat

          So you draw a clear distinction between “luck” and “victim blaming”? Good to know.

          • RuQu

            No, I draw a clear distinction between “luck” and “abuse.”

            She didn’t get infected because she was unlucky. She got infected because her boyfriend was an abusive asshole who cheated on her, infected her, blamed her for their infection, and otherwise emotionally abused her.

            Calling all of those conscious choices by her abuser “luck” absolves him of responsibility. How is that helping the victim?

            It might be trendy in certain circles to rush to call anything and everything “victim-blaming,” but doing so isn’t doing anyone any favors.

  • http://www.emilyhasbooks.com/author/bridget/ Bridget Gaudette

    Having never had an STD is not necessarily something to be “proud” of. Many, if not most, of my clients contract HIV from a partner they believed to be monogamous. Not that that matters. We all have sex and you should always use safer sex practices, but to imply that being STD is some kind of accomplishment implies that people that have acquire them failed or should be ashamed. That makes it harder for them to be open about it and contributes to depression and negative feelings of self.

    ~HIV Medical Case Manager

  • RavingRealist

    She feels such pride for being free of STIs. I wonder if she feels a similar degree of shame for her poor grasp of spelling and grammar.

    • RuQu

      Are these mutually exclusive?

      If you feel pride for getting straight B’s, an improvement over your usual 2.5GPA, do you feel shame because you didn’t get straight A’s?

      If you are great at painting, should you be ashamed that you are a terrible surfer?

      Separate domains are separate.

  • TicklishMeerkat

    My mom caught an STD from a cheating husband. She died of an HPV-caused cancer later. People who equate STDs with some moral inferiority can go straight to the hell they believe in.


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